Nature Conservancy scientist Eddie Game has two new demanding jobs: lead scientist for the Conservancy’s Asia-Pacific Region, and editor-in-chief of Conservation Letters, one of the sector’s high-impact peer-reviewed science journals.
Having an NGO scientist as journal editor-in-chief is a bit of an outlier for the sector — but so is Letters itself: both completely open access (since early this year) and canted toward relevance for conservation practice and policy.
So what’s the state of conservation science in a time of bad news for science in general? Is open access watering down submissions to Letters, or making them better? And what does it mean for an NGO scientist to get an editorship usually reserved for academics? I checked in with Eddie this week:
Q: I'm having trouble recalling another NGO scientist who's served as editor-in-chief for a major conservation journal. What does this mean, for you and for NGOs?
It’s a very significant recognition — not only that NGO science can be as good as any other science, but that NGO scientists have a unique perspective on how to make science impactful.
To be named a journal editor means you’re well-trained enough to make effective judgements on the written work of your peers — that’s a rarefied role usually reserved for seasoned academics. When the scientific community and a leading publisher [Wiley, the publisher of Conservation Letters] say that a NGO scientist can be an arbiter of what is good conservation science — that’s a big statement for the Conservancy, for conservation science and for academic publishing.
Personally, it’s enormously gratifying and validates the generalist ability that non-profit sector scientists are asked to cultivate. We have to learn a lot of things on the job. But instead of seeing that as stressful, it’s really a privilege — we get to see a lot of different scientific disciplines being activated in a lot of different ways.
In a sense, I feel that non-profits are in some important ways fast-tracking this path [to editorship]. To become editor-in-chief of a journal like Conservation Letters — most of the time you’d have to go through a distinguished academic career to get to this point. The editors-in-chief of the other major conservation journals are real leaders of the field.
Q: Conservation Letters is explicit about wanting to publish research that's practical and relevant for policy and conservation practice. But why a journal for communicating with policy? Is that an effective vehicle for breaking through to policymakers, or just a wish on the part of conservation scientists?
More fundamental than a way to communicate, I see it as a way to shape the science being done and the sort of work that conservation scientists engage in. Publishing and impact factor are the chief currency for academics and I don’t see that changing anytime soon.
We (Conservation Letters and Wiley) are forging new ground here — aiming to have a journal that emphasizes policy and practice relevance but is high impact by academic metrics so that people actually think about Conservation Letters when they’re developing research. So far it seems to be working.
Q: Is that really so pathbreaking — a journal that's high-value science and actually relevant to practice and policy? That's worrying for the rest of conservation publishing.
I agree. My guess is that 90 percent of the research that’s published as conservation science is irrelevant to either policy or practice.
At Letters, we’re trying to make the research we publish worth communicating to policy. We’re doing a couple of things that can be uncomfortable for academics: 1) making them think hard about relevance to policy and practice, and 2) forcing them to write in a short format, not a 6,000-word treatise. I’ve never seen a paper yet that’s been worse off for being cut down to 3,000 words.
I just appointed a social media editor. One of the things I want them to do is to work hard to distill our key messages and push them out hard in a way that fits policymakers better. NGOs have a really key role in translating work from academics to policy and practice. I hope Letters plays a key role by making that job a little easier. There are lots of ways to communicate policy — but fundamentally, you have to have policy relevant research there first.
Q: Science is in a bit of crisis — news of fraud everywhere these days, the inability to replicate studies. Is conservation science getting tarred with this brush? Does it have repair work to do?
When scientists act without integrity it does hurt all forms of science, but overall, conservation science seems to be largely tar-free. This might partly be because as a discipline, conservation science tends to involve less experimentation. I would argue that most conservation studies that do involve experimentation would be incredibly difficult to replicate anyway because they depend so much on the context of the study.
Q: Stronger standards for evidence of conservation effectiveness — that’s something you’ve advocated for over your career at the Conservancy. Are you seeing positive movement in the sector in that regard? What is the standard conservation should be shooting for?
Absolutely seeing positive movement, and we’re seeing a lot more papers being submitted to Conservation Letters that investigate evidence for conservation impact.
Unfortunately, many of the calls for stronger evidence in conservation (including from me) have emphasized uncovering strategies that were not working, which is not particularly motivating for someone directing policy or practice. We seem to forget that evidence also strengthens our stories about what is working. I really believe that it is the stories of success backed by evidence that will sustain conservation, and I’m seeing more and more conservation leaders emphasizing this same side of evidence.
It might sound funny but I don’t actually think there should be a “evidence standard” per se but rather a stronger philosophy around evidence and the use of it.
Q: Meaning what?
I guess I don’t see an evidence standard as that useful. Conservation won’t use it in a go/no-go kind of way. Our strategies tend to be made up of a really complex set of activities, and we won’t decide to do one on some set quality of evidence.
I’d rather see us adopt a philosophy of evidence that involves a really clear articulation of the theory behind a strategy, an assessment of the current evidence, where it’s lacking, and a commitment to strengthen evidence for strategies.
Ultimately, evidence is only one component of whether we decide to do a strategy or not. Even if we show that water funds work well in one situation, that’s not evidence they’ll work well in others. We should be talking about the evidence that does exist as well as the mechanisms we believe will happen if we take an action.
Q: A lot of conservation non-profits seem to be deemphasizing science — laying off staff, dismantling central science units. Is applied conservation science in a crisis institutionally?
I think science funding is in a bit of crises nearly globally. I don’t see it as unique to applied science.
Applied science is at an all-time high in universities (the number of applied conservation courses is astounding, and it’s still growing rapidly), and applied science is certainly faring better than most other science. The fact that the top conservation journal has appointed an NGO scientist as editor-in-chief is a clear nod to both the demand for this science and the respect that the academic community has for NGO scientists.
I think one of the grand challenges for applied science is to make sure it still involves discovery science. I think people are attracted to science largely because of the idea of discovering something. India is at an all-time high in science funding and enrollment, and that’s due in part to the fact that they’re considering manned space exploration. We in conservation need to keep some of the discovery elements from basic ecology and biology in order to engage the public.
Q: Letters went gold-standard open-access a few months ago. I noticed that submission volume has gone up — what about submission quality?
I haven’t noticed any discernible change in submission quality; which is just as I expected. There were a good number of people who raised concerns about Conservation Letters going open access and pricing important research (and especially social science research) out of the journal, but I was confident that this was unlikely. We have, if anything, received more social-science type submissions this year than previously.
Q: What are some really interesting new research trends we should be paying attention to in conservation science over the next year or so that you’re seeing in your submissions or hearing about?
We’ve seen a real uptick in submissions investigating behavior change linked to conservation outcomes. Conservation has long been in the behavior change game but we haven’t done a lot of rigorous research on the mechanisms behind it. It’s a great sign that people in our field are doing this work, and that they see Conservation Letters as an outlet for it.