When decision makers have the right information, they’ll make the right decision. That’s the traditional assumption of science communications, but social science tells us that it doesn’t always work that way.
So how can scientists and conservationists ensure that people use data gathered in support of conservation practices to make successful decisions?
Science Communications as a Source of Data
People process information — including scientific data — in a biased way, often dependent upon their perceptions of and tolerance for risk. And people are more likely to act on information presented by a person whom they trust than just facts alone, according to research by Dan Kahan at Yale University.
“That’s why scientists need to look at communications as part of the science process, because communication really does influence how people behave,” says Jensen Montambault, interdisciplinary scientist and liaison for the Science for Nature and People initiative at The Nature Conservancy. “Scientific data influences conservation, but so does communicating or not communicating.”
To better understand how effective communications can influence conservation action, Montambault and her colleagues examined four case studies from Micronesia where conservation practitioners are using monitoring data to advance local marine conservation. (See our previous blog on this issue.)
Micronesia is made up of 2,100 islands spread across 7.4 million square kilometers of ocean in the western Pacific. Despite the region’s vast size, a strong network of leaders, scientists, and local communities have joined together in the “Micronesia Challenge” — a commitment to effectively conserve at least 30 percent of near-shore marine and 20 percent of terrestrial resources by 2020.
“These small island states are a microcosm of conservation,” says Montambault.
Her research on the region suggests that a key element to successful conservation occurs when scientists and conservation managers consider their communication strategy with each audience, start the conversation from the very beginning of a project, and then revise that communication strategy as the project evolves.
Adaptive Management for Conservation Success
In each of the four case studies, adaptive management was key to establishing successful baseline data for conservation.
“It’s often said that there is no past tense of the word ‘conserve,’” says Montambault. “Good conservation requires that we continually revisit monitoring data and ask what has changed since we first started working there. It requires asking if what we are doing is working like we thought? If not, why, and what can we change?”
In Pohnpei, Federated States of Micronesia, local stakeholders began monitoring the marine environment after the spawning aggregations of local grouper populations declined. Using the monitoring data, they decided to expand existing protected areas to include both the coral reefs and the near-shore nursery habitats. They also implemented seasonal fishing bans, which proved challenging to enforce at first.
“Unfortunately, the first round of monitoring showed that spawning groupers were not recovering exactly as expected,” says Montambault, “but it gave them an opportunity to try something different.”
Because problems with coral-reef fisheries extend beyond groupers, stakeholders passed size restrictions on other important fish species sold at the local market in 2013.
“Enforcement was slow at first, but continues to grow as the scientific data are communicated,” says Peter Houk, a marine biologist with the University of Guam Marine Lab and co-author on the research.
Science Communications in the Present Tense
The guidelines of adaptive management also apply to communicating science for conservation.
“There is also no past tense of science communications,” says Montambault. “What’s effective is a continuous interaction among scientists, managers, and key stakeholders. And that is a really different approach to science communications than developing a snappy talk or pamphlet in the local language.”
In Pohnpei, strategic communications in a locally appropriate manner was key to gathering support for conservation action.
The Conservation Society of Pohnpei (CSP) tailored their communication efforts to reach the people best suited to promote conservation action. For example, they used the overfishing data to educate church leaders. Once the church leaders were convinced about the need to protect local fish populations, they incorporated this message into their sermons, which were already considered a trusted source of information for the local people. A similar approach by the Wildlife Conservation Society has also proved effective in Fiji.
“They were super thoughtful about how they communicated,” says Montambault. “They also made sure they had staff members who spoke the high language of the traditional chiefs or could communicate well with youth.”
Montambault’s other three case studies showed a similar pattern: conservation insights gleaned from monitoring data were best received when that information was communicated in a custom way best suited to the community.
Scaling Effective Conservation Beyond Micronesia
Looking beyond Micronesia, Montambault says that her research is beginning to untangle how other factors besides ecological data contribute to effective conservation action.
“There is never enough money for conservation, and that’s not going to change,” says Montambault. “Adaptive management and effective communications are another way to help prioritize what we do. First we check if conservation is working so we aren’t throwing away the money we do have, and then we engage through continuous communications to help foster the trust and understanding that makes it easier to do conservation effectively.”