Research Article: Conflicting demands and shifts between policy and intra-scientific orientation during conservation research programmes

Date Published: March 15, 2017

Publisher: Springer Netherlands

Author(s): Thomas Ranius, Jörgen Rudolphi, Anna Sténs, Erland Mårald.


Conservation scientists must meet the sometimes conflicting demands of policy and science, but not necessarily at the same time. We analysed the policy and intra-scientific orientations of research projects on effects of stump extraction on biodiversity, and found shifts over time associated with these demands. Our results indicate that uncertainties related to both factual issues and human decisions are often ignored in policy-oriented reports and syntheses, which could give misleading indications of the reliability or feasibility of any conclusions. The policy versus intra-scientific orientation of the scientific papers generated from the surveyed projects varied substantially, although we argue that in applied research, societal relevance is generally more important than intra-scientific relevance. To make conservation science more socially relevant, there is a need for giving societal relevance higher priority, paying attention to uncertainties and increasing the awareness of the value of cross-disciplinary research considering human decisions and values.

Partial Text

Research in conservation science has a more complex context than research in basic ecology, since conservation issues are mission driven and often have profound implications for both socio-economic and natural systems (Soulé 1985; Mace 2014). Thus, researchers must work in the interface between policy and science, addressing the sometimes conflicting demands associated with both domains. As scientists, they are trained to value scientific ideals such as objectivity and freedom from political and economic influence in order to maintain scientific integrity (Horton et al. 2015). However, the major objective of conservation science is to provide tools and strategies for preserving biodiversity (Soulé 1985). Thus, many conservation scientists want their research findings to be beneficial in the real world, and the relevant authorities require knowledge that will assist decision-making.

In forested countries, forest biomass could potentially be an important renewable energy source. In Sweden, biomass from forests is already extensively used, but according to governmental goals its use should be further increased (Government Offices of Sweden 2009). The extraction of logging residues (branches, tops, and stumps) after harvesting has been discussed and implemented to varying degrees during at least the last four decades (Edwards and Lacey 2014). In the 1970s, the use of logging residues was expected to mitigate effects of the energy crises, increase employment in rural areas, and improve “hygiene” in forests by reducing amounts of dead wood (e.g. Högström et al. 1978). More recently, it has been advocated to assist efforts to mitigate climate change, but in stark contrast to the 1970s and 1980s there are now major concerns about the low amounts of dead wood in Swedish forests, due to its importance for biodiversity. The Swedish government has formulated a goal to maintain viable populations of all native species, many of which depend on dead wood (de Jong et al. 2012). This means that the most relevant response variable from a conservation perspective is the viability of species at a large spatial scale, but the effect of current management regimes on species viability is expected to be visible only after several decades (Johansson et al. 2016).

We analysed the policy and intra-scientific orientation in documents from research programmes about consequences of stump extraction on biodiversity. The analysis involved assessing all documents available by 1 April 2016 that were produced in two research programme rounds. Some documents were still not available at that time (including the synthesis for the second round) although the last programme officially ended in 2015. The research programmes (initiated in 2007 and 2011) are the only Swedish programmes including biodiversity-related research on stump harvest. The Swedish Energy Agency and other funding sources have also financed relevant projects outside these programmes, but they were not included in our analysis.

The analyses showed that there was a shift between policy and intra-science orientation over time during the research programmes (Fig. 1). In the first call (in which more aspects than only biodiversity were considered), three goals were formulated: (i) “Methods for efficient and sustainable forest management for increased production of forest bioenergy should be developed”, (ii) “Strategies and methods for energy production from intensively managed forest should be developed”, and (iii) “The level for acceptable, sustainable outtake of forest biofuels should be clarified” [translated from Swedish] (Swedish Energy Agency 2007, p. 3). Thus, all goals clearly stated a demand for policy relevant research. The third goal implied a need for quantitative data on critical thresholds that could be used by policymakers. However, there were clearly shifts towards intra-scientific orientation in the accepted applications and the following scientific publications. In all except one application and one report, the researchers avoided attempts to quantify acceptable levels of biofuel harvesting, which was a key policy issue. According to this application, data would be analysed to provide “thresholds for how many stumps that should be left after stump harvest to avoid negative impacts on wood living organisms” (Swedish Energy Agency, Dnr 2012-002817), while in the report (which was for a different project), it was stated that “an outtake of 50% of the available bioenergy wood should be completely acceptable from a biodiversity point of view since it gives small negative effects on wood-living flora and fauna” [translated from Swedish] (final report to the Swedish Energy Agency, project 35217-1).Fig. 1The level of policy and intra-scientific orientation in the examined documents (see text for details) from two research programmes on effects of harvesting tree stumps on biodiversity. The bars show the policy versus intra-scientific orientation (i.e. policy orientation minus intra-scientific orientation), the upper whisker the policy orientation and the lower whisker the intra-scientific orientation (multiplied with −1). All are mean values for categories of documents as measured by the scale in Table 1

The present behaviour of conservation scientists is a result of culture, and especially universities, funding sources, and leading scientists are able to modify and in the long term change this culture. Modern conservation biology took important developmental steps about 40 years ago (Noss 1999). Many conservation scientists were initially trained in pure ecology, zoology, or botany (Noss 1999) and their scientific ideals are currently rooted in these disciplines, even though their personal motivation may be to contribute to biodiversity conservation. However, conservation problems have wider societal contexts than purely biological or ecological problems, and their solution requires broader competence, including understanding of relevant aspects of political sciences, economics, and humanities (Jacobson and McDuff 1998). This has become pronounced to an increasing extent over time, since conservation science has changed from focusing on the protection of intact natural habitats to including a wider variety of attitudes to nature, also recognizing the dynamic relationship between people and nature (Mace 2014). As more scientists receive a broader education in conservation science, the conservation science community will become more self-confident to develop its own research ideals. To justify the existence of conservation science as a distinct discipline, it has to be relevant for society. Therefore, societal relevance should become a more important criterion than intra-scientific relevance when evaluating conservation science research programmes. It is also important for conservation scientists to be good at understanding, integrating and communicating different types of uncertainties. In addition, more attention should be paid to cross-disciplinary research and synthesis efforts.




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