Lost in translational ecology

Brandon Bestelmeyer's picture

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.

 

1. http://www.caryinstitute.org/sites/default/files/public/reprints/schlesinger-science-2010-ed.pdf and see http://agrilifecdn.tamu.edu/briske/files/2013/01/BioScienceViewpoint12_31.pdf

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

3. http://rangelandwatersheds.ucdavis.edu/

4. http://www.ars.usda.gov/Research/docs.htm?docid=23087

5. http://rstb.royalsocietypublishing.org/content/367/1606/3158.short

6. http://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s10980-008-9236-5/fulltext.html

Comments

Translational ecology is a new enough concept that there's not really a clear idea of what it means. Schlesinger's editorial doesn't really define it so much as say why we need it. So with the help of some colleagues and students I've been crafting a working definition of what translational ecology should encompass, how one does it, and how we might teach people to do it. We have had some unease about whether the term "translation" is slightly condescending, but we all agree that it should encompass both communication (especially interactive communication) and co-production of science. Here's the latest version of the definition, which arose from a meeting at the National Socio-Environmental Synthesis Center (SESYNC) in February. It's a bit too jargon-y for my taste but it covers all the bases:

"Translational ecology is a boundary-spanning form of environmental science that entails research and application focused on maintaining or enhancing the resilience of social-ecological systems.  It uses an adaptive and iterative mode of inquiry, extending beyond traditional scientific boundaries, and is designed in a way that promotes exchanges of knowledge between environmental scientists and intended beneficiaries of their science, to promote mutual learning and a shared sense of its utility."

Brandon Bestelmeyer's picture

The strange thing is, I like that definition. It does seem to cover all the ideas. Maybe the short defintion could be adapted from the wiki-definition of translational science above. I guess I am striving to be a translational ecologist then.
 I wonder whether all of the "ecology" modifiers (landscape, community, ecosystem, global, social) are unproductive, however. In the case of translational ecology, it does represent a new emphasis for ecology, so in order for its practices to become mainstream, they 1) have to be defined and 2) have to recognized and taught. But there are close similarities in many elements of that definition with those of landscape ecology and, I guess the term is, 'resilience science'. Each have their own meetings, society (or alliance), and journals.  I guess I already harp on this a bit in the blog's "about", but the whole subdisciplinary "camp" thing seems like its getting out of hand especially in this realm. Ecology is a big field  and maybe the 'splendid disciplinary isolation' breeds novel ideas (and terms) and we see which of them bears fruit and catches on. But it does make it hard to communicate, learn, and teach in the meantime.
Also, another nice example from the eastern Great Plains and Prairie Peninsula to highlight:
http://millerlab.nres.illinois.edu/pdfs/Miller_2012_Nature%20reserves%20...
 

I am partial to the term "collaborative science." To me, collaboration includes both communication and co-production, and is a general term that encompases the main points from the above definition in a general way; but perhaps to others the word is not as meaningful or has other connotations. My understanding of collaborative science is summed up in a presentation on the jornada website (http://jornada.nmsu.edu/files/JaminCollaboration.pdf). Collaboration is in essence "the process of laboring together to produce something, in this case science, (not to the exclusion of trust, respect, mutual understanding and similar benifits that result from a "translational science" approach).