Balancing research and service to decision makers

Each one of us became an ecologist for reasons that are personal and entangled in our individual histories. Like many researchers, our fascination with the planet’s living things, their habitats, and the processes that link them inspired us to choose careers as ecologists and climate scientists over anything else. Many of our colleagues are fortunate to spend their entire careers studying nature, generating knowledge by doing science, as academics or otherwise. But whether the scientific focus is on fires or frogs, lemurs or landscapes, there is an increasing need not just for pure science, and not just for applied science, but for translational science. Society benefits from knowing how the world works. And on a rapidly changing planet, scientists increasingly bear a responsibility to present science in ways that are directly useful for, and are even produced with, those who face decisions in complex, real-world situations.

The three of us deliberately focus our research efforts on decision contexts of resource managers, at the expense of studying only the species and environments that drew us into science in the first place. We now work as translational scientists in a boundary organization (the DOI Climate Science Center Network) that is embedded within a science agency (USGS) where publications are the primary professional currency. Translational science means becoming part of a community of practice and working collaboratively to solve problems that have real implications for people and the resources on which they depend. Despite the associated personal and professional sacrifices, we believe our efforts are needed more doing translational work at the boundary between science and management practice than at the theoretical frontiers of our fields. Translational science often involves making basic and applied science more useful and useable in real-world, sometimes high-risk, decisions. That requires creativity, and each decision context is unique, so we’re rarely hoeing the same row twice. Furthermore, translational science necessarily regards people as fundamental to any system, and therefore fundamental both to framing problems and developing solutions. Working with people and their institutions is both challenging and rewarding, equal to or exceeding the creation or adaptation of scientific research. Each of us has been fortunate to work where these motivations merge, and the problems faced by decision makers often lead us to interesting ecological questions and intellectual challenges.

Do we pay a price for our commitment to translational science? Yes, in several ways. First, as practicing scientists, we are evaluated on our publication records. Time spent laying the foundations for good collaborations with resource managers, iteratively adapting relevant research to a decision context, and providing stakeholder support is time that could have been spent writing, publishing, and promoting more of our own research. And yet, for translational scientists, part of the creative process is recognizing and pursuing lines of inquiry that arise from those foundations. Fortunately, outlets for publishing translational science are increasing; knowledge co-production and related participatory approaches to knowledge generation provide a context for publications that ecologists would do well to seek out. Second, the need for translation seldom ceases at the end of a funded project, so communicating clearly to stakeholders about assumptions, capacities, and expectations for future work is critical. Sometimes, we must reluctantly say—no—to requests, simply to avoid overextending ourselves. Scientists are used to reallocating effort and resources to emergent, successful projects at the expense of less promising work, but stakeholders are not the same as projects. Instead, translational scientists bear responsibility for – but hopefully ultimately benefit from – continuing investment in collaborative work and working toward decision-relevant results first, with secondary emphasis on traditional journal publications. We also work in positions where we frequently contribute our time to projects funded externally for other purposes, but too many of those can fragment time and effort in unsustainable ways, so we must choose what to work on based on needs, mandated mission, and potential for productivity. A final price has been letting go of what we imagined doing when we were first attracted to ecology. Balancing research with service to stakeholders necessarily requires less time in the field and more time in meeting rooms, less time merely developing better science and more time communicating it more effectively. Given the satisfaction we’ve found, the price of doing translational science seems a fair trade for the work we thought we’d be doing. We haven’t lost that fascination with the natural world; instead, we’ve found a meaningful way to work in service of nature by helping others use science to navigate the no-analog future we face.


Littell, J. S., Terando, A. J., & Morelli, T. L.. 2017. Balancing research and service to decision makers. Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment. 15(10): 598-598. DOI: 10.1002/fee.1739.