Different Perspectives on Conducting Actionable Science: Lessons from a Panel on Translational Ecology

Nov. 19, 2019
Gregg Garfin holding a microphone and talking to other researchers in a conference room.

Have you wanted to work with practitioners to conduct actionable research that’s useful, but don’t know where to begin? Or maybe you’re concerned about getting push back from a community about what your research is telling them? On October 21, 2019, the SW CASC co-hosted a panel discussion with the Environmental Sciences Department at the University of Arizona, where researchers answered questions like these from graduate students interested in actionable science. Panelists included Carolyn Enquist (SW CASC Federal Deputy Director), Elise Gornish and Don Falk (University of Arizona School of Natural Resources and the Environment), and it was moderated by Monica Ramirez-Andreotta (University of Arizona Environmental Sciences). 

The panelists first discussed Translational Ecology, an approach where ecologists, stakeholders, and decision makers work together to develop research that addresses an environmental problem. For Don, this means viewing managers as co-equal partners from the very beginning of a project. Managers have a vast understanding of the ecosystems they manage and know the land better than any scientists, since they are out on the land every day, whereas scientists often get, at most, a month in the field. For Elise, she began doing this work after first failing. She conducted her research, published it, then sent it with some bullet points to the manager she thought could use the information. She soon learned that the findings were not relevant to the manager’s work. Lesson: find out what managers’ needs are before you do the research, then work with them through the process. Otherwise, you might do research and find out something really interesting, but it’s not useful for managers for a myriad of reasons (e.g., it would cost way too much money, or require additional resources that aren’t available, or the manager lacks the flexibility or authority to implement the treatment that you recommend).

It makes sense—find out what information managers need, then conduct the research in partnership with them to ensure it is actionable at the end. But how exactly do you engage with stakeholders from the beginning? Surely you can’t just walk up to a manger and say, “Hey, want to work on a project with me?” In Carolyn’s opinion, it’s all about building relationships and trust. Go to meetings with managers and just listen—understand their priorities and goals. Building these relationships takes a lot of time, which requires a high level of commitment, which can be difficult for traditional academics to fit into their workflow. But it’s worth it, because in the end you will have produced something that is actionable and informs decisions and maybe even policy changes. 

What if people aren’t happy with the findings of the research, and fight what the science is saying? Elise has had experience with this, when talking to people about replacing cheatgrass (an invasive grass that is highly flammable) with wheatgrass, another non-native grass that is less flammable. In some cases, she says, you just have to agree to disagree, but she tries to come in as unbiased and just shows what the science says. Eventually most people get on board. According to Don, there’s always going to be conflict in any area of ecosystem management (e.g., if you are aiming to maintain streamflows to conserve salmon, then someone downstream wants that water). In these cases, Carolyn suggests finding shared goals and getting “down to brass tacks on soil, water, shade, forage, and think about the different aspects of the issue at hand.”

Carolyn Enquist holding a microphone and talking to others in a conference room.

Are there any frameworks or guidelines for how to start developing actionable science? A good place to start, according to Carolyn, is the Special Issue on Translational Ecology in Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment. The social science that it’s based on and the references are especially helpful. Don’s advice? If you don’t have experience doing this work, then make sure someone on your team is a good communicator and has conducted co-produced research before—form a team where everyone has the resources that you need. In Elise’s experience, everyone communicates differently, so how you operate will change, based on who you’re working with. Be cognizant of the style of communication that your partners prefer—don’t send an email to someone who relies on phone communication. Sure, there are tools and other resources to help, but remember that people’s social norms, values and vocabularies are different and you’ll need to take that into account. For example, when working with ranchers, the climate discussions are likely to center on concerns about drought, not climate change. 

Above all else, Translational Ecology and co-produced actionable science research is about creating a partnership and listening to your partners. Create a multi-way dialogue, build trust, and then just listen. Paraphrasing the words of Elise, you can learn so much more from the people out there every day managing and living on the land, than you can learn from the peer-reviewed literature, and your research will ultimately be better for it.