In 2010 I went to my first International Congress of Conservation Biology (ICCB) in Edmonton Alberta, the bi-annual meeting hosted by the Society for Conservation Biology (SCB). At this stage of my PhD I was exploring how the values embedded in conservation science shape conservation practice. Armed with this perspective I set out in part to observe how conservation biologists navigate this hazy relationship between science and values. Growing up with geologist parents and spending much of my childhood playing in the Australian bush, I am a passionate advocate of the conservation agenda. But as a social scientist, I’ve always be a little intrigued by how scientists’ values shape the delivery of their message when they promote biodiversity conservation.

I was joined at the Edmonton meeting by four students from the conservation biology and landscape ecology group at the Fenner School. We all started together our PhDs at around the same time, had offices on the same floor and were working in conservation. Being somebody who studies conservation through words rather than numbers, I was always a little different from them. We would joke about ‘real science’ and ‘real scientists’ but really our research looks at the same ecological processes, I just use different tools. All of our work was in some way related to current conservation policy in Australia: during the time of our PhD’s three policy agendas of relevance to our topics advanced in the Australian policy cycle. We all contributed to the policy process in some way, yet I would never have viewed our work as ‘advocacy’.

Conservationists and their campaigns have a somewhat checkered ethical past. The first national parks in America were guarded by the military to keep the people out; translating this fortress protected area model around the globe had disastrous implications in local communities living near charismatic wildlife; global warming is interpreted in some places as an imperialist agenda to prevent the developing world reach first world living standards. But conservation is coming of age – or at least I hope it is – in its embrace of the social sciences. It is now well into the next stage of its intellectual development, advocating for conservation that is good for people and nature.  Conservation biology conferences have always intrigued me because of the paradox this presents in my identity: I believe in what they are advocating for, I’m just not sure if I always agree on how they promote their science and their message.

The Edmonton meeting had a stream of presentations on science and advocacy and science and policy. Some good, some bad, but on the whole there were very few references to the extensive body of work in science and technology studies, or science studies. This was a notable absence to me, given that some of this work, I would argue presents a pretty helpful picture of how science affects policy, politics and practice. There were policy sciences folks and sociologists but really the science policy conversation was dominated by, I hate say it, old white men, telling stories about the time the planets aligned and they magically influenced policy. Alongside these stories was the worn out debate about whether conservation biologists should be ‘advocating’ for their science; or whether, by stepping into policy debates they were undermining their credibility as scientists.

The intersection of science and these more value-laden questions about how we should live in the world is a preoccupation of conservation biology and of science studies. Given that historically we have viewed science as ‘objective’, ‘impartial’ and ‘removed from politics’ these are important debates to have, but it is time to move on. While conservation biologists are still drudging up conversations about whether we can or should be advocates, science studies has moved into generating a far more nuanced interpretations of the multiple and mysterious ways that science influences policy and practice. Yet despite being able to make a significant contribution to the progress of the conservation agenda, these mature interpretations were largely absent from the Edmonton (and subsequent) ICCB.

Ah yes, back to the Edmonton meeting. Australian landscape ecologists have a very different take on the relationship between conservation science and policy. We’re a smaller group of scientists, policy makers and practitioners, we don’t use litigation to progress our conservation agenda, and we haven’t got the monolithic Federal bureaucratic agencies like the Forest Service, the National Park and the Bureau of Land management looking after 1/3 of our continent. As people who ‘do’ conservation biology rather that ‘study’ conservation biology these sociological differences new to my friends who were, like me, at a North American ICCB meeting for the first time. Our discussions over beer one night highlight the problem with the primarily framing the relationship between science, policy and practice through the lens of advocacy.

“Where is the science?” one of my friends said, “It is either modeling or talk of advocacy and policy, very few studies of the characteristics of the landscapes.” She uses her scientific understanding of reserve networks to help policy makers determine which bits of a remnant reserve network should be sold and which turned into national parks. Another asked, “Do I really have to be an advocate for my science?” For him, he is just really fascinated by the system he studies and doesn’t want to have to think about campaigning against global biodiversity decline. Another felt that he would “lose my credibility if I speak out in policy, my science is objective.” We debated the nature of objectivity and whether in conservation this was really possible, and whether just ‘doing good science’ was enough to make change in the world. But during that conversation it was clear that we were all using our science in the service of what I would lump as #makingtheworldabetterplace.

We represent the spectrum of ways that scientists and science interacts with policy. Rodger Pielke Jr has distilled this into four roles/models for scientists/science in policy and politics: the pure scientist – my friend who didn’t want to be engaged in campaigns about biodiversity decline; the science arbiter – my friend concerned about objectivity, the honest broker – my friend who wants to use her understanding of how the landscapes function as a way to speak policy the issue advocate – this is where most of the focus of SCB is. I still haven’t quite figured out where I fit into this model: I study how science influences policy and practice. so I guess my agenda is improving those relationships, which would make me an issue advocate in some ways and an honest broker in others. The point that Pielke makes is that scientists have choices in how they engage with policy and that there is more than one way to skin a cat.

