Australasian Science: Australia's authority on science since 1938

The Gap Between Conservation Scientists and Managers

By Carly Cook

Collaboration is the key to getting managers and decision-makers to better engage with conservation science. What are the problems and some possible solutions to make it happen?

There is a growing body of evidence to show that scientists often don’t answer the questions that are most important to managers. It is also increasingly clear that while decision-makers value scientific information, 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, 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 management options, such as captive breeding programs.

Managers tell us that 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. It’s been noted in the past 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). To achieve 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, not just at the end.

While this might sound difficult to achieve, conservation decision-makers and scientists have already developed several innovative approaches. These include the formation of boundary organisations (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 (the training is to provide both scientific and practical skill sets necessary to operate in both spheres).

These approaches are by no means the only ones that exist, and different elements can be mixed and matched depending on the needs and constraints of the organisation. 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.

Carly Cook is a Research Fellow with the Environmental Decisions Hub of the National Environment Research Program. She is based at the University of Melbourne.