Today I note the publication of an editorial by Eddie Game, myself and Andrew Knight in Conservation Letters. Andrew is the former Editor-in-chief (EiC). Eddie is the current EiC. When Andrew was at the helm and Eddie and I were associate editors we got to talking about what it means to do policy relevant conservation science. After all, the mission of Conservation Letters is to publish policy relevant science. Recognizing the role of luck and happenstance, we acknowledge that scientists often do conservation science with no notion, a vague notion, or perhaps a clear notion of how this science could become policy relevant. Often this has to do with policy windows that open up, allowing the opportunity to change how some resource is managed through international agreement, domestic law, agency policy, or managers adopting a common practice. We consider all of these to be ‘policy’ in the broad sense. Despite this, our collective impression is that our conservation science community very rarely enters a project with a mind to actively design the science to be policy relevant. Admittedly, this can be difficult. The pace of science is slow relative to the pace of policy. Science pretty much needs to be road ready by the time lawmakers address a law in order for the science to matter. Management practice may be more forgiving, waiting for the science in order to inform management practices.
Recognizing these constraints, our intent was to write a statement about how one might structure science to maximize the potential for the outcome to be useful, used, and hence policy/management relevant.
In an effort to foster policy relevant conservation science, I pose these questions to you:
---Has your science fortuitously become relevant to conservation practice?
---Have you planned science for policy / management relevance and how did that work out?
---What are the best examples of conservation science having an impact on management outcomes?
Fundamentally, I wanted this editorial because I think that it is difficult to convincingly point to cases where conservation science has had a demonstrable impact on conservation outcomes (look for a future blog on impact evaluations). Hence, what appears below is a considerably more emotional, stream-of-consciousness, informal take on this issue of developing policy / management relevant conservation science.
Consider the thesis that conservation biology is a failed science. Thirty years of documenting threats to nature and the field struggles to impact conservation action on a large scale, much less be attributed with stabilizing or improving the condition of nature. Peters made, more or less, this argument about Ecology as failing in his 1991 book “A Critique for Ecology.” I didn’t like that argument then, and I don’t like it now. We lack the counterfactual of what state nature would be in if we had no conservation biology. I think it would a fair bit worse off.
However, I think assertion that conservation biology is failing is valid because normative behavior among scientists does not require linking our scholarship to action.Too many of us appear to hold the belief that humanity shares our value system such that if we can describe a conservation problem, society will get busy fixing it. That seems like very wishful thinking. And patently wrong. Yet, the annals of conservation biology scholarship continue to describe problems in great detail, but leave all of the thinking about the challenges and opportunities of resolving the problem to someone else (an often unidentified someone else).
After thousands of papers over 30 + years, identifying problems and offering no practical solutions begins to sound like whining.
Academic pressures likely drive this unfortunate link between whining (problem identification) and generality in conservation biology. We spend a lot of time finding new and innovative ways to document declines; forecast range loss and extinctions; evaluate exploitation and impacts of invasive species; map diversity, threats and risk. We spend little time actually engaging with those empowered to act in designing actions to alleviate threats to nature. There is no benefit in it for the academic.
Like it or not, conservation biology has a traditional university scholarship model of science. We look at impact factors and count citation rates. Citations are aided by generality of results that can speak to other studies. The mantra for Conservation Biology has long been that the study must transcend species and location and be of general interest to warrant publication in that journal. Generality typically correlates negatively with specificity. Specificity is required to support action. Our reward systems encourages science that has no actionable outcome.: whining.
Conservation biology, as a discipline emerged in the latter half of the 20th century with great enthusiasm for understanding general ecological principles that would inform conservation problems. The field systematically shifted from an emphasis on population biology and demographics (wildlife management) to biogeography (island biogeography as principles of reserve design), back to demographics (population viability assessment), combining biogeography with demography (metapopulation dynamics), to pure geography (species distribution modeling), revisiting wildlife management techniques (habitat occupancy models) in more and more sophisticated attempts to find generalizeable studies that informs all of conservation.
Conservation biology was founded as a “mission-oriented science”, recognizing a biodiversity crisis and the need for science to inform actions directed at alleviating this crisis. What was missing, however, was a recognition that the vast majority of conservation research would happen within academic institutions, and that the conservation biologist would need to stretch beyond the bounds of academia to ensure that their scholarship informed actual actions. There was an assumption of a pathway of science to action. This assumption is now obviously naive.
The mission-driven basis for conservation biology should have set the stage for practical application. For example, a mission of applied engineering is to solve problems of human construct. Thus, engineering a spaceship, for example, is a tremendous accomplishment even if the innovation does not contribute to any broader application than traveling to space. Maybe if conservation biology had grown as a sub-field of engineering, I wouldn't be writing this.
With the recognition of the need for scientists to engage with practitioners in order to ensure that conservation scholarship informs actions, we should be eagerly partnering with practitioners from global policy makers to local reserve managers to get the best available science into action decisions. Yet, this is slow to happen. I believe that there are many reasons for this, and several solutions.
The troubling fact, however, is that conservation has always been fraught with local problems that require local solutions. Solving a cooperative artisanal fisheries problem on an island in Indonesia is likely to have many differences from a similar problem in Maine. The reasons are obvious: laws, policing, politics, social cohesiveness. These are the same reasons that biology alone will not solve conservation problems. The real problem, as we all recognize, is that people cause conservation problems and people are required for the solutions. Further, not all people recognize conservation of nature as a high priority. Hence, in order for conservation biology to have an impact on conservation, there needs to be a link from
So, I ask again: what has been your experience in crossing this knowledge - implementation barrier?
And, remaining true to the field, I now end this post, abruptly, as my contribution to whining about the state of our science. No solutions proposed here. Just problems. I'll be back at a later date to get to my thoughts on solutions. However, if you want to see what Game, Schwartz and Knight identify as the way forward for scientists who want to engage in policy relevant conservation science, read the editorial.
Game E.T., Schwartz, M.W., Knight A.T. 2015. Policy relevant conservation Science. Conservation Letters 8: 309-311.
Cook, C., Mascia, M. Schwartz, M.W., Possingham, H. Fuller, R. 2013. Achieving conservation science that bridges the knowledge-action boundary. Conservation Biology 27: 669-678.
Soule, ME. 1985. What is Conservation Biology. Bioscience 35: 727-734.
Meine, C. et al. 2006. "A mission driven discpline": the growth of conservation biology. Conservation biology 20:631-651.
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