Showing posts with label politics. Show all posts
Showing posts with label politics. Show all posts

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).



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

Friday, May 6, 2016

What’s so great about Spain? Assessing UNESCO World Heritage inequality.

Some places are more valuable than others. We often regard places as being of high or unique value if they possess high biological diversity, ancient cultural artefacts and structures, or outstanding geological features. These valuable places deserve special recognition and protection. The sad reality is that when we are driven by immediate needs and desires, these special places are lost.

The natural world, and the wonderful diversity of plants and animals, is on the losing end of a long and undiminished conflict with human population growth, development, and resource extraction. We don’t notice it when there is ample natural space, but as nature becomes increasingly relegated to a few remaining places, we place a high value on them.

The same can be said for places with significant cultural value. Ancient temples, villages, and human achievement are too valuable to lose and we often only have a few remnants to connect us to the past.

In either case, natural or cultural, when they’re gone, we lose a part of us. That is because these special places tell us about ourselves; where we come from, how the world shaped us, and what unites all of humanity. Why did the world cry out in a united voice when the Taliban destroyed the Buddhas of Bamiyan in 2001, even though many of those concerned people were not Buddhist? The answer is simple –the expansion of Buddhism out of India along ancient trade routes tells us why many Asian nations share a common religion. They tell us about ourselves, the differences that interest us, and the similarities that bind us. The same can be said about the global outcry over the recent destruction of the ancient city of Palmyra by ISIS.

Before and after photos of the taller of the Buddhas of Bamiyan. Image posted by Carl Montgomery CC BY-SA 3.0.

Similarly, the natural world tells us about ourselves. The natural world has constantly shaped and influenced what it means to be human. Our desires, fears, and how we interact with the natural world are products of our evolution. If I flash a picture of a car to my 500-student ecology class, very few students, if any, screech in fear. But if I flash a photo of a hissing cobra or close-up of a spider, invariably a bunch of students squirm, gasp, or scream. Rationally, this is an odd response, since cars are the leading cause of death and injury in many western countries. Snakes and spiders kill very few people in Canada.

These special places deserve recognition and protection, and that is what the UNESCO World Heritage designation is meant to achieve. To get this designation for a site requires that countries nominate ones that represent unique and globally significant contributions to world heritage, and are adequately protected to ensure the long-term existence of these sites.  World Heritage sites are amazing places. They represent the gems of our global shared heritage. They need to be protected in perpetuity and should be accessible to all people. Though some I have visited seem like they are loved too much with high visitation rates degrading some elements of Heritage sites.

Examples of UNESCO World Heritage sites. A) The Great Wall of China. B) The Gaoligong Mountains, part of the Three Parallel Rivers of Yunnan. C) Angkor Wat in Cambodia. D) An example of a site that may be too loved -Lijiang in Yunnan. All photos by Shirley Lo-Cadotte and posted on our family travel blog -All The Pretty Places.

UNESCO World Heritage sites should also be representative. What I mean by this is that they should be designated regardless of national borders. Heritage sites are found on all continents across most countries –though a number of politically unstable countries (e.g., Liberia, Somalia, etc.) do not possess Heritage sites, likely because they lack the organization or resources to undertake the designation application process, and they lack the governance to ensure a site is adequately protected. But there are substantial differences in the number of World Heritage sites across nations[1]. Some countries, because of inherent priorities, national pride, resources or expertise, are better able to identify and persuade UNESCO that a particular place deserves designation.

The distribution of the number of UNESCO World Heritage sites across countries and the top ten.

Why do we see such disparity in the number of World Heritage sites -where many countries have few sites, and a few countries have many sites? This is a difficult question to answer, and to do so I took an empirical approach. I combined data on the number of sites per country with Gross Domestic Product (GDP)[2], country size[3], and country population size[4]. I then ran simple statistical analyses to figure out what predicts the number of Heritage sites, and identified those countries that are greatly over-represented by Heritage sites, and those that are very under-represented. A couple things to note, the best statistical models included variables that were all log-transformed, I excluded the World Heritage sites that spanned more than one country, and I did not include countries that did not have any Heritage sites. The data and R code have been posted to Figshare and are freely available.

All three of GDP, area, and population size predicted the number of World Heritage sites. It is important to note that these three country measures are not strongly correlated with one another (only moderately so). So, larger, richer and more populous countries had more World Heritage sites. This makes sense –big countries should contain more unique sites due to random chance and more populous countries tend to have longer historical presence of organized states, and so should possess more cultural relics (especially China). GDP is more difficult to assign a reason, but high GDP countries should have robust national parks or other bureaucratic structures that assess and protect important sites, making them easier to document and justify for UNESCO.  GDP is quite interesting, because it is the single best measure for predicting the number of Heritage sites, better than population size and area. Further, neither country density (population/area) nor productivity (GDP/population) are strong predictors of the number of Heritage sites.

