Most people who become conservation biologists do so because they feel a strong connection to the natural world and want to see the landscapes and organisms that they care about maintained in a healthy state in perpetuity. Many also come to the field because of a strong self-interest in keeping our planet’s life-support systems functioning. The work we pursue, whether focused on the science or the practice of conservation, is often an extension of these beliefs about the value of nature. Most of us who focus on the science of conservation hope and expect that our research will lead to positive change in conservation policy or in the management of an endangered species or ecosystem. We want to make a difference.
Despite these good intentions, however, a fairly wide divide – the “knowing-doing gap” – persists between the science of conservation and the practice of conservation. By some measures, most conservation science does not directly influence or inform conservation policy or practice. A sobering thought for those of us that justify our research on the grounds that it will ultimately help conserve biodiversity.
There are many reasons why conservation science does not always, or often, influence conservation actions: incentive structures in academia (where most conservation science is conducted) that favor producing high-profile scientific publications over spending time translating science into action, a lack of understanding among scientists as to what constitutes a policy- or practice-relevant research question, and the inaccessibility of the conservation-science literature to many policy-makers and conservation practitioners.
Given the multi-causal nature of the problem, surely many solutions exist. One especially promising avenue, though, is a renewed focus on co-creating conservation research. Co-creation comes in many different flavors, but the general idea is that scientists work with stakeholders throughout the research process, beginning with the formulation of the question and ending with the dissemination of the findings. This is a significant departure from the business-as-usual model in which stakeholders are brought into the process only after the research has been completed, and often only to the extent that they may be briefed on the key findings of the project. Scientists have been trained that this model is key to the objectivity of their research – scientists do the research; other stakeholders decide what to do with it – but it is also a principal reason why so much conservation science is deemed irrelevant by the very people we hope to influence. Co-created research can be objective and policy-relevant, as international research initiatives like FutureEarth are demonstrating.
VCE, in partnership with the Hubbard Brook Research Foundation and eminent conservation biologist Steve Trombulak, and hosted by Marsh-Billings-Rockefeller National Historic Park, took a big step towards research co-creation this past June. Recognizing that even here, in the small state of Vermont, conservation biologists struggle to influence conservation practice and policy, we assembled a diverse group of stakeholders and tasked them with the job of crafting a research agenda for biodiversity conservation. Representatives from state and federal government, timber companies, land-owner groups, land trusts, conservation NGOs, charitable foundations, and academia were asked to define collectively the key threats to biodiversity in Vermont, the key information needs regarding those threats, and the research studies that would help fill those information gaps.
As you might expect, perspectives differed widely across the group; researchers were often more interested in ecological generalities, whereas policy-makers and practitioners spoke of the need to address specific, local questions. In the end, however, the group identified four major threats to biological diversity: changing climate, changing land use, invasive species, and changing social attitudes towards the value of nature. The first three are universal and well-known problems, but the fourth struck me as unexpected and highlighted the value of incorporating diverse perspectives. Smaller break-out groups met and began turning these broad themes into specific research questions – for example, what are the economic costs of forest fragmentation to Vermont towns and cities – that will make up the final research agenda.
Later this year, we will release the final research agenda for biodiversity conservation. We hope that scientists will use it as a tool for designing research, that funders will use it as a tool for making efficient investments in conservation research, and that policy-makers (and perhaps the politicians that appoint them!) will use it to identify pressing issues in conservation that require our collective attention.