Key elements required for the effective translation of science into conservation action

Policy is the most effective vehicle for conservation solutions to be implemented; one of the main aims of conservation science, therefore, is to provide data which can be translated into policy. The translation of science into policy is a challenge, made more difficult by the increasingly global nature of the threats faced. It is therefore important that scientists strive to include certain key elements in their work which makes the translation into policy more likely. I argue here that there are five key elements which increase the translatability of science into conservation policy: evidence, relevance, practicality, collaboration and long-term mind-set.

1. Evidence: Strong scientific evidence

2. Relevance: Focussing on issues that are relevant to policy makers, economically and

3. Practicality: Policy must take into account ethical/ cultural considerations to make it practical

4. Collaboration: Scientists must develop relationships with policy makers

5. Long-term mind-set

These key elements work to ensure that the scientists and policy makers contribute successfully to conservation policy. With estimates that only 30% of all previous conservation policy has yielded successful outcomes, it is imperative that these elements are understood and incorporated into the scientific and policy making process in order to produce more successful outcomes.

1. Evidence: Strong scientific-evidence

Strong scientific evidence is a key element in the translation of science into conservation policy as it is otherwise ignored or leads to poor policy decisions. The science should be conducted using iterative methods (Figure 1) which highlight and focus on monitoring both during the study and afterwards; the science component of policy making should not stop once the policy has been made. An instance where monitoring has stopped and consequently led to failure of a conservation policy is the instance of Saiga-Antelope in Kazakhstan. In the early 1990s governments encouraged Saiga hunting as a means to protect native rhinos as their horns were an alternative medicinal-product. Following the collapse of the Soviet Union however, monitoring of Saiga populations ceased, but the hunting did not, resulting in a 97% decline in the population. Examples such as this demonstrate the need to maintain scientific activity despite policy being in place to maintain the success of conservation policies.

Given the fact that not all scientists follow robust scientific procedure as described above, one solution to contribute to a more successful policy is a systematic review of the literature; used in order to gain a wider perspective than a single study (Figure 2). These reviews evaluate/weight studies according to the strength of evidence they offer, proportional to the study size and rigour. This can be demonstrated by the instance of the alarmist paper on insect declines published in 2019 by scientists who were un-educated on the issue (Sanchez- Bayo), claiming that 40% of insects may be extinct in the next few decades. At least seven papers were published challenging this method and conducting independent literature reviews which demonstrated the absurdity of the claims. If policy was based on this type of science, it would lead to negative outcomes and reduced scientific confidence. It is important therefore that the science is reviewed and robust to ensure it is well translated into policy.

2. Relevance: Focussing on issues that are relevant to policy makers

Whilst scientific integrity is vital to gain the attention of policy makers, if the science is not relevant to something with a solution in policy, it is not translatable. One of the overarching features of science which often influences policy is that it has an anthropocentric view; presenting science in a which demonstrates direct impacts on humans is more likely to be included in policy. This can be demonstrated by the popularity of ‘ecosystem services’-based papers in articles including COP25 and IPCC reports. Ecosystem services relate directly to what the environment provides for humans. One instance where policy has failed due to lack of anthropocentrism is in major international interventions to stop whaling in Japan; due to the fact that there are no measurable ecosystem-service consequences of removing whales, there is little incentive for governments to act to stop it. Presenting the science in an anthropocentric way is therefore a key element to translating the science into conservation policy.

3. Practicality: Policy must take into account ethical/ cultural considerations to make it practical

Another way in which science has not been effectively translated into conservation policy historically is through lack of practicality; scientists have often not been sensitive to global situations, leading to them suggesting changes which are not compatible with communities, and therefore unlikely to be incorporated into policy. An example of where failure to understand local culture has led to conservation policy failure is the case of policy in the Ba-Vì-National-Park, to reduce footfall to reduce impacts on biodiversity; this policy emphasised conservation at the expense of local livelihoods, leading to corruption as local officials colluded with National-Park authorities to monopolise resources and control villagers. The land became a site of conflict between villagers, local-officials and government and no measurable changes to the impacts on biodiversity. It should therefore be key in the translation of science to policy that practical considerations are made, including local interests being included in the design and implementation of policy.

4. Collaboration: Scientists must develop relationships with policy makers

Thus far, I have discussed key elements which are mainly the responsibility of the scientists, however, policy makers too are essential to the successful translation of science into policy; a relationship between the scientific and policy making parties should be developed. In instances where international governments are involves, collaboration becomes increasingly important. This can be demonstrated by the efforts of the RSPB in Syria, to protect the Sociable-Lapwing. Nest-monitoring and ringing-experiments showed a decline in the bird population, and the cause was determined to be hunting activity, taking place in Syria, during the Lapwing’s migration to Europe. In a country with political challenges such as war, governments are often less sensitive to conservation issues. Relationships with officials are therefore instrumental in the efforts to getting science into policy. This instance was successful, with education including an Arabic version of information pages on the birds contributing to its success. In this way, the relationships and personal understanding contributed to the success, demonstrating that collaborations are key in the translation of science into policy.

5. Long-term mind set

A key element which underlies each of those described above is that they must all maintain a long-term perspective to ensure success. Short-sightedness leads to discount-value mindsets and is unlikely to achieve sustainable outcomes. An example of where having a short- sighted mindset has led to conservation policy failure is the case of governmental support of oil palm as a substitute for other fuel- and food-products following scientific suggestions of biofuel effectiveness. This lacked long-term mindset as there was little consideration of how this policy could lead to expansion. The increased popularity of the product in European countries led to wide-scale agricultural expansion/intensification using unsustainable techniques. These impacts extend to 81% losses in forest species in oil-pall plantations (Fayle et al 2009), as well as >90% loss of regional Orangutan habitats. These failures highlight how essential it is that scientists and policy makers think with a long-term perspective to successfully translate science into conservation policy.

Whilst here I have considered mainly the direct translation of science into policy, there are alternative ways in which science can lead to policy change. Conservation groups such as Green Peace and WWF; these groups have translated the findings of scientific studies into campaigns to influence international treating and conventions such as COP-climate-conferences. Their efforts are based on science, and by gaining substantial support from the public, they are able to put pressure on governments to change. An example of success through these techniques is the WWF-Virunga campaign, which successfully lobbied for the banning of oil-extraction in the Congo and contributed to a number of policy changes regarding resource extraction in protected reserves across Africa. These uses of science can therefore also contribute to successful translation into policy, although are less used.

In conclusion, the key elements required to make science translatable into policy are ultimately context dependent; solutions should not be prescriptive with which elements are needed or how they should be achieved. Nevertheless, ensuring that the scientific evidence is strong, suggested changes are relevant and practical and that there is effective collaboration between scientists and policy makers with a long-term perspective, are key elements which will contribute to increased translatability. With so few conservation-based policies having succeeded historically, compounded by the fact that threats to conservation are increasing, it is important that substantial efforts are made to increase the successful incorporation of science into policy. Recent papers highlight the importance of politics in conservation (Cabin 2018), suggesting that increasingly, values and politics underlie environmental issues and scientific inquiry may be inherently unsuitable to resolve these issues; the future success of conservation might instead depend on more political than scientific progress; re-iterating the importance of effective translation of science into conservation policy.


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