Guest blog post by Kennedy “Ned” Rubert-Nason, Caitlin Mandeville and Kirsten Schwarz
Global change is an immediate, accelerating threat to humanity, and its impacts are perpetuated by human activities. Changes such as climate warming, landscape alteration, pollution, resource extraction and depletion, extreme events, biodiversity loss, and spreading of invasive species including diseases, threaten the natural environment and human society. The consequences of these changes are often disproportionately borne by people who have the least political representation. Despite tremendous investment in research aimed at understanding and developing technological solutions to global change threats, implementing effective science-based solutions remains a major challenge.
An article just published in the open-access, peer-reviewed journal Rethinking Ecology explores how translational science, or the process of putting basic research and technological development into use, can bring about the changes in human behavior that are critical to guiding humanity toward a sustainable future. The engine that drives translational science is a theory of change, or strategic plan, which identifies a global change threat, ties it to a goal (usually eliminating or adapting to the threat), and lays out specific actions needed to achieve that goal along with indicators of success. A theory of change that aims to bring about social and structural changes, as required to address global change threats, must embrace relationship-building, collaboration, engagement, commitment, communication, trust, inclusion, equity, transparency, process, and decision framing.
To overcome global change threats, ecologists and other scientists need to prioritize building partnerships with communities that help bring science into practice. These partnerships are critically needed to combat misinformation, build public trust in science, bring about equitable and evidence-informed policies that are accountable to communities’ priorities, and empower people to respond effectively to challenges posed by climate change, pollution, landscape change, extreme events and pandemics.
The authors of the paper identified four priority areas for ecologists to engage in translational science:
- forging partnerships,
- garnering public support,
- building strong communities,
- and protecting natural resources.
While fundamental research remains vital, there needs to be greater emphasis on the communication, policy, education, leadership and role modeling dimensions that help bring the findings from that research into practice. Interdisciplinary scientists like ecologists are particularly well-suited to this line of work, although they can face barriers such as inadequate training, time, funding and institutional support. Lowering these barriers, and creating a culture that values science-based solutions, must be key priorities in future measures aimed at combating global change threats. Many organizations, including the Union of Concerned Scientists and the Ecological Society of America, provide training and support for ecologists to engage more deeply in translational science.
Rubert-Nason K, Casper AMA, Jurjonas M, Mandeville C, Potter R, Schwarz K (2021) Ecologist engagement in translational science is imperative for building resilience to global change threats. Rethinking Ecology 6: 65-92. https://doi.org/10.3897/rethinkingecology.6.64103