The relationships between the number of World Heritage sites and GDP, area, and population. Note that the axes are all log-transformed.

While these relationships make sense, it is also clear that countries are not all close to the main regression line and some countries are well above the line –meaning they have more Heritage sites than predicted; as well as some below the line and thus having fewer sites. When I combine the different measures in different combinations and look for the best single statistical explanation for the number of World Heritage sites, I find that the combination including GDP and population size, and their interaction (meaning that population size is more important for high GDP countries) is the best. For aficionados, this model explains about 65% of the variation in the number of Heritage sites.

Now, we can identify those countries that are over or under represented by UNESCO World Heritage sites according to how far above or below countries are from the predicted line (technically, looking at statistical residuals).

The deviation of countries from the predicted relationship between the number of sites and GDP and population (and their interaction). The top 5 over-represented and under-represented countries are highlighted.


The top five over-represented countries are all European, which means that given their GDP and population size, these countries have more World Heritage sites than expected. At the other extreme, countries under-represented come from more diverse regions including Africa, the Middle East and Southeast Asia.

An interesting comparison to think about is Germany and Indonesia. Germany has more World Heritage sites than expected (residual = +0.61) and is a moderately sized, high GDP country. Let me say, I like Germany, I’ve been there a half a dozen times, and it has beautiful landscapes and great culture. However, does it deserve so much more World Heritage recognition than Indonesia, which has fewer sites than expected (residual = -0.63)? Indonesia has spectacular landscapes and immense biodiversity and great cultural diversity and history. To put it in perspective, Germany has 35 World Heritage sites and Indonesia has just 8.

To answer the question in the title of this post: what’s so great about Spain? Well, it not only has beautiful and diverse natural landscapes and cultural history, but it appears to have the infrastructure in place to identify and protect these sites. It's place at the top of UNESCOs relative (to GDP and population) ranking of the number of World Heritage sites means that Spain's natural and cultural wonders are in good hands. However, for the countries at the other end of the spectrum, having relatively few World Heritage sites probably is not a reflection of these countries being uninteresting, or that they have little to offer the world, rather it is something more alarming. These places lack the financial capacity or national will to fully recognize those places that are of value to the whole world. The problem is that the globally important heritage that does exist in these places is at risk of being lost. These under-represented countries serve as a call to the whole world to help countries not just identify and protect heritage sites but to aid these countries with infrastructure and human well-being that empowers them to prioritize their natural and cultural heritage.

Wednesday, April 13, 2016

Who should communicate the policy implications of ecological research?

Ecology is a science that tries to understand the world. How is the diversity of organisms distributed around the world? How do extreme climate events influence populations of animals and plants? How does the diversity of organisms in a landscape influence its function and the delivery of services to humanity? These are all questions routinely asked by ecologists and, importantly, are topics that most academic ecologists would believe are necessary for providing evidence for policy and management of habitats and natural resources. Yet policy makers, managers and practitioners seldom access ecology research. There is a research-policy divide that needs to be overcome.

Spanning the chasm between academic research and policy (from http://www.adventureherald.com/8-scary-suspension-bridges-you-do-want-to-cross/)
 
Many ecologists are reluctant to promote the policy implications of their research because they do not feel comfortable or connected enough to talk to non-academics. But if not them, then who is responsible to communicate the policy repercussions of their research?

The romanticized view of an untouched, pristine ecosystem no longer exists. We now live in a world where every major ecosystem has been impacted by human activities. From pollution and deforestation, to the introduction of non-native species, our activity has influenced every type of habitat. But this is where management and applied ecology have relevance. The study of human physiology has direct relevance for health science –that is, the value of this basic biological science is measured in its ability to help sick people, and not necessarily in its ability to better understand how healthy people function. So to does ecology need to be relevant for our ‘sick people’, that is, human-impacted landscapes. We have spent much of our collective effort studying intact, semi-natural systems, and this is necessary to understand the basic operations of nature. But now we are required to apply this understanding to improve ecological integrity and human wellbeing. We are surround by sick ecosystems and ecology is desperately needed to influence policy and management.

I just attended the joint symposium “Making a Difference in Conservation: Improvingthe Links Between Ecological Research, Policy and Practice”, put on by the British Ecological Society and the Cambridge Conservation Initiative. This meeting was attended by a nice mix of academic researchers and practitioners, and covered a broad range of ideas, issues and solutions to overcoming barriers to implementing evidence-based policy. Overcoming these barriers requires communication, and scientists need to be at the table. In arguing the case that scientists need to communicate the policy implications of their research below, I take ideas and information passed on in a number of excellent talks, including from: John Altringham, Malcolm Ausden, John Beddington, Ian Boyd, Fiona Fox, Georgina Mace, Andrew Miller, E. J. Milner-Gulland and Des Thompson, and my own workshop on communicating research to maximise policy impact.

