I spent last week at a workshop on translational ecology with Mark and an impressive group of ecologists, climate scientists, and land managers. At the risk of being incomplete (or potentially introducing a new term for an older idea), I am not going to define that term, but I do want to think a bit more about what seems to be an increasing (or renewed) focus on the role of science in informing policy (which for me usually means natural resource management or conservation, but I’m guessing this discussion extends beyond those realms). Thankfully we (at least some of us) have moved beyond the notion that science does not have a role in determining policy, but I still consistently struggle to determine how to make that actually happen. There has been quite a bit of discussion on the role of science communication and co-production in increasing the impact of science on policy. I agree, for the most part, that these things are necessary for elevating the role of science in the decisions we make. I also do not think they are sufficient. I write this blog trying to make some sense of a series of half-thoughts that have been swirling since last week’s working group.
I think it is relatively safe to say that as a group we (conservation scientists) are generally poor communicators. We get hung up on uncertainty and complexity and often neglect the simple rules of story-telling. The Twitter-verse is full of resources for people looking to improve their ability to tell compelling stories about their science and connect their work to the public or decision makers acting on behalf of the public. This connection is crucial, but for a story to have an impact it needs a good listener. Improved science communication can help here too by helping improve science literacy in the public and among decision-makers, but that is likely (at least as I’m arguing here) not entirely sufficient.
This brings me to the next advancement in our approach to ecology: knowledge co-production. Despite being a somewhat unwieldy term, it essentially describes a fairly obvious idea: that science produced with decision-makers actively involved in developing the questions (and even the methods) improves the likelihood that the results will be integrated into the decision-process (and by extension, improve the actual outcome of the decision process). My experience with these kinds of things is limited, but it seems a few ingredients are necessary for this to truly provide a path towards science-impacted policy. First, there must actually be a decision-process that serves to set expectations for what information is necessary, when it is needed, and what ecologists can provide. Second, there must actually be a need for ecological information – this is critical and often overlooked (or at least under-appreciated).
What kinds of information tends to limit decision-making
A number of authors note that science can inform decisions, but that decisions are ultimately value judgements that lie beyond the purview of science. That is to say, ecologists can (at least theoretically) tell you that cutting trees (or pulling weeds, or catching fish, or killing predators) will have an effect on a number of other resources. If we are lucky, we might even be able to tell you how large that effect will be and how sure we are of that effect. Rarely can we say whether that outcome is acceptable to society or whether the benefits outweigh the risks. This is critical as decision-makers are often faced with a delicate act of socio-political calculus where they are trying to determine which outcomes are acceptable and which actions led to those outcomes. Society entrusts resource managers to make decisions on their behalf. They need to get it right, or they break the public trust and end up in court. An obvious and fundamental challenge is that the public is not of one mind, or even clear about what it wants, making the job of resource management very difficult. It seems to me, then, that the information decision-makers need most is not what logging (or hunting, or burning) does to a particular favorite species, but rather how do those things affect public opinion (however that might be expressed).These sorts of questions have often fallen beyond the scope what ecologists study, because we don’t tend to study people.
Towards translational ecology (at least as I envision it)
Wait!! We are ecologists – we study ecosystems and humans are (like it or not) a pretty major component of most ecosystems. Moreover, we study mechanisms – the underlying processes that drive the outcomes that we measure. So, if humans are a part of ecosystems and they are arguably the biggest driver of changes in ecosystems – why would we not choose to incorporate them more formally into our efforts to understand the way ecosystems function? This is where I think translational ecology (or whatever other word we choose to use) could be truly transformative in the ability of ecologists to inform policy. It is not just about how we do science (co-production, science communication, translation and all that), but what we choose as the focus of our study (how humans respond to change to the changes in the things we typically study). What would the sorts of hypotheses need to be to address the drivers of human attitudes toward ecological outcomes? What kinds of experimental designs would be necessary? Can you stratify across human communities the way we do soil types? I’m not sure – I’d love your thoughts. I am sure; however, that being able to link actions to ecological and societal outcomes would go a long way towards improving our collective ability to inform policy.
 Also, I’m not sure I could define it or agree on a definition and it’s not really important here. Our working group has not satisfactorily defined it either, yet.
 Indeed, this blog was created to give us some practice!
 That is, if we want the information produced by our science to be incorporated, we actually need to answer a question someone has.
This is not news – we have been talking about the need to incorporate humans into ecology for quite some time.
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