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Making Science Count: Getting Smart About How to Have an Impact

Kareiva, Peter 10/26/2011

The hardest thing to do as a scientist is to actually make a difference.

By comparison, publishing is easy, provoking is easy, being rigorous is easy, criticizing is easy, telling managers they have should have used return on investment is easy, preaching the value of measures is easy, contributing to a CAP is easy, and so on. But trying to use your science to change how things get done or even what gets done —that can be a huge challenge.

And yet, in the end, it is our responsibility as scientists to do everything we can do to meet that challenge. No one will do it for us. And it is folly to wait for an invitation to do it.

Hard on the heels of last week’s “ALL SCIENCE” meeting, which assembled hundreds of scientists from around The Conservancy and other NGOs, I’d like to instigate a conversation about what we as scientists at the Conservancy need to do to have a greater impact on and be more useful for both TNC and conservation as a whole. To start that conversation, I offer below my responses to some typical complaints I hear from Conservancy scientists:

“‘They’” made these decisions about where to _____ , and they did not do any return on investment or scientific analyses.”
Yes, I have seen high-level decisions or projects go forward for which I questioned the scientific justification. But it has always been my fault for not speaking up early enough, for not giving practical advice, for not understanding in advance how decisions were being made and what were the constraints, or for lacking patience and follow-up. In my 10 years at TNC, I have never spoken out on behalf of a scientific point and been ignored. If science is not adequately informing the Conservancy’s decisions, it is our fault as TNC scientists for not investing our time and thinking into knowing what the decision process really is (as opposed to some academic ideal) and identifying where we can insert science in a practical way. It does no good to complain after the fact.

“Marketing is making certain claims that put at risk our science-based credibility.”
Of course marketing is making us uncomfortable with their claims — it is their job to tell our story in a compelling way. It is our job to give them credible numbers and data that help them do this. For example, it takes extra scientific work to express the impacts of our projects in terms of benefits to people. That is extra work we need to start doing. I guarantee our marketers will use that data if we give it to them. 

“They were not really interested in what I had to say, and spent all their time on their Blackberry or doing e-mail.”
If an audience is inattentive, it is always the speaker’s fault. Too often we scientists fail to be concise, crisp, clear and practical. We dive into details, caveat our remarks to death, meander around our points, and do not highlight the ONE THING to pay attention to. Randy Olson’s book Don’t Be Such a Scientist is a good primer on how to improve your communication skills.

“We are a biodiversity organization — other organizations can worry about people and poverty.”
Get over it. Read the scientific literature and see for yourself how the field of conservation has changed and is changing. Conservation has been a focus for science for over 100 years, but biodiversity has been the centerpiece of conservation for only 20 of those years. And now the science of conservation is turning to pay more attention to working landscapes, ecosystem services and impacts on people. As a science-driven organization, we need to keep up with the science instead of clinging to ideology.

“Our External Affairs group is releasing policy statements without any good science.”
External affairs and policy teams wherever I have worked are always on the lookout for science. The problem is that scientists too often write papers and deliver information THEY think are important to policy, as opposed to asking policy experts what type of science would REALLY be most useful. If you want to see more science behind our policy work, work more closely with government relations or external affairs (at state, national and international levels) and give them what they need, rather than what interests you personally.

The bottom line: We need to gauge everything we do as scientists at the Conservancy in terms of impact. Resources are scant, the problems are large, and our time is limited — which means we must always ask ourselves what impact we intend to make with whatever scientific endeavor we engage in, and exactly how that impact will be achieved. Monitoring invasive weeds on a small reserve for 20 years may not be the best use of our science talent — unless we have a plan for taking what we learn to a broader audience and an audience that can by virtue of being better informed actually change something. And that burden of understanding how change works falls on us as well.


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