Overcoming the barriers to the use of conservation science in policy: time for action

Our open access accepted article on the barriers and solutions to the use of conservation science in policy is now online with Conservation Letters. The main data used in the paper are from a global multi-lingual survey filled in by 758 research scientists, practitioners, or people in policy positions. Do bear with us though – we still need to tidy a little bit of the wording (e.g. last sentence abstract) and add multi-lingual abstracts, the latter of which is such an important thing to do in order to make research more accessible. Stay tuned for the more updated version in a matter of weeks! In the typeset version, the article will be easier to read, as the figures should be in more logical places rather than at the end! We will also be publishing opinion pieces written by several members of the fantastic author team in the near future – hopefully in news outlets all over the world and in several languages! From a personal viewpoint, it has been amazing to work with a diverse list of authors from multiple academic departments and conservation NGOs associated with the Cambridge Conservation Initiative (including the University of Cambridge Conservation Research Institute and the Conservation Leadership programme) in the David Attenborough Building. Collaboration between, and outside of, academic disciplines is really where research should be these days!




The most interesting result from our study is that there is agreement (perhaps surprisingly!) between research scientists, practitioners, and people in policy positions about the main barriers preventing the use of conservation science in policy. Although barriers such as lack of policy relevant science, lack of understanding of science on the part of policy-makers, and limited awareness of policy processes from researchers, featured in the top-ten barriers included in the online survey, they were not the most highly ranked.



Rather, all groups ranked barriers relating to the limited importance of conservation on the policy agenda as most important, as well as the related barrier of lack of funding for science, and finally poor communication between scientists and policy-makers. This suggests that while communication problems, and lack of policy relevance or understanding (less so), are partially to blame for lack of science use, they are not the biggest barriers. Instead, the fact that conservation is not a political priority, or that private sector agendas often dominate and contradict long-term pro-environmental management, seem to be the key reasons why conservation science is not influencing the policy agenda.

Unsurprisingly, therefore, the most pressing solutions identified by our respondents do not relate to the production of more science, but rather to winning the hearts and minds of people (both the public and policy-makers; related!) for the conservation cause. One of our respondents said that this does not mean targeting messages to people already converted to the conservation cause. Instead, we need to be inspiring people who are not currently convinced by the need to conserve our environment, who can then put pressure on policy-makers to make good evidence-informed decisions. In the paper, we speculate about whether we need a new kind of conservation science, as suggested in recent papers, that moves beyond a narrow technical approach towards a more inclusive system that involves people in the co-production of knowledge.


Solutions to top-ranked barriers. Under a CC-BY licence, Rose et al. 2018, see details in first sentence


One personal reflection from this piece of work. The list of barriers and solutions in this paper is really nothing new. The fact that different groups from research, practice, and policy backgrounds seem to agree on what the problems and solutions are may initially seem optimistic. If we all recognise how to overcome the problem of lack of science use, then surely this makes it easier to do something about it. Yes, that seems logical. But, this is one of many papers that identify similar barriers and similar solutions. If the same issues continue to be noted, then would it not suggest that progress isn’t being made? If we all agree on solutions, why haven’t we solved the problems?

I can see two logical reasons. Firstly, perhaps the barriers to science use are just too hard to overcome. Certainly, improving the use of science in policy is challenging in non-linear democracies where it is right that values and other forms of knowledge are included in decision-making. Furthermore, convincing people of the need to conserve the environment long-term is challenging when many are understandably concerned about their own lives in the short-term, and may not see benefits in changing their behaviour. In this case, I do not agree that the challenges are too great to overcome. We can present more convincing, optimistic messages about conservation, which can be persuasive and can make the environment relevant to people’s lives. We can present science in better ways so that it is as easy as possible for policy-makers and practitioners to use it.

The second potential barrier to action may be institutional/organisational/even cultural, and here I will talk about academia because of the nature of this blog platform and my own work. I suspect that many research scientists, policy-makers, and practitioners know about the things they can do to improve the use of science. Research scientists could present evidence in clearer, user-friendly ways, and seek to co-produce knowledge with others. But, do they have time to do this and are they rewarded for it? Perhaps not, although this is changing, but can we find ways of doing it anyway? To some extent, I’m sure we can. There are likely to be many other institutional and organisational barriers elsewhere.

What is clear from this piece of work is that there is agreement on what the problems and solutions are to improve the use of conservation science in policy. It would be nice if another survey in five or ten years’ time didn’t find the same barriers and proposed solutions. For this to be the case, action is required from all of us.

When the full version is published, we will include translated abstracts in several languages in the supplementary material.




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