A guy who probably doesn't know what he is talking about, talking about policy. Perhaps a bit outside my comfort zone. (photo by Martin Nunez)

The Hurdles

The hurdles to the uptake of research and evidence into policy decisions are complex and multifaceted. On the scientists’ side, the hurdles are mainly a lack of training, experience and comfort promoting the policy implications of their work. In graduate school, very few scientists-in-training take journalism and media courses, and so are not well versed in the ways to communicate in a broadly approachable way. Instead, we are taught to communicate in technically precise ways that can only be understood by similarly trained experts.

On the practitioner side, there are a number of pragmatic and systemic limitations to the uptake of evidence into policy and management decisions:

1.       Structural: There is a lack of resources and time to read and synthesize scientific research. A lack of access because of expensive subscription fees, is a pervasive problem for individuals and small organizations.
2.       Systemic: Big organizations and agencies are complex and communication of best practices or idea sharing might be lacking. Frequent staff turnover means that research understanding and institutional memory is lost.
3.       Relevance: Practitioners need research relevant to their problem and trolling the impossibly large literature is not an efficient way to find the necessary information.
4.       Timescale: Practitioners and policy makers work at a variety of speeds, dictated by priorities, contracts, etc., and looking for resources may not work within these timeframes.

These limitations and the lack of relevant research uptake result in policies and management strategies that are not adequately informed by research, which can waste money and may not produce in the desired results. We heard about the requirement to build bat crossings across new highways (to avoid car collisions), costing millions of dollars, but research has not supported their efficacy. 

Random bat picture to break up the flow (from http://www.bugsbirdsandbeasts.co.uk/go-batty)

Should scientists engage policy makers? 

I do think that scientists have a responsibility to communicate, and perhaps advocate, for evidence to be used in policy decision-making. There is a line between being seen as objective versus as an advocate, and scientists need to do what they are comfortable with, but remember:

  1. You are an expert on your research; you are uniquely position to comment on it.
  2. Related to the previous point, you may not want other, untrained, people to represent and communicate your work.
  3. You have an obligation to the public. You are likely paid by tax dollars and your research is funded by public grants. A part of the responsibility then is to not only do research but to ensure that it is communicated and if the people who ultimately pay you would benefit from learning about your findings, you owe it to them to communicate it.
  4. There are positive feedbacks for your career. Being seen as a scientist who engages and does relevant work will mean that you achieve a higher profile.


Citizens and policy-makers get the most out of their new information (which forms the basis for their opinions) from media news. If the only voices being heard are advocates and interest groups, then evidence will be lacking or misrepresented. Scientists’ voices are needed in the media, and here you can educate many concerned people. The former British Education minister, Estelle Morris, when speaking about the Fukushima reactor meltdown, said that she learned more about radiation from scientific experts in the media than she had during her education.

Of course it is important to remember that science is only a part of the solution, human needs, economics and social values are also important. But without scientists’ involvement, evidence will not be an important part of solutions to crises. 

How to communicate

Scientists are often driven by immediate career concerns and they need to publish high profile, impactful papers in peer-reviewed scientific journals. And this won’t change. But as Georgina Mace said in her presentation, overselling the implications of research in papers diminishes their value and confuses practitioners and policy makers. Policy implications contained within publications is one avenue to influence policy makers, but rather than tacking on broad policy recommendations, consider consulting them before writing the paper, or even better, include them in the planning stage of the study. One speaker commented that instead of asking for a letter of support for a grant proposal from a non-academic partner at the 11th hour, discuss the ideas with them at the outset.

How should scientists communicate their research?
  1. Discuss finings with local interest groups (e.g., park managers).
  2. Give a public lecture to community organizations (e.g., naturalist club).
  3. Talk to local politicians.
  4. Use social media –create a persona that acts as an information broker.
  5. Write opinion articles for magazines or newspaper editorials.
  6. Be accessible to journalists (e.g., get yourself listed in your university expert database).


The UK as a model

The UK provides one of the best examples of meaningful interactions between scientists and policy makers. Perhaps a better way to state it, is that there is a gradient of engaged individuals from pure scientist to local practitioner. There are robust organizations that span government agencies, NGOs, and universities that bring scientists and practitioners into contact with one another. They have Chief Scientific Officers and advisory groups at multiple levels of government. These groups develop the risk registry that estimates the likelihood and the potential repercussions of environmental and biological disasters or emergencies (e.g., influenza pandemic, severe drought, etc.). There is a well respected and effective Science Media Centre that organizes briefing sessions that bring scientists together with journalists on timely and important topics. These briefings result in influential news stories that sometimes challenge government policy or public sentiment (e.g., badger culls, links between vaccines and autism, etc.). This is a system to be emulated.

So, should scientists communicate their findings and engage policy makers, managers and the public. Absolutely. It may seem like you are entering uncharted territory, but believe me, your voice is desperately needed.

If you want advice, encouragement or more information, feel free to contact me.