The other day I was approached by two PhD candidates from James Cook University in the ARC Centre of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies who requested I publish a short article they put together on making conservation PhDs relevant while achieving academic excellence. I’m delighted to say that I found the article very well written and topical, so I am pleased to present it in full here.
Make your conservation PhD relevant – bridging the research-implementation gapARC Centre of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies, James Cook University, Townsville, Queensland, Australia
A recent paper, in Biotropica’s special issue on bridging the research-implementation gap (Duchelle et al. 2009) included examples of postgraduate students in the University of Florida’s Tropical Conservation and Development Program contributing to knowledge exchange with local stakeholders. The authors argue that this experience, during training, enables postgraduate students to develop their skills to confront the elaborate set of management and policy issues that will be present through their careers. We agree with Duchelle and her co-authors’ arguments, but believe that further discussion is required on finding the balance between the requirements of academic training and knowledge sharing with conservation stakeholders at the PhD level specifically.
Earning a PhD requires a novel theoretical contribution to a specific field of knowledge, and the practical value or contribution of that knowledge is of secondary importance, or irrelevant. Therefore, finding synergies between the requirements of academia and knowledge sharing can be particularly challenging at the PhD level. Yet, we believe that in an applied science like conservation, the quality of research and training will be enhanced through being more explicit about how to synergise a scientific contribution worthy of a PhD degree with related practical skills like knowledge sharing. In support of our argument, we propose the following six questions that PhD candidates, together with their academic supervisors, can consider during research design to enhance their contribution to knowledge exchange whilst meeting the requirements of academic training:
- To which conservation issue am I passionate about understanding and contributing? (a PhD is an opportunity to work on what inspires you)
- What scientific knowledge on this issue already exists, and what research can I do to understand the problem better? (herein lies the contribution to theory)
- Which components of the issue, if better understood, could improve management? (linking the theoretical contribution to practical relevance)
- How can I ask my question and collect the necessary data to maximise real world outcomes? (linking the methods to practical relevance)
- Are there existing programs or institutions which are likely to use my research outcomes to strengthen on-ground conservation action, and how best do I engage with them? (connecting to real-world opportunities)
- How do I structure my research and work to ensure that:
- I meet the requirements for my degree, and finish in time
- Remain adequately focused on my research question
- Learn the desired skills
Most PhD candidates in conservation science have entered the discipline because they are inspired and enthusiastic about wanting to make a difference to achieving on-ground outcomes (Lowman 2009). Enabling and supporting on-ground change is, however, a lengthy process and doctoral research that contributes to knowledge sharing and real-world outcomes will often feed into larger existing programs or institutions. Academic supervisors can play a key role in creating the space for PhD candidates to slot into contributing to applied conservation outcomes during the course of their studies (Duchelle et al. 2009).
The extent to which academic supervisors will be able to create opportunities for their PhD students to contribute to conservation processes also depends on how processes are structured to enable purposeful participation by research students. Social learning institutions bring together diverse stakeholder groups, including scientists and research students, decision-makers and other groups including landholders, to set and implement conservation agendas (Knight et al. 2008; Smith et al. 2009).
The Thicket Forum in South Africa is an example of a social learning institution in which PhD candidates and other postgraduate students have the opportunity to contribute to and learn from participation in a social learning institution (Smith et al. 2009). The extent to which doctoral student participation in processes such as the Thicket Forum can successfully take hold, depends however on universities integrating knowledge sharing and exchange as a key training element of a PhD in conservation science.
The bonds and social capital created through PhD participation in social learning institutions (or similar processes) can provide a valuable platform for doctoral students to continue to interface with policy makers and other conservation stakeholders as their careers develop. Shankar Aswani, who works with communities on conservation issues in Solomon Islands (e.g., Aswani et al. 2004) and Andrew Knight in South Africa (e.g., Knight et al. 2008) are good examples of individuals who continue to achieve successes in knowledge sharing in conservation that build on the relationships they formed and skills they learnt during their doctoral studies. The presence of more social learning institutions with which PhD candidates can engage will lead to the more commonplace emergence of such achievements among conservation scientists.
Finally, the PhD candidates of today will be the senior scientists of tomorrow. Doctoral research training that emphasises the synergy between science and knowledge sharing with stakeholders and policy-makers will strengthen the capacity of conservation science to bridge the research-implementation gap for effective conservation outcomes into the future.