Tracking How New Science Spreads

July 29, 2015

Juan Antillanca and Tina Buijs discuss gardening in Chile’s Reserva Costera Valdiviana. Photo: Mark Godfrey / TNC

When I was four years old, and I was worried or focused on something annoying or disappointing, my mom used to tell me, “Pull out that thought as if it were a weed and plant the seed of a new idea instead.”

This lesson about planting a new seed is helpful in my work as a conservation scientist.

Humans respond to new ideas in predictable ways that can be traced and tested. At The Nature Conservancy, we are trying to tease out what responses we can predict, so that when new conservation science is published, we can be thoughtful about where to focus our efforts in spreading that science to conservation practitioners who are keen to act on the new information.

How New Ideas Spread and Grow

In my community garden when I was a graduate student in Gainesville, Florida, everyone has a plot in the same field, with access to the same soil, water, and seeds. But if you walk through the field on a warm evening, you will see totally different gardens. The gardener next to me hates peas with a passion. I like peas, but I don’t do eggplant. When my mom gardens she only raises tomatoes and invests intense creative energy in elaborate structures with copper pipes and wires.

The seeds of a new idea start much the same way, especially in an organization as diffuse as the Conservancy. But the challenge to spreading new ideas in conservation is that when people take a new idea and run with it, they morph and adapt the concepts to their situation and needs. Even if two people start with the same science, the end result can look very different based on what each person is doing with their job and in their geographic area.

In conservation, we never have enough people, time, or money. We probably never will. So we need to be thoughtful about who we approach and how we train them to make conservation successful.

Our challenge as social scientists is to find a way to see how new conservation ideas change the patterns of behaviors in individual practitioners, so that we can predict who will be most interested in planting these future seeds of conservation science. To do so, we are collaborating with researchers at Michigan State University who specialize in understanding networks and institutions.

We may think we know who the natural connectors in our organization are, but that has bias and that bias is self-reinforcing and could leave out some of the best natural gardeners.

Conservation By Design

Research on the diffusion of new ideas actually grew out of agricultural extension work, so thinking of a new conservation idea as a seed is an apt metaphor. Originally, extension agents were testing the spread of new farming practices intended to conserve soil — like terracing and contour planting to prevent erosion, or mulching and intercropping to conserve soil fertility —particularly in areas of the tropics where slash-and-burn clearing for subsistence agriculture was common.

In much the same way, we are trying to trace the spread of a new idea within the Nature Conservancy. Earlier this year, the Conservancy revised its guiding science principles, known as Conservation by Design, or CbD. This document presents three advances to science principles: scenario planning, people and nature, and evidence-base.

Scenario planning means planning for uncertainty. When you plant a garden you can’t predict the weather, and conservation planners need to develop models that embrace uncertainty.

The people and nature element of CbD recognizes how conservation, human well-being and economic development are intertwined. Conservation practitioners need to consider the different aspects and potential tradeoffs around humans and nature.

And the requirement for an evidence-base formalizes the use of science into all aspects of running and operating a conservation organization or agency, encouraging us to think about the steps between the end result and the options for action and make sure there is evidence that these steps will work.

Tracking How Ideas Spread Within The Conservancy

So how do you trace uptake of Conservation by Design’s three science advances inside the Conservancy?

First, my colleagues and I decided to look at who was interacting with who to get a sense of how new ideas might flow. In the original research on agriculture extension, uptake of new ideas occurred when someone a farmer trusted and respected did it first.

Within the Conservancy, we are using administrative data to map how the formal institutional structure links staff to each other. This doesn’t mean they necessarily share ideas and would encourage each other to try new things, but it indicates a higher likelihood that they interact. And interacting needs to happen in advance of influence.

We also used a survey to ask a smaller group of people who they think they interact with most, and they talk about, such as science, management, or fundraising. We also asked if the person they are thinking of is a trusted advisor; not someone they work with daily, but someone they turn to when they have a problem.

In the survey, we asked people about the work that they do which could change in response to the new CbD. In one year, we will reconnect with our survey group and see what has changed. We will also see if the place in the networks created by the administrative and the survey data matters, and if the results of the two data sources are different. Surveys are expensive, and it would be helpful to know to what extent they are better than the administrative data at predicting changes in what people are doing in their jobs.

Any people who change in the first year are what we call, “early adopters” — they get excited about a new idea, see a direct application to their work, plant that seed of a new idea and nurture it. In a garden, nurturing that new idea can be as mundane as spreading straw as mulch. When other gardeners see that plant with straw mulch survive a drought when the community garden water source runs dry, we have seen that they are much more likely to start mulching themselves.

The change in one person’s behavior as a result of a new idea is the first step of widespread uptake. If we can predict who is likely to take up a piece of new science and run with it, we will have a better idea of where to target the results of new conservation research so it has the best chance of making a difference on the ground and in the water.

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