Four Questions: How Ecologists Transform Research Into Change

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Inspired by the impact of biomedical research on clinical outcomes, ecologists are strengthening ties with stakeholders to inform environmental management and policy decisions.
Emily Litvack and Kristy Makansi
UA Research, Discovery and Innovation
Gregg Garfin (Photo: Steven Meckler)

When ecologists publish their research findings in peer-reviewed journals, they often are banking on the idea that people who should have this information will find and read it on their own.

Sometimes that's true, as in the case of their scientist colleagues. But when it comes to one of their most important audiences — those who make environmental management and policy decisions — the traditional means of engagement just don't cut it.

Translational ecology — a process by which ecologists collaborate with decision makers — aims to solve that problem and increase the likelihood of research having a direct impact on society.

A special issue of Frontiers in Ecology and Environment on translational ecology offers scientists important insights into this emerging area, discussing foundational goals and principles, best practices, case studies, training and development. The directors of the Southwest Climate Science Center — Stephen Jackson, research professor in the University of Arizona's School of Natural Resources and the Environment and a U.S. Geological Survey scientist; Carolyn Enquist, assistant professor in SNRE and a USGS scientist; and UA climate scientist Gregg Garfin — are conveners and lead authors of the special issue, which was published on Dec. 1.

Garfin responded to questions about translational ecology and its role in engaging decision makers.

Q: What is "translational ecology" and why was it a necessary evolution of the field of ecology?

A: Translational ecology is an intentional and collaborative process through which ecologists, stakeholders and decision makers work together to develop ecological research that results in improved decision making. It assumes that scientifically informed decisions will be better decisions, and so it's aimed at maximizing the likelihood that research done by ecologists will in fact be used to support management and policy decisions.

Investigations in biomedical research and science policy studies show it takes around 20 years for scientific findings to make their way into common use when following a traditional pathway, such as publishing final results in a peer-reviewed paper that then magically comes to the attention of a decision maker. To spur faster integration, biomedical researchers are now deeply engaged with clinical practitioners in what's now called "translational medicine." Similarly, ecologists are becoming increasingly engaged with conservation and management practitioners in translational ecology.

Traditionally, ecologists in universities and government agencies have been concerned with communicating with each other through scientific papers and conferences — all the while assuming decision makers would be avidly reading their papers and attending their talks. It turns out resource managers don't have time to follow the scientific literature and ecologists need to be more effective and proactive — and less insular and academic — in working with stakeholders. Translational ecology offers a way to avoid the "trickle-down" approach to the production and subsequent use of information and knowledge.  

Q: What makes any given research finding actionable, and is it a scientist's job to consider that idea from the onset?

A: A finding is actionable if the end user determines that they can apply it in some way to their decisions, management practices, deliberations or communications with the public. However, "actionable" can mean different things to different stakeholders, and it can mean different things in different stages of a planning process. 

In a more philosophical vein, scientists are supported by society and are therefore under some moral obligation to give back to society. That repayment can take any number of forms, including the simple contribution of advancement of scientific knowledge that enriches our world. Science is a large and diverse enterprise, and much research is driven entirely by curiosity. Researchers pursue questions they find intellectually interesting or aesthetically pleasing. Sometimes curiosity-driven research yields huge societal benefits. For example, a Tucson citizen scientist, Dave Bertelsen, studied the first flowering dates of plants during his hikes in the Santa Catalina Mountains. He kept detailed notes just for curiosity's sake. His more than 20 years of flowering date records now provides one of the most solid bases for documenting the effects of climate variations on vegetation in the Southwestern United States — documentation and information used by federal agencies and non-governmental organizations to inform vegetation management decisions. Other times, curiosity-driven research doesn't yield these kinds of benefits, yet it still enlarges our understanding of the world we inhabit.

Whether an individual researcher pursues actionable science is and should be a personal decision, informed by the researcher's area of knowledge and expertise, and by their desire to have impact beyond the science. Our aim is to create the space for translational ecology to flourish, so that individuals committed to it can obtain the skills, resources and professional support they need.

Q: How are UA ecologists doing research that directly engages with communities?

A: University of Arizona ecologists are working with federal and state forest, rangeland and wildlife managers to understand the dynamics of ecosystems, how wildlife respond to different stresses, how fish survival is affected by subtle changes in the form and dimensions of stream channels, and how fire management treatments affect forest health.

For example, UA fire ecologist Don Falk and his colleagues have worked with forest managers to understand how treatments like prescribed fire affect the survival of trees during extreme drought. His research demonstrates that low-level prescribed fires remove enough competition among trees in overstocked forests that the remaining trees can survive intense drought, whereas trees in untreated forests are more likely to suffer drought-related mortality. The implications of using forest management treatments such as prescribed fires impact forest management policies adopted in national parks, where catastrophic high-intensity fires have devastated landscapes and resulted in huge costs for fire suppression and forest restoration.

UA and USGS fish biologist Scott Bonar's work offers another example. He works closely with land management and sport fishing recreation communities in Arizona to understand how water temperatures, stream channel form and competition from non-native species affect native endangered fish species. The results of his collaborative research inform decisions to use shade trees to moderate water temperatures in Arizona rivers, and to effectively control non-native species like crayfish.

Q: How can scientists strengthen their ties to and collaborations with decision makers?

A: There are many ways. How many grains of sand are there by the seashore? First, you can let folks know that you are available for collaboration and interested in issues of common concern. A scientist could do this by requesting an informational meeting with an organization or agency or by attending public meetings, conferences or citizen forums on issues of interest. Inviting decision makers to campus lecture series, research team meetings and workshops is another way to strengthen a connection; offering a special briefing on a key concern of a decision maker is another. As relationships develop, it may be possible to offer or request exchanges, such as shadowing a decision maker during their daily routine, embedding a student intern in a decision maker's office or field site, having a decision maker's staff member partake in trainings or data collection excursions, and so on. These kinds of collaborations foster mutual understanding and respect and allow for decision makers and scientists to better understand each other's professional cultures, operational languages and norms. 

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