Getting your conservation science to the right people

22 01 2016

argument-cartoon-yellingA perennial lament of nearly every conservation scientist — at least at some point (often later in one’s career) — is that the years of blood, sweat and tears spent to obtain those precious results count for nought in terms of improving real biodiversity conservation.

Conservation scientists often claim, especially in the first and last paragraphs of their papers and research proposals, that by collecting such-and-such data and doing such-and-such analyses they will transform how we manage landscapes and species to the overall betterment of biodiversity. Unfortunately, most of these claims are hollow (or just plain bullshit) because the results are either: (i) never read by people who actually make conservation decisions, (ii) not understood by them even if they read the work, or (iii) never implemented because they are too vague or too unrealistic to translate into a tangible, positive shift in policy.

A depressing state of being, I know.

This isn’t any sort of novel revelation, for we’ve been discussing the divide between policy makers and scientists for donkey’s years. Regardless, the whinges can be summarised succinctly:

Scientists: “Policy makers should get off their arse and read the great papers we publish”.

Policy makers: “Scientists have no idea how policies are made or how to research issues that have real relevance.”

Sound familiar?

I’ve also argued more times than I care to admit that most conservation scientists could give up their day job tomorrow without fear of exacerbating the biodiversity crisis. The main reason for this sobering conclusion is that we already have a pretty good grasp of what causes species to dwindle and go extinct (e.g., habitat lossfragmentation, over-exploitation, genetic erosion, climate change, etc.), such that the ‘problem’ of biodiversity erosion is no longer a result of lack of scientific knowledge. Any hope we might have at all to slow the extinction crisis now is to manage human society and the decisions it makes over the coming decades and centuries, including inter alia major changes in how we grow our food, produce our energy, manage our population growth, elect our leaders, educate our children and run our economies.

The take-home message could be then that you should abandon conservation science now and become a demographer, an economist, a politician, a farmer or an engineer.

Perhaps that’s a little extreme, but I hope you take my point.

Instead of the extreme action of giving up now, there are some things that one can do to increase the likelihood that your research will be heard, understood and implemented into policies that will benefit biodiversity. I am by no means able to claim that much of my work has clearly shifted policies in the right direction, and I’ll bet that not many scientists can say differently (there are, of course, some exceptions), but there are a few approaches that can help.

  1.  I think one of the first (and potentially easiest) things to consider is what you study. It’s great that we have so many keen students wanting to save species xy and z, but to be honest, much of the current conservation research being done merely confirms what we already know well. A challenge to both established and up-and-coming conservation scientists is to break out of the mould of asking simplistic questions like “What makes this population decline?” or “Is there genetic structure in this species”, or “I wonder how much fragmentation will affect this species”, to attacking more nuanced questions that involve experimental demonstrations of how differing decision regimes do better or worse for species and ecosystems of concern. This is one of the reasons I’ve started to branch out and investigate things like the relationships between electricity production and biodiversity, the processes that limit human population growth, and the economics of carbon sequestration.
  2. Following the first point closely is the idea of covering a wider arena of disciplines in your research. This might sound like the classic lip service to ‘interdisciplinarity‘, but I mean truly breaking out of your comfort zone and not only collaborating with the likes of agronomists, epidemiologists, economists, and social scientists of all stripes, but actually doing some of that stuff yourself. It requires a little lateral thinking and some reading, but because you are an intelligent person, it’s completely possible to do this. Yes, a lot of us do work with economists, but the reality is that most economists are as out of touch (if not more so) as conservation scientists with the practicalities of policy making.
  3. Engagement — that highly abused term referring to communication with those who will make the policy changes — is of course best done before the research starts. Few people like to be told what to do, or worse, be given advice by someone who knows bugger all about the process. How many times have you seen this in a paper? — “… our results demonstrate that managers should …”. It behoves us then at least to talk to policy people before we design our experiments and research questions, and collect our data.
  4. It follows then that direct involvement of policy people in the research team from the outset makes particularly good sense. Nothing ‘engages’ more than when someone has invested time and effort in the research process. The more someone like a government manager or policy person invests precious cerebral capacity and time into a project, the greater the chances of them championing the results in their daily mandate. Some ways to do this are involving them in scoping or analysis workshops, inviting them to work in your lab on secondment, and taking them on as research students.
  5. The flip side of this approach is to go work in a government department yourself — in some cases you might be able to arrange a secondment from your academic institution. Think about it — you could be the enemy within!
  6. Seek out opportunities to engage politicians directly, either by organising face-to-face meetings, becoming involved with ENGO lobby groups, or getting yourself onto an expert parliamentary/congressional panel. If you can get your spoken words directly into the ears of the decision-makers, the chances of having your research influence policy will skyrocket.
  7. Going above and beyond the peer-reviewed article as the only medium for your research communication is, of course, essential — if you leave it there and refuse to blog, be on social media, or become a media tart, I’m afraid your message won’t get heard by the people who call the shots.
  8. Politicians in particular, and society in general, tend to respect ‘experts’ with credentials (e.g., lauded track records, lists of prizes, acknowledgements from expert societies, etc.). It’s superficial, I know, but use this to your advantage in the policy realm.
  9. Get involved with ENGOs and/or other societies that have some lobbying capacity. While this is one of the weakest forms of getting your message out there, it can occasionally produce results.
  10. On rare occasions, it might be a good idea to get yourself arrested. Yes, I’m talking about the ultimate form of advocacy: political demonstration. If you know that something needs to be done to improve the world based on the results of your good science, you should consider standing up to the people who don’t see the need or who actively oppose it.
  11. On ever rarer occasions, it might be politically expedient to align yourself with the opposition party to stand up to bad policies of the current party in power. An opposition party will do almost anything to embarrass their political rivals; but tread carefully here — you will make enemies and will most likely be used as political fodder by those who have agendas other than environmental sustainability.
  12. I can’t sign-off on this topic without mentioning the need for a really high standard of writing. It’s perhaps the least influential of the tools at your disposal, but writing opaquely will ensure that your work is never taken up.