Ann Keller’s thesis on these roles of science/scientists focuses how on the interests, personalities and nature of their research shapes the different roles scientists play in policy, politics and practice. Her other useful insight breaks down the stages of how science and policy interact; showing that science plays different kinds of roles and uses different kinds of knowledge along the way. The knowledge we use when we are first exploring and understanding a new phenomenon is very different to how knowledge is used in a court room, which is different again from the way we use knowledge to manage landscapes which is different again from how science helps us to restore degraded landscapes.

In my own PhD, the people I worked with used science a number of ways, however they only occasionally spoke of science influencing policy, politics or practice in ways that matches the ‘rational’ linear model. The linear model depicts objective science passed onto passive implementors, which is applied as the scientists intended it too, to achieve the kinds of outcomes they expect. The practitioners staring in my PhD used science to create an agenda and inspiration for action, to communicate messages about how our understandings of landscape functions have changed; to provide confidence in a course of action; to monitor the outcomes of action; to provide evidence in litigation and many more. Advocacy was just one part of getting conservation outcomes and I often feel like this more nuanced perspective is lacking in the way that the debates at ICCBs shape the conversation about ‘science’ and ‘advocacy’.


As my train rolled out of Baltimore, my head feeling somewhat hazy after the conference dinner, I was reflecting on my four days of interactions with 1500 conservation practitioners from around the world. Okay, so I didn’t directly interact with all of them, more like meeting osmosis, picking up on the energy and inspiration from getting a bunch of people passionate about conservation in the same place. The theme of the meeting was  integrating across stakeholders and disciplines, something that I’ve always thought SCB should be doing more of so it was great to see this as the theme.

In Auckland two years ago there was a lot less talk of advocacy and a lot more about how to apply conservation knowledge in various aspects of practice – something I largely attribute to the dominance of Australians, New Zealanders and practitioners at the conference. We just have a slightly different take on how this works, a perspective that has a lot to offer SCB (but that is a post for another day). Balitomore was probably half way in between Auckland and Edmonton. I went to some great sessions about applying conservation knowledge in practice (I even heard people use science studies jargon) and there was a diversity of social science, policy and planning sessions – some with standing room only – and the pleanaries were about fostering a more ethnically diverse SCB, media training and a talk on citizen science.

The plenary that inspired the title of this post “Why is advocacy such a four letter word for scientists?” was mixed. We were inspired by Tyrone Hayes, who, through telling his story, asked the provocative question of “when does science become environmental justice?”. Hayes researches the implications of atrizine, a common agricultural chemical, on the reproductive organisms of frogs. To cut a long – and very interesting story short – this chemical changes the gender of frogs and causes significant increases in cancer among people exposed. The most exposed populations in the US happen to be Latino agricultural workers without visas, rights or access to medical insurance. He published scientific papers about this, and before he even became an ‘advocate’ the chemical companies were out to discredit him. Through this process he realised that it wasn’t enough to just ‘let the science speak for itself’. He summed his message up through the following Einstein quote:

“Those who have the privilege to know, have the responsibility to act.” 

I was moved by his presentation. It was a classic case of a science arbiter switching roles to become an issue advocate. After Hayes we heard from Dominick DeSalla, Stuart Pimm and Francesca Grifo who put forward various perspectives on science and advocacy. DeSalla told us to frame our questions around policy questions, Pimm said that SCB is functioning on a false definition of advocacy and Grifo told us not to give up, that our science can make a difference, we just have to be clear about when it is “science” and when it is our “opinions”. Basically they told us to do good science, maybe change a few things around the edges, work really hard and then disseminate that knowledge in diverse channels. DeSalla’s direction to frame research questions around policy problems aside, their perspectives were still largely dominated by a perspective that David Cash and his colleagues have identified as a “loading dock” where scientists leave their knowledge for others to come and pick up, absolving their responsibility for participating in the implementation of that knowledge.

Conservation biologists are desperate to improve the uptake of their knowledge, they are on a mission to change the trajectory of biodiversity decline. Some of this mission is shared, sometimes it raises major ethical questions about the implications for the communities living where they work, sometimes it directly opposes powerful interests, and sometimes willing communities are doing incredible things to protect and restore their backyard. Conservation science influences practice in a multitude of ways, but rarely in the ‘rational way’ scientists think. One glance at the growing list of threatened and endangered species suggests that it doesn’t happen often enough. This is the famous “implementation crisis”, where decades of good science has had limited impact on biodiversity decline. Many of the science studies folks have spent a lot of time studying and thinking about what happens when science intersects with policy, politics and practice. This thinking sometimes graces the pages of the SCB’s journal, Conservation Biology, but not enough. These folks experts in the field of understanding how to improve the uptake of knowledge in action. Maybe it is time for SCB to embrace more of their theories and perspectives, who knows we might learn something new?