Monday, March 12, 2018

Gained in translation: translational ecology for the Anthropocene

A recent evaluation of the state of science around the world run by 3M found that 86% of the 14,000 people surveyed believed that they knew 'little to nothing' about science. 1/3 of all respondents also said they were skeptical of science and 20% went farther, saying that they mistrust scientists and their claims.

Those attitudes wouldn't surprise anyone following US politics these days. But they're still troubling statistics for ecologists. Perhaps more than most scientific disciplines, ecologists feel that their work needs to be communicated, shared, and acted on. That's because modern ecology can't help but explicitly or implicitly include humans – we are keystone species and powerful ecosystem engineers. And in a time where the effects of global warming are more impactful than ever, and where habitat loss and degradation underlie an age of human-caused extinction, ecology is more relevant than ever.

The difficulties in converting primary ecological literature into applications are often construed as being caused (at least in part) by the poor communication abilities of professional scientists. Typically, there is a call for ecologists to provide better science education and improve their communication skills. But perhaps this is an 'eco-centric' viewpoint – one that defaults to the assumption that ecologists have all the knowledge and just need to communicate it better. A more holistic approach must recognize that the gap between science and policy can only be bridged by meaningful two-way communication between scientists and stakeholders, and this communication must be iterative and focused on relevance for end-users.

William H. Schlessinger first proposed this practice - called Translational Ecology (TE) - nearly 8 years ago. More recently an entire special issue in Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment was devoted to the topic of translational ecology in 2017. [The introduction by F. Stuart Chapin is well worth a read, and I'm jealous of the brilliant use of Dickens in the epigraph: “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity.”]

Although applied ecology also is focused on producing and applying ecological knowledge for human problems, translational ecology can be distinguished by its necessary involvement of the end user and policy. Enquist et al. (2017, TE special issue) note: "Ecologists who specialize in translational ecology (TE) seek to link ecological knowledge to decision making by integrating ecological science with the full complement of social dimensions that underlie today's complex environmental issues."
From Hallet et al. (2017, TE special issue)

The essential component of translational ecology is a reliance on people or groups known as boundary spanners, which are the key to (effectively) bridging the chasm between research and application. These people or organizations have particular expertise and skill sets to straddle the divide between "information producers and users". Boundary spanners are accountable to the science and the user, and generally enable communication between those two groups.

Boundary spanners likely have interdisciplinary backgrounds, and integrate knowledge and skills from ecology and biology, as well as disciplines such as anthropology, human geography, sociology, law, or politics. The key issue in that boundary spanners can overcome is the lack of trust between information users and producers. Translational ecology – through communication, translation, and mediation – is especially focused on developing relationships with stakeholders and boundary spanners are meant to be particularly skilled at this. 

For example, academics publish papers, and then the transmission of information to potential users is usually allowed to occur passively. At best, this can be slow and inefficient. At worst, potential end users lack access, time, and awareness of the work. Boundary spanners (including academics) can ensure this knowledge is accessibly by producing synthetic articles, policy briefs and white papers, by creating web-based decision-support tools, or by communicating directly with end users in other ways. A great example of existing boundary spanners are Coop extension offices hosted at US land grant universities. Coops are extensions of government offices (e.g. USDA) whose mission is to span the knowledge produced by research and to bring it to users through informal education and communication. 

For working academics, it may feel difficult to jump into translational ecology. There can be strong institutional or time constraints, and for those without tenure, fear that translational activities will interfere with other requirements. Institutions interested in working with ecologists also often face limitations of time and funding, and variable funding cycles can mean that boundary-spanning activities lack continuity.

But what's hopeful about the discussion of translational ecology in this issue is that it doesn't have an individualistic viewpoint: translational ecology requires teams and communities to be successful, and everyone can contribute. I think there is sometimes a very simplistic expectation that individual scientists can and must be exceptional generalists able to do excellent research, write and give talks for peers, teach and lecture, mentor, and also communicate effectively with the general public (in addition to taking care of administration, human resources, ordering and receiving, and laboratory management). We can all contribute, especially by training boundary spanners in our departments and labs. As F.S. Chapin says, "The key role of context in translational ecology also means that there are roles that fit the interests, passions, and skills of almost any ecologist, from theoreticians and disciplinarians to people more focused on spanning boundaries between disciplines or between theory and practice. We don't need to choose between translational ecology and other scientific approaches; we just need to provide space, respect, and rigorous training for those who decide to make translational ecology a component of their science.

From Enquist et al. (2017, TE special issue).

Special Issue: Translational ecology. Volume 15, Issue 10. December 2017. Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment


Angela said...

Excellent and timely post :) Now that I'm working at a Crown Research Institute - where our mission is a blending of basic research and (improving our abilities in) translational ecology - I can better appreciate both the needs and challenges you've summarised. It's definitely been stretching my own skill set in our current project of designing a biodiversity assessment tool for NZ farms, in no small part because our proof-of-concept for doing the translational bits is sometimes met with a bit of skepticism on the part of those looking for "science excellence" and rigour based on metrics we apply to nicely controlled experiments.

Susan said...

Really excellent post.

Caroline Tucker said...

Thanks! We're considering adding translational ecology as a research focus for an interdisciplinary curriculum in ecology/environmental science that I am affiliated with. Producing students with these skill sets would be an important contribution to society, I think.

Angela - that sounds like difficult and fascinating. If you ever want to write a blog post about it...?

Angela said...

That would be a neat research focus to add -- I agree more folks having those skill sets when they launch into their careers would be a great contribution.

Hmm, could be a go. Need to be very diplomatic about it all, though ;) Perhaps something to consider as a reflective piece when we've completed this proof-of-concept.