Beyond Magic: Why SNAP Can Help Us Solve Wicked Problems

Peter Kareiva is chief scientist of The Nature Conservancy and the acting director of Science for Nature and People (SNAP).

Science isn’t magic — although many think it is, including some scientists.

But when the best minds in science come together to find solutions to some of the world’s most wicked problems — and when policymakers, planners, corporations and other key actors are both part of that problem-solving and eager to implement science’s findings — the results could be even better than magical.

They could change the world.

That’s the premise behind the new collaboration Science for Nature and People, and why we’re confident SNAP’s findings will make a huge difference for nature and people across the planet.

It’s important for any scientific collaboration like SNAP — which includes the Conservancy, the Wildlife Conservation Society, and the National Center for Ecological Synthesis and Analysis (NCEAS) — to acknowledge the near-magical allure of science as problem-solver. Anyone who’s been lucky enough to be a research scientist at a world-class laboratory in peak form knows the special feeling from being part of a talented, diverse scientific team attacking common problems with dynamic energy and making breakthroughs — the experience is truly exhilarating.

It is also extraordinarily, extraordinarily rare, especially as a going concern.

Bell Labs certainly had this feeling during its glory days, but that moment is long gone. In any given scientific discipline, a single university might achieve it for a decade or two, but then the excitement fades. At a smaller scale, assembling a research team (as opposed to a “scientific discipline”) to answer a single question can be equally exhilarating — when a group of people with different skills and backgrounds focus on the same question and try to answer it together. But when the question is answered, the team disbands — often with nothing to show for its work than a paper or a report.

The problems conservation and human development face today require much, much more.

We need teams of experts to take on the urgent, complicated questions whose answers could benefit tens of millions — questions such as where natural habitats could make a difference in reducing risk for coastal populations across the globe.

We need those teams to provide rapid answers to those questions — inside 24 months.

And we need their findings not to sit on dusty shelves, but to be deployed as widely as possible in the real world.

Meeting these challenges is SNAP’s mandate.

Fishermen net Salmon in the coastal waters of The Nushagak-Mulchatna watershed of Alaska. Image credit: Ami Vitale.

Fishermen net Salmon in the coastal waters of The Nushagak-Mulchatna watershed of Alaska. Image credit: Ami Vitale.

SNAP provides an infrastructure, a culture, funding and some guidance for teams of scientists, managers, decision makers and human development leaders who gather to tackle dauntingly complicated questions rapidly and fearlessly.

High-caliber science and reporting is key — but not enough. Every SNAP project will be connected to a pathway to making change from the very beginning. SNAP is also about engagement and energy — and creating a space where specialists and non-specialists can see scientists and decision makers grapple with failed orthodoxies and seek new orthodoxies that might work.

SNAP is intentionally not a building, not a center, not tied to one institution. It is also not academic, nor is it an NGO, nor is it a government agency or a multilateral body. Our permanent staff are few, because permanent hires could never be nimble enough to address the myriad questions we will take on — questions such as:

+ After Hurricane Sandy hammered New York City, how much difference could oyster reefs, marshes and sand dunes have made in blunting damage from storm surge? Science still cannot answer that question.

+ In much of the developing world, women have subservient roles and minimal access to education and opportunity. How much more likely would conservation be to succeed if women had prominent roles in community decisions?

+ The natural gas revolution is changing economies and landscapes. But is it also changing watersheds and the prospect of renewable energy in the future?

No university, no matter how great, has the talent to answer these questions on its own. No NGO alone, no matter how large and boastful, can address these questions. No government agency has the capacity to address these wicked problems over a timescale of one to two years.

This is the void SNAP fills. It brings resources and people together from around the world — people who will shed their biases and come up with an answer to a pointed question that is urgent.

In addition, SNAP will jumpstart innovative conservation and development strategies that lead us out of the blind alley of dualism pitting the environment against economic health.

SNAP is an incubator. So, many SNAP projects will fail — if they did not, we would be doing something wrong.

But here is our bold aspiration: In five years, when a tough new question emerges at the interface of human welfare and nature conservation, scientists and leaders will turn to SNAP and say: “That is a perfect SNAP project. Let’s see if we can get SNAP to take it up.”

Everyone should feel welcome to propose a SNAP project. SNAP stretches well beyond the Conservancy, WCS, NCEAS or the new human development partners we will ask to join. And I hope being invited to join a SNAP working group is viewed both as an honor and an opportunity. Projections of empty oceans, treeless continents, or barren shorelines are for our academic journals. SNAP is for solutions.

Ever since my first science fair at age 12, I have thought science could be magical. But SNAP is about more than magic: it is about applying the power and insight of science to some of the most serious problems humankind faces, in ways that can instantly be used, in order to improve our lives and nature at the same time. There is nothing else like it anywhere in the world. Let’s make it succeed.

Learn more about SNAP and read essays from leading scientists on nature and human well-being issues at SNAP Magazine.

Opinions expressed on Cool Green Science and in any corresponding comments are the personal opinions of the original authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Nature Conservancy. 

Posted In: Science

Peter Kareiva is chief scientist at The Nature Conservancy, where he is responsible for developing and helping to implement science-based conservation throughout the organization and for forging new linkages with partners.

In addition to a long academic career, he has worked at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and directed the Northwest Fisheries Science Center Conservation Biology Division. His current projects emphasize the interplay of human land-use and biodiversity, resilience in the face of global change, and marine conservation.

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