Lost in translational ecology
Submitted by Brandon Bestelmeyer on Fri, 03/21/2014 - 07:53
As graduate students, some of us entertained the hope that our science would trickle down from the ivory tower and inoculate land managers with the seeds of broader vision and better practices. That seldom happened. Over the last decade+ since, there has been a lot of hand-wringing about the science-management interface. In the 1990s, I recall that “applied” ecology was met with thinly-veiled disdain from members of the ecological science establishment. Now, in the era of planetary tipping points, post-modern doubts about value-free science, and a weakened environmental movement, application is not such a lowly aspiration for ecologists anymore. The question remains: how to be applied?
The term translational science, now widely used in medicine, is wiki-defined as “cross disciplinary, scientific research that is motivated by the need for practical applications that help people” (and you can get a doctorate in it at The University of Texas Health Science Center at San Antonio). From this medical concept, Bill Schlesinger coined the term “translational ecology” in a 2010 editorial in Science1. Translational ecology “should connect end-users of environmental science to the field research carried out by scientists who study the basis of environmental problems. Translational ecology requires constant two-way communication between stakeholders and scientists…The partnership’s purpose should be to ensure that all stakeholders know the implications of scientific discoveries and understand their impact on alternative ecological diagnoses”. This statement in the journal Science represents another milestone in our reimagining of the science-management interface. But I squirm when I hear “translational ecology”.
“Translational” connotes the idea that the intended users of science “just don’t get it”, but they could if it were translated for them. I’m certain it was not intended, but I can’t help but imagine a hint of condescension—the legacy perhaps of my 1990s experience. Certainly, we all do need some translating—the recent AAAS climate science report is an excellent example (and was a pleasure to read; http://whatweknow.aaas.org/). But land ecology is different than climate science. Land ecology seeks knowledge about changes and processes that those living on the land may already know a lot about or have strong beliefs about. And hypotheses often involve the direct actions of land users. Thus, “co-production of science” may be a better model, or metaphor, for land ecology than translational science. Part of the rejection of ecological science by potential users is due to perceived asymmetries in political power. Ecological science, especially as it became focused on environmental problems in the western US, was viewed as a tool for the urban elite to impose their preferences on the distant public domain. There was genuine abuse in some cases. Science was a powerful weapon, and to this day, I still hear phrasing to the effect of “we need our science too”. This perception about science has been, and continues to be, destructive to science and society. Co-production of science is a remedy for this disease.
Co-production of science in land ecology starts with the premise that we are all in this together, scientists, landowners, permittees, federal lands managers, bird-plant watchers, and bird-mammal shooters. We have a common vision for land health, even if what we want out of land differs. Perhaps even more important, we can all agree and motivate on what we don’t want—“undesirable future conditions” (credit to Dan Binkley at Colorado State). Sometimes there is virtue in focusing on the common enemy (it worked for Bismarck and Putin!).
Co-production starts with round-table discussions of key problems, co-development of conceptual models for species or land change, designing and implementing experiments, data syntheses, and monitoring programs, and ends by coming back together to evaluate what the results mean. But hopefully that end is just to one cycle of learning—new questions are asked, others were never answered, the land conditions changed--so we keep with it through another cycle. And another one.
I’ve been fortunate to share in this kind of experience. We have a great long-term partnership with the local Bureau of Land Management (BLM) office in Las Cruces, NM. About six years ago, we starting talking about their activities in the state-wide Restore New Mexico program—an effort to restore grasslands to millions of acres that had been transformed to shrublands or woodlands over the past two centuries. The primary tools used in our arid part of New Mexico are selective herbicides followed up by deferred grazing. Early meetings made clear that none of us fully understood what the broad-scale consequences to these ecosystems were, so we designed vegetation monitoring projects with BLM featuring true experimental designs, directed a graduate student to study breeding bird responses to historical treatments, and were fortunate to involve Bob Schooley from University of Illinois-Urbana, who led a USDA NIFA grant to study biodiversity responses. In a recent meeting to review the results thus far, some beliefs were confirmed, some were not, and more questions were generated2. I couldn’t have hoped for better.
In several variations, similar efforts are ongoing in many parts of the world, including central California3 the western Great Plains4, central Mexico5, and northern Australia6. It would be useful to put a common face to these efforts, to look for some general principles, and especially to understand the sources of failure—a guide to best practices for the co-production of ecological science.
2. Some of the published works so far include: http://people.hws.edu/cosentino/publications_files/Biodivers%20Conserv%202013%20Cosentino-1.pdf http://people.hws.edu/cosentino/publications_files/LandscapeEcol2014Cosentino.pdf http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/rec.12081/abstract