Can conservation biologists be innovators?

Brett FavaroTwo weeks ago I attended the Canadian Science Policy Conference (CSPC) in Toronto. As a conservation biologist with an interest in policy, I saw this as an opportunity to become more familiar with the policy world. What a complicated world it is.

The theme of the conference was “Incubating Innovation and Ingenuity,” and it touched upon topics that ranged from science journalism to industrial research and development. All attendees had an interest in evidence-based decision-making, but there were few ecologists or conservation biologists in the mix. From graduate students to CEO’s and Ministers of the crown, this was one of the most diverse conferences that I have attended.

I am still processing all the lessons I learned at this great conference (you can view many of the highlights at #cspc2013 on Twitter), but three lessons stood out as very important to people who do policy-relevant research in conservation biology.

1. Scientists are not necessarily innovators – and everyone likes innovators

There are two types of science, as far as Canadian government policy is concerned. First, there are scientists. These are the people who are given money to do research, without a mandate to create consumer products or services. When the government talks about supporting science, this type of thing isn’t really what they are referring to.

What they’re really talking about is the second type of research, called “innovation” – a major goal of government policy, roughly describing the process of turning knowledge into money. For example, a full third of NSERC’s ~$1 billion budget is assigned to innovation programs. The Scientific Research and Experimental Development (SR&ED) tax credit, that supports research in private business, receives $3.6 billion in funding. There are industry-specific programs too. For example, the Automotive Innovation Fund is a $50 million-per-year grant to support R&D in the automotive industry.

The latest example of federal innovation policy is the restructuring of the National Research Council around the concept of acting as a “concierge” for small and medium business. The government has established a new website designed to connect businesses with grants, incentives, and programs that can help them with their “innovation needs.” In addition, Concierge Advisors are being hired to assist business with accessing these services.

Put simply, most everyone at the policy conference agreed that innovation was a good thing (by contrast, many delegates disagreed about the merits of policies to combat climate change, for example). I have personally never heard the word innovation at conservation conferences. Perhaps we need to find a way to frame our research in such a way that we can benefit from the existing infrastructure that has been established to promote this policy goal.

2. Learn to create value!

Letter from the Prime Minister to CSPC delegates

Letter from the Prime Minister to CSPC delegates

In one panel discussion that focused on Industrial Research and Development (IR&D) I noticed that to be considered an “innovator,” it seemed that one had to create commercializable products or services. During the question period, I asked a question of the panel – if we don’t commercialize our work, how can we take advantage of the support that exists for innovation in Canada? Can ecologists ever be respected as innovators?

While I was asking the question, someone from the audience shouted “Learn to create value!” At first I was taken aback at the implication that we don’t do that already. Upon reflection, I found this exchange to be insightful. As far as this audience member was concerned, my work is (at best) a cost, with no perceived benefit to himself or his industry.

I took two key lessons from this exchange. First, the very mention of conservation biology triggers a knee-jerk negative response in certain people – powerful people, who have access to a lot of resources. Is there a way we can re-brand or re-frame our work such that it doesn’t trigger this reaction? Better yet, can we find a common ground where both parties feel that conservation work is “creating value?”

Second, while conservation biologists debate about the merits of putting a price on ecosystem services, the rest of the world is charging ahead under this paradigm. Currently, people are putting a price on nature across the globe. Everyone is doing it, and if we aren’t at least aware of this reality, then other parties (who don’t understand the value of ecosystem services) will engage in this conversation on our behalf. We don’t have to like it, but we have to understand that it’s happening, and if we want to shift the conversation we need to come up with something better – and be vocal and evidence-based about it.

3. There is no silver bullet to getting science into policy – It’s just hard work

More than once I heard conference delegates lament that we live in a post-evidence world. These weren’t just people who work on environmental issues – across the board, people expressed frustration that policies that would be well-supported by evidence often fail to become law or regulation.

My lesson from CSPC (and again, this is just my personal opinion) was that no one really knows how to do this in a straightforward and consistent way. Rather, the best examples of evidence-based policy involve broad coalitions of multiple stakeholder groups that slog it out over the long term, and keep the pressure up until a change is made. Scientists can contribute to this, but never unilaterally.

That said, one observation really stood out to me on this issue. Kennedy Stewart (Member of Parliament for Burnaby-Douglas) commented in a panel discussion that professional lobbyists differ from scientists in their approach to contacting politicians. Lobbyists approach politicians immediately after elections and present well-formulated, unified requests. By contrast, scientists are less organized, and their requests will be less clear.

I don’t personally believe that it is possible or desirable for scientists to coordinate their opinions on all issues, but there are certainly cases (e.g. the de-funding of the Experimental Lakes Area) where speaking with a unified voice would be beneficial. It is on us to identify those cases, and work to generate unified positions where appropriate.

Moving forward

Minister Greg Rickford (Minister of State for Science and Technology) delivered a keynote address during the conference. He mentioned the word “innovation” 21 times in his speech. In addition, he said that the government supports basic research “that has application in the marketplace.”

It’s not controversial among scientists that there needs to be a strong foundation of basic research underpinning any national science policy. But in the meantime, as resources continue to shift to the types of research that can be commercialized, are there ways that we can frame conservation biology within this concept of innovation? Could we plug into the substantial framework that has been developed to support innovation research, and could it benefit conservation? Can we create for-profit entities that somehow create value out of protecting natural resources, rather than solely through harvesting them?

I would very much like to see the community’s thoughts and perspectives on these questions. 

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