There is a growing body of evidence to show that scientists are often not answering the questions most important to managers. It is also increasingly clear that while decision makers value scientific information (see Decision point #70), they do not routinely use
science even when it’s available.
There are many reasons for this divide between the science and practice of conservation (Cook et al. 2013), a separation that is often called the implementation gap. Within the conservation science community there are incentives for publishing research and attracting funding, but not for engaging with decision makers. Furthermore, what is interesting to scientists is not always what is needed by managers.
Then there is the issue of timeliness – journal publications take a long time to appear which can mean that research is perpetually out of sync with the management of urgent or dynamic conservation problems. Funding timeframes generally discourage landscape
scale or long-term research projects, and there are disincentives for scientists to engage in multidisciplinary collaborations that develop realistic solutions to conservation problems.
On the other hand, decision makers balance the desire for more information against the lack of funds for data collection and the need to act quickly despite uncertainty. The need to act quickly is reinforced when delaying action may leave only the more expensive
Managers tell us they find it difficult to access scientific information, and that they are put off when different studies provide conflicting advice. Likewise, operational constraints frequently mean that managers are not able to implement the solutions being proposed
because they are too expensive, impractical, politically difficult, or because the research conclusions are vague, uncertain, or riddled with caveats.
Scientists are expected to take a rigorous approach to answering novel questions but this isn’t always compatible with addressing well established conservation problems. When research questions are simplified to suit rigorous scientific methods they become less
relevant to decision makers, who must deal with the real complexity of environmental problems. Conversely, highly technical outputs may be unintelligible for decision makers, who do not always need high levels of confidence to act.
The focus on reducing uncertainty can distract from the fact that the acquisition of new knowledge may not materially change what is considered the best course of action. Meanwhile, we can often use existing knowledge to develop rules of thumb that predict the likely outcomes of management with reasonable certainty and without expensive data collection. The obsession with scientific credibility can also lead to different values and perspectives, such as those of stakeholders and experts from other disciplines, being excluded from the research process.
While the impediments to developing science that is used by decision makers (boundary science) are well documented, the solutions have received less attention. David Cash and colleagues (2003) observed that decision makers use research if it is salient (relevant to decision-making bodies and provided when it is needed), credible (authoritative, believable, and trusted), and legitimate (developed via a process that considers the values
and perspectives of all actors). They showed that achieving all three elements requires a collaborative process with mechanisms to facilitate communication across the science–management boundary, communication that translates jargon and advocates for the perspectives of both knowledge producers and users. What’s more, this collaboration needs to operate throughout the research process.
We perceive at least three key challenges for those hoping to achieve boundary-spanning conservation science. First, scientific and management audiences can have contrasting perceptions about the salience of research. Second, the pursuit of scientific credibility can come at the cost of salience and the legitimacy of science in the eyes of decision makers, and third, different actors can have conflicting views about what constitutes legitimate
While overcoming these obstacles might sound difficult to achieve, conservation professionals (ie, decision makers and scientists) have already developed several innovative approaches. In our recent paper (Cook et al. 2013) we highlight 4 successful approaches: boundary organizations (independent organisations that work at the nexus of science, policy, and practice and facilitate communication among them), research scientists working within management agencies, formal links between research-focused institutions and management agencies, and training programs for conservation professionals.
Dedicated boundary organisations can take on the role of facilitating communication between scientists and decision makers on specific issues. These organisations operate in both the scientific and management spheres but retain distinct lines of accountability to both groups. For example, the Ecosystem-Based Management Tools Network (http://www.ebmtools.org/) provides a wide range of training and outreach activities to connect practitioners with tools that incorporate science into decision making. The independence of boundary organisations can bring together groups that may have had poor relationships in the past and can help attract funding from a wide range of
Research scientists in management agencies
Creating permanent positions for research scientists in management agencies can make sure that high-priority knowledge gaps are filled. These scientists can provide in-house
expertise for the design and implementation of research and monitoring programs, can help analyse data collected by agency staff, can provide advice relevant to specific management contexts, and help managers achieve an appropriate compromise between certainty and urgency. When scientist and managers work together, managers can educate scientists about real-world constraints on management. With a more realistic understanding of the management context, scientists can filter, synthesise, and translate the peer-reviewed literature into management approaches and help manager learn from and evaluate their management activities.
Links between researchers and decision makers
When it isn’t possible for management agencies to employ scientists there are other ways to benefit from closer ties between these groups. Formal arrangements exist whereby
agencies support research-focussed institutions to address priority research questions, often using small financial incentives, such as a research stipend or a contribution toward project costs. This approach benefits the agency because it provides scientific expertise from a wide range of disciplines and the enthusiasm and energy of academic staff or research students. The research-focused institutions benefit from an additional source of research funds, and their staff and students get the opportunity to conduct relevant research and better understand conservation problems through their interactions with decision makers.
Training conservation professionals
Existing academic training programs generally fail to capture the skills required by both conservation practitioners and scientists. The next generation of conservation professions needs the skills to operate on both sides of the science-management boundary.
The scientific training of conservation professionals should not be compromised, but students need to be taught how to communicate science to decision makers, and how policy is generated and implemented, and how to make decisions under uncertainty (eg, decision theory). Getting the right balance between these skills can be achieved by including both scientists and decision makers in the development of training programs.
The approaches we highlight here are by no means the only ones that exist and different elements can be mixed and matched depending on the needs and constraints on the organization. However, the most important element is collaboration between decision makers and scientists. Breaking down the boundaries between different groups of conservation professionals, and different scientific disciplines, requires that these different groups be prepared to engage with one another and to challenge traditional models of knowledge production. While this may require some additional effort, there are many rewards for those willing to invest their time and energy.
Cash DW, WC Clark, F Alcock, NM Dickson, N Eckley, DH Guston, J Jager & RB Mitchell (2003). Knowledge systems for sustainable development. PNAS 100:8086-8091.
Cook CN, MB Mascia, MW Schwartz, HP Possingham & RA Fuller (2013). Achieving conservation science that bridges the knowledge-action boundary. Conservation Biology, 27(4): 669-678.