TRANSLATIONAL ECOLOGY: AN EMERGING AREA OF INQUIRY AND PRACTICE
*Published in December 2017: Special issue of Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment devoted to translational ecology.
Decision-makers frequently express frustration that scientists provide answers to the wrong questions, or otherwise fail to address their information needs in the contexts in which decisions are made. Moreover, researchers often default to one-way communication, focusing their attention on how to improve their ‘messaging.’ Modeled after translational medicine by requiring "constant two-way communication between stakeholders and scientists" (Schlesinger, 2010), translational ecology aims to facilitate the development of actionable, decision-relevant science. This parallels recent work focused on the practice of knowledge co-production (Meadow et al., 2015), particularly in the context of climate adaptation. Co-production refers to strong collaborations between scientists and decision-makers during all phases of research, from project inception to preparation of research products, and through iterative interactions to address emerging research and information needs.
The Southwest Climate Science Center, with collaboration from the University of Arizona, is leading an effort to increase knowledge about translational ecology, and to explore and articulate the theory and practice of translational ecology. We give special focus to understanding past successes and failures in scientist-stakeholder engagements, seeking solutions to critical barriers and challenges in knowledge co-production, and summarizing best practices for translational ecology. Part of our efforts included convening a workshop and working group on Translational Ecology at the National Center for Ecological Analysis and Synthesis (NCEAS), in November 2015. The working group included scientists from research institutions (universities and science agencies) and resource-management agencies, science translators and knowledge-brokers from boundary organizations (agencies, NGOs), and decision-makers from natural-resource management agencies and NGOs. All participants will have ‘in-the-trenches’ experience with knowledge co-production from one or more perspectives (researcher, decision-maker, knowledge broker).
The coming years and decades will see increasingly rapid environmental change with dramatic ecological and societal consequences. Anthropogenic processes, including global warming, species translocations, land use changes, biogeochemical alterations, and harvesting of wild populations, will interact with natural geophysical, ecological, and biogeochemical processes in ways that remain partially understood. Novel climates, ecosystems, and landscape configurations will arise, requiring both scientists and decision-makers to think outside the conventional envelopes of past experience, historical states, and resource-management practices.
Science-informed management, policy, and planning decisions are needed in the face of these mounting challenges. Natural-resource managers and policymakers want to make sound decisions using the best available information, and most are under direct mandate to do so. Reciprocally, ecologists and other scientists have a strong desire to contribute directly to policy and management decisions. However, scientific researchers and natural-resource decision-makers comprise different cultures, and dialogues between them can result in misunderstanding and miscommunication. Researchers often default to one-way communication, focusing their attention on how to improve their ‘messaging’. Decision-makers frequently express frustration that scientists provide answers to the wrong questions, or otherwise fail to address their information needs in the contexts in which decisions are made.
To address the gap between the practice of ecological research and the application of ecological knowledge to practical problems of natural-resource management.
Translational ecology has been proposed as a way to bridge that gap, drawing from translational medicine and other emerging enterprises working at the boundary between science and decision-making. Although ecology has a long and rich history of researchers engaging with practitioners, the communities of research and those of practice remain largely in separate silos. Institutional, linguistic, cultural, and other barriers separate the communities.
- How can translational ecology most effectively surmount those barriers?
- Is it simply a matter of clearer and louder communication on the part of the researchers?
- Are more fundamental changes in research practice required?
- What can practitioners do to foster better dialogue?
Working Group on Translational Ecology – November 17-20, 2015
We assembled a diverse group to discuss these questions and related issues. The group includes scientists from research institutions (universities and science agencies) and resource-management agencies, science translators and knowledge-brokers from boundary organizations (agencies, NGOs), and decision-makers from natural-resource management agencies and NGOs.
We discussed the opportunities and challenges of making translational ecology effective in the real world. We aim to capitalize on the real-world experience of the participants – successes and failures alike—in order to identify compelling case studies, highlight challenges and their solutions, and develop a working set of practices or principles for application.
Arizona State University
California Department of Fish and Game
CLIMAS (Climate Assessment for the Southwest)
College of the South
Department of the Interior (DOI) Alaska Climate Science Center, USGS
Department of the Interior (DOI) Northeast Climate Science Center, USGS
Department of the Interior (DOI) Southeast Climate Science Center, USGS
Desert Research Institute, California-Nevada Applications Program
Environmental Defense Fund
National Park Service (Sequoia – Kings Canyon National Park)
The Nature Conservancy
NOAA (National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration) Earth System Research Laboratory
University of Arizona
University of California – Davis
University of California – Santa Barbara
University of Colorado
University of Notre Dame
USDA (U.S. Department of Agriculture)-Forest Service
U.S. Department of the Navy
USGS (U.S. Geological Survey)
USGS Western Ecological Research Center
USGS Northern Rocky Mountain Science Center
Western Water Assessment
Schlesinger, W. H. (2010). Translational Ecology. Science, 329(5992), 609.
Meadow, A. M., Ferguson, D. B., Guido, Z., Horangic, A., Owen, G., & Wall, T. (2015). Moving toward the deliberate coproduction of climate science knowledge. Weather, Climate, and Society, 7(2), 179-191.
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