The Pacific Exchange - Road to my PhD

PhD Research

Effective conservation and natural resource management requires strong connections between science, governance and practice. Unfortunately, we’re not very good at make those connections – we tend to think about these things as conceptually very different, people who work in each of these areas speak a different language, they don’t really speak to each other enough, they use different theories and methods and often struggle to find the time, resources or capacity to work towards doing things differently.  Yet for all this talk of a ‘divide/gap/chasm’ between science and practice, science actually diffuses with practice in strange and mysterious ways. The more we think about and talk about ‘the gap’ the harder it is to find the language and approaches to do things differently. We want simple solutions to complex problems and just hope that if we communicate more, find the right prototype we’ll be able to match these different actors neatly together. Sometimes it works, but a lot of the time it doesn’t.

Scientists often use metaphors or create narratives or stories to make complex problems more digestible to policy makers and the general public. The “hole” in ozone layer is one of the more obvious ones, labelling non-native species as alien or invasive species is slightly more subtle. These narratives and metaphors often conceal a normative position and often disguise description with prescription. My PhD explored one of these narratives that has come to dominate in conservation policy and practice in Australia and North America. Over the past couple of decades, conservation scientists have been documenting how isolated ‘postage stamp’ sized protected areas are like ‘islands’ of habitat surrounded by a ‘hostile’ sea of development, agriculture and urbanisation.

If we are to save biodiversity, so the narrative goes, we need to get better at looking after the lands in between protected areas. To ‘connect them up’ so that the species living within protected areas can move about the landscape. The problem is that the land between protected areas is owned by lots of different people and managed for lots of different purposes. This diversity is actually also part of the problem for biodiversity – fragmented management = fragmented landscapes. We might like to draw lines on maps to say that this land is for agriculture and this for conservation, but until we label it to be this way the landscape doesn’t know the difference. Like all good stories, this narrative ends with a policy prescription: collaborate to overcome ecological, social and institutional fragmentation. So off a bunch of people go and now they are trying to use collaboration to get the different agencies, individuals and groups working in a region to do good things for biodiversity.

What was it about that chasm between science and practice? This narrative is based in conservation science and it has changed conservation policy and practice. It might not be the way that some scientists expected it would, it is messy and complex, particularly when you start trying to collaborate with lots of people who have lots of different ideas. That, in a nutshell is what my PhD looked at: how these ‘science narratives’ inspired collaboration across very large landscapes and the struggles of these groups to link science, governance and practice. I looked at two cases: an emerging initiative in Australia: Habitat 141 and a longstanding case in North America, the Yellowstone to Yukon Conservation initiative. They are voluntary  initiatives that draw on the science narrative to inspire public, private and civil society actors to align their conservation planning and action.

Beyond the similar science narrative, the cases based in different motivations which where met with different responses. Y2Y largely focused on science-based advocacy to create a chain of protected areas to conserve large carnivores and wilderness. They funded significant scientific research to legitimise their vision for the Northern Rockies, however, this vision was not popular with the extractive industries and communities living within the landscape. The backlash against Y2Y’s vision tends to dominate the popular perception of the initiative, detracting from the substantial work done to promote  cross-border collaboration between Canadian and American conservationists and pioneer a model for collaborative conservation across large landscapes. In the Australian context, the connectivity narrative draws on a long history of landholder driven collaborative conservation efforts to promote an approach to conservation that would provide social, ecological and economic benefits to local communities. With a powerful narrative inspiring change, connectivity conservation in Australia has progressed significantly, despite these critiques from some academic ecologists questioning the scientific legitimacy of the narrative. However Habitat 141 faced significant challenges in turning support for their vision into a governance framework that would unite public, private and civil society actors operating in the landscape. The initiative became bogged down in ‘collaborative inertia’ in part due to an inability to reconcile fundamentally different perspectives on what constitutes a legitimate approach to turn their collaborative vision into action.


The principle governance challenge these cases faced was to develop mechanisms to align the efforts of diverse actors across the landscape. Their narratives promise a conservation vision based in rigorous landscape-scale science, yet the wanted to pair this with local-scale decision making and action. Conservation planning and action in both cases is roughly segmented into three scales: the local, regional and supra-regional. Planning forums at the regional scale provide space for local actors to come together to collectively determine conservation priorities and actions for their landscapes. However, shortfalls in funding and capacity prevented both cases from developing strong connections between the different planning forums and the broader decision-making at the supra-regional scales. Neither case wants to dictate action from above or force actors to comply with rules and regulations so the initiatives rely on voluntary participation based on the idea that their conservation visions will inspire people or organisations to participate. However, without a top down directive, or market based driver, both cases found themselves in a ‘coordination challenge’, struggling to link actors across sectors and scales. Without effective relationships between actors operating across these large landscapes, both cases faced challenges to their legitimacy.

These challenges of coordination and legitimacy provide a unique opportunity to explore the relationship between science and governance. The connectivity narrative indicates a strong connection between science and governance, however when it came to putting the narrative into practice, this tight connection came undone. In part, I attribute this to the way that we think about, and conceptually separate, science from governance. When these are viewed as distinct entities rather than understood in relation to one another, the struggle to bring the two into alignment in practice is unsurprising really. Without effective relationships between knowledge-making and decision-making, Habitat 141 and Y2Y are yet to reach their full potential. Effective conservation science, governance and practice will emerge from building stronger connections between these domains.

My PhD proposes a move beyond simplistic ideas of building a bridge over the chasm, to re-conceptualise science and governance a symmetrical. This comes from understanding how the context of governance shapes the ability of scientific information, planning or prioritisation to be put into practice and vice versa. A critical component of governance then becomes building the relationships and capacity to link knowledge with action. The idea is to internalise this connection between knowledge and action as part of the  process of governance from the outset. The hope then is that a more effective practice can emerge from building relationships that capitalise on the diverse capacities of those involved with the science, governance or practice of conservation.