Good luck — you’ll need it.

CJA Bradshaw



9 responses

24 08 2021
It’s a tough time for young conservation scientists |

[…] sure your interdisciplinary team is composed of policy people from the outset. Ask them what they need to solve a problem, and then aim to find the solution they […]


26 01 2016
Craig Morley

I wholeheartedly agree with much of what was written and oddly you’d be better off writing articles for publications that are actually read by the masses e.g. the women’s mags, Readers digest and even social media etc than spending all our valuable time publishing scholarly articles for scientific journals. I know this will make many tremble at the thought of this but in all honesty when I looked at how many times many articles had been read on ResearchGate, for example, it was in the order of the 10’s to 100’s not 1000’s or even 100 000+. Thus, all our hard work (and yes it is hard work) gets little of no recognition or reward when it comes to influencing and changing policies. So I agree, we need to change our M.O. if we want our work to be recognised and influential for the future….


24 01 2016
Why extinct Dodos feel the blues – a Dodo Lament | dodopanic

[…] knowledge that makes the difference, it’s the economy, stupid (see also the recent post in conservationbytes). In the end it’s about changing human behaviour, not about whether you may know the […]


22 01 2016

An interesting question for me is how to get research on things like habitat fragmentation and landscape configurations that would work for priority species translated into spatial planning tools that will a) be used by local land-use planners and b) lead to genuine change on the ground – define where to create a new bit of chalk grassland to facilitate dispersal between two extant chalk grassland patches, etc.

In the UK, for example, we have district councils who produce development plans full of land-use policies, and supporting ‘proposals maps’ which show precisely where things like now housing will go, new roads, new schools etc – these are very precise. In theory, according to UK government policy, these local district councils should also be mapping out habitat networks, including areas for habitat creation, on their proposals maps. Some do this, but very rarely do they consult the latest landscape ecology papers or text books – the people producing the allocations maps are city planners, not landscape ecologists. They never, in my experience, use sophisticated optimisation algorithms, or open source conservation planning software – they usually don’t know such things exist and have neither the time nor expertise to apply such tools. Yet it’s down at this level that the conservation planning tools set out in Biological Conservation and the like would have to be applied to actually cause science-led de-fragmentation and habitat expansion on the ground. As it is, people create bits of chalk grassland, woodland, wetlands etc based on what the farmers will allow, not so much on science.


22 01 2016

I think an equally big challenge is to engage down to the practitioner level, including e.g. the local volunteer group which manages the local nature reserve, or the local NGO reserves manager, or the advisor who goes out and tries to get farmers into agri-environment or PES agreements – these aren’t policy makers, they’re the ones who actually deliver real change on the ground. More often than not they act on tradition – the bit of chalk grassland I help to look after is managed in much the same way as it’s always been managed. We’ve not studiously examined the latest peer-reviewed papers as they are published (we’d rather spend the 30 dollars it costs to buy the PDF on new stock fencing!) and we’re not that responsive to new policies are being made and re-made all around us. I am over-stating things a little, but to be honest change on the ground often isn’t in response to peer-reviewed papers or written policies.


22 01 2016

The conservation scientist’s sad song again. I feel for them. Seems science alone has limited influence on conservation policy. Graeme is on the money, change in our system stems from a shift in ‘hearts and minds’ by voters. Politicians actually follow trends, despite their rantings about being ‘leaders’. It is possible to present hard data/recommendations/findings in a presentable and persuasive way. Science needs artists to come on side.


22 01 2016
Falko Buschke

I agree everything you wrote, Corey. I’d like to add how important it is to stop perpetuating the stereotype that all bureaucrats and policy-makers are selfish, self-interested politicians.

Sure, some bureaucrats are self-serving bean-counters, but there are certainly many others that really do care about making the best environmental decisions. From my limited experience, these empathic few are frustrated because the information being produced by scientists does not solve the issues they face on a daily basis (which is the very point you were trying to make).

Fundamental issues, like at which level of the governance hierarchy (i.e. national, provincial/state, or local) environmental decisions should be made and interventions rolled out, is rarely – if ever – addressed by scientists. Instead, we researchers give arm-waving recommendations based on an ideal world, rather than the messy complex one we find ourselves in.

Moreover, having spoken to some government officials here in South Africa, most agree that the lobbying through thirds parties (NGOs, interest groups, think tanks etc.) is much less effective than direct collaboration with policy-makers. This is obvious because working directly with the people you are trying to influence is viewed as supportive and collaborative, whereas working through intermediaries is viewed by many policy-makers as imposing and antagonistic.

The most important point you make, is that conservation scientist need to become more introspective about their own motivations. Are we publishing papers to build our careers and secure future funding or are we sincerely trying to change the way nature is being managed? It *is* possible to do both, but – like you say – only if we make a conscious effort to do so.


22 01 2016
Lesley King

Don’t forget the good use of images for communicating the value or conservation work. In my experience good images can seriously increase political interest in issues. Check out #devpix


22 01 2016
Graeme McLeay

We need people to do the hard science, crunch the data and write in the journals and people to communicate that to the wider community, the media and the activist groups. You (I mean the generic you) may not have the time or the ability to do both. Most politicians don’t give a ff about science but when their electors get smart they start to notice.


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