I spent a week in Washington DC about two weeks before the government shutdown. Part of my conservation science postdoc fellowship involves professional development retreats and this winter we were in DC for policy training. Over three days, panels of government scientists, NGO staff, and legislative staffers repeated this message: publishing peer-reviewed papers is not enough to impact policy. I remember sitting at the bar one evening and lamenting the standard “these results suggest conservation managers should…” sentence near the end of each of my dissertation chapters. As early-career scientists, we all felt a little stuck — what could we do to make our research more policy-relevant and accessible?
Well, for one, we could write papers with non-academic coauthors.
A recent study in Biological Conservation reports that papers with non-academic coauthors better link conservation genetics and genomics research to policy and conservation outcomes. Britt et al. assert that conservation genetics faces an application crisis: while many peer-reviewed publications tout the importance of conservation genetics, there has been limited integration of genetic data into management. Dr. Aaron Shafer at Trent University speculated that this “conservation genetics gap” was not a case of managers lacking access to expertise and funding, but driven instead by academics under pressure to publish who were framing genetic studies in conservation buzzwords. He thought the swell of conservation genetics in the literature might not match the needs of managers on the ground — thus, managers reading the peer-reviewed lit would be unlikely to find relevant conservation genetics research, and instead focus limited resources on old school methods like radio-collaring. Shafer shared this hunch with an undergrad and she hit the ground running — lead author Meghan Britt led a meta-analysis of conservation genetic and genomic studies to uncover the causes behind the conservation research-implementation gap.
Britt and Shafer’s paper, ‘The importance of non-academic coauthors in bridging the conservation genetics gap,’ found three thought-provoking trends after reviewing 300 publications. First, the majority of these papers were focused on “species of low conservation concern or species yet to be assessed.” So, conservation genetics was often centered on species that were not top priorities according the IUCN RedList or NatureServe. Second, less than 40% of the papers contained specific conservation recommendations. They write, “an article was ranked as having a specific conservation recommendation if there was a clear course of action suggested, stated implementation methods, or policy changes that were advocated for.” The generic “we propose maintaining genetic diversity of the species to ensure long-term viability” did not count: there’s no clear or readily transferable application. Finally, a non-academic coauthor was associated with a 2.5-fold increase in the odds of a publication making a specific recommendation. Basically, non-academic coauthors seem to bring a heightened understanding of policy and on-the-ground needs to conservation genetics projects, and the result is a more management-forward paper.
I’m not a geneticist, so I asked Shafer, isn’t this just good practice for conservation research in general? Shouldn’t we all seek out non-academic collaborations if we want our research to have real-world applications? His answer: Yes!
“We try to get out of the bubble, but it’s hard. We need to make that effort. We don’t know the regulations and laws. There are people that understand these organisms on the ground, stakeholders who live with these animals. We think that we are always the knowledge providers, but really it is a two-way street.”
Shafer has a long history of working with Alaska Fish and Game, dedicating many years to building good relationships with researchers and managers. I asked if these collaborations might also alleviate another side of the conservation genetics-implementation gap by increasing managers’ access to expertise and funding. He sees a lot of benefits for management in these partnerships: “Arguably we have more freedom on the academic side to try different protocols, whereas it’s more rigid for management, and our flexibility can help bridge this. But, to have real world impact it needs to be guided by the managers.” He noted that academics often wear blinders to the on-the-ground needs of managers or the policy implications of their work. “In academia we can have samples in the freezer and yet we’ve never seen that animal in the wild.” We often think of the “gap” in conservation implementation as a fault of managers and policy-makers not listening to the science, but it is unrealistic and out of touch to see the gap is as a part of a linear model of conservation scientists delivering the empirical solutions.*
Finally this paper made me think about Erdős numbers. In academia, a person’s Erdős number is a Kevin-Bacon-like metric of the “collaborative distance” between themselves and prolific mathematician Paul Erdős. Instead of counting the number of co-stars between yourself and Kevin Bacon, you count the number of coauthors between yourself and Paul Erdős. Stephen Heard recently blogged a bit about his absurdly low Erdős number. Since Heard is an ecologist, and Erdős was a mathematician, this low number shows the cross-disciplinary reach of their work. But, Britt’s paper led me to wonder if conservation scientists need a new Erdős number. What if we scored our collaborations outside of academia, or thought of a clever name for collecting coauthors from different agencies, from different levels of government, or from a range of NGOs? What if we celebrated these partnerships with the same cute, tongue-in-cheek competition that we do for Erdős numbers? I wrote one paper with an NGO during my master’s and my dissertation committee includes a National Park Service employee, so I think my “Britt Number” is a solid 2.
Britt, M., Haworth, S.E., Johnson, J.B., Martchenko, D. and Shafer, A.B., 2018. The importance of non-academic coauthors in bridging the conservation genetics gap. Biological Conservation, 218, pp.118-123.
*For more on how to conceptualize the space between conservation research and implementation, I recommend Toomey et al.’s paper ‘Navigating the Space between Research and Implementation in Conservation‘ in Conservation Letters. Britt et al. consistently describe the ‘conservation genetics implementation gap‘ but Toomey has me now questioning is this a gap? what is a gap? which is kind of a weird but rewarding rabbit hole.