Bridging the science-implementation gap

Engaging with conservation NGOs can make the difference

James Watson is the Climate Change Director at WCS, a Principal Research Fellow at the University of Queensland and an adunct research fellow at CEED. He is the chair of the IUCN climate change specialist group, a member of the International Panel for Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services and the Data and Knowledge Task Force, and has recently been elected the global president-elect of the Society for Conservation Biology. His current research is focussed on testing different methodologies that assess the impact of landscape change and climate change for biodiversity and ecosystem services.

James Watson is the Climate Change Director at WCS, a Principal Research Fellow at the University of Queensland and an adunct research fellow at CEED. He is the chair of the IUCN climate change specialist group, a member of the International Panel for Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services and the Data and Knowledge Task Force, and has recently been elected the global president-elect of the Society for Conservation Biology. His current research is focussed on testing different methodologies that assess the impact of landscape change and climate change for biodiversity and ecosystem services.

As most governments struggle to achieve conservation outcomes when budgets are small, there has been a considerable (though often overlooked) response by the wider community. The substantial growth in the number and size of non-governmental organisations (NGOs) focused on conservation over the past few years is testament to this.
Across the world, conservation NGOs are increasingly engaging in national and international policy development, advocacy and on­the-ground action. Given the formidable threats faced by biodiversity (including those arising from human population growth and climate change) and that all developing nations are trying to fast track their economies by utilizing their natural resources, new forms of conservation activities are required that integrate nature conservation within the goals of economic development. Achieving these ‘new age’ conservation outcomes increasingly requires NGOs to develop strategies that integrate life sciences with the social, economic and political sciences – a complex challenge, but certainly not impossible.
While there’s a broad range of NGOs engaged in an array of conservation activities, each with their own unique mission, most agree that good science lies at the heart of delivering effective outcomes. However, ensuring that the conservation actions, policies and philosophies of NGOs are informed by the best available science is seriously challenging. It takes time and it takes money.
Consider the issue of time. It’s extremely difficult for conservation NGOs
– regardless of their budget – to keep up with the mass of conservation science papers being pumped out each week. The amount of time most NGO scientists have to spend to keep up with ‘best practice’ science is extremely limited. Most of their available time is consumed with day-to­day tasks associated with actually ‘doing’ conservation.
Now add the challenge of money. The funding base for core science within most NGOs is extremely limited and in many cases declining. Consider the case of researchers in WWF International as recently highlighted by Erik Stokstad in Science (Stokstad, 2014). WWF has just released approximately two thirds of their Washington DC based scientific workforce. Sustaining long-term science programs in NGOs is becoming increasingly difficult and the days of academic scientists simply jumping ships to join an NGO (and vice versa) are likely over.
Both of the challenges are significant but not impossible to overcome. In this special issue of Decision Point, we show how the international conservation NGO that I work for, the Wildlife Conservation Society, is attempting to overcome these challenges by forming strategic collaborations with the applied academic community (in this case, CEED and NERP researchers).
The Wildlife Conservation Society ( WCS) is a global non-government organisation dedicated to saving wildlife and wild places (see the box on The Wildlife Conservation Society on page 5). Over the past four years, WCS has developed ties with researchers from CEED and NERP ED to generate science that informs real conservation decisions and policies. There have been a number of different models WCS have explored with the CEED/NERP that has led to the science outlined in this special issue. Initially, these have included consultancies (for example with WCS Fiji, p8) and joint supervision of students (for example, Azusa Makino, p9, and Kendall Jones, p7) and postdoctoral fellows by (for example Joseph Maina, p15).

“Ensuring that the conservation actions, policies and philosophies of NGOs are informed by the best available science is seriously challenging. It takes time and it takes money.”

Due to the trust that has developed between different people in both organizations, the collaboration has expanded to include co-funded positions and grants (eg, two ARC Linkage Grants and a Science for Nature and People Grant, see page 5). These are models that aid both the university and WCS. What’s more, they are a mechanism for ground-breaking science to quickly inform conservation action.

In a recent development, WCS has started to jointly fund positions with the University of Queensland. For example, Dr Joseph Maina joined CEED as a post-doctoral research fellow in November last year and is working on a series of applied science initiatives that will help inform conservation science at WCS sites (see page 15). I also have recently taken up a joint position between WCS and the School of Geography, Planning and Environmental Management at the University of Queensland. In this position, I maintain associate fellowship within CEED which has allowed me to maintain and generate new collaborations with CEED and NERP researchers.
The aim of these joint appointments is to allow WCS to build an applied conservation science group utilising the fantastic resources and brain power that CEED and NERP have to offer, ensuring the science being done is either applied at the local scale in landscapes and seascapes WCS works in, as well as at the policy interface that WCS is increasingly engaged with (for example, policy connected to the institutions of the Convention on Biological Diversity and the Intergovernmental science-policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services). My aim is to engage and collaborate with the different hubs, trying to ensure the great science done by CEED and NERP can be translated for WCS activities and linking interested CEED people to WCS problems. If you are interested in exploring the opportunities, please get in contact.


More info: James Watson jwatson@wcs.org 

Stokstad E (2014). Major Conservation Group Guts Science Team in Strategy Shift. Science , 343 (6175 ), 1069. http://www.sciencemag.org/content/343/6175/1069.summary 

 

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