A WSL survey has shown that, for nature conservation professionals, their own experience counts more than scientific facts. WSL researcher Rolf Holderegger and nature conservation practitioner Stefan Birrer discuss how the dialogue between research and practice can be improved.
Mr. Birrer, do you, as a practitioner, read scientific publications in scientific journals?
SB: I mainly read publications that have something to do with Switzerland and Central Europe. American journals are of little use to me. But there is not just one kind of practice and one practitioner. If you are responsible for a small protected area, you will have less need for contact with researchers than people involved in conceptual nature conservation.
How could research have a greater impact in practice?
RH: You must study something that is relevant to practice. The most important thing, however, is for you to be motivated to engage in dialogue with practitioners and spend time discussing ideas with them. If two or three people from practice know you personally and can ask you questions on the phone, you will probably have more effect than if you publish a lot.
SB: I think it's very important that both sides are interested in dialogue. We had several practical questions that could have been suitable for master's theses. Unfortunately, we couldn’t find anyone in research prepared to address these questions for us. Maybe the researchers themselves are not interested in the problems, or they can’t find any students keen to do a more practical thesis.
So would it be better to combine research and practice earlier in university education?
RH: Yes. At university, the students receive a lot of theoretical input. However, the majority of graduates later work in a practical area, and only very few will have the opportunity to stay in research for longer. This means universities are teaching the professionals who will later work for government authorities, environmental consulting offices and companies. More attention should be paid to this fact in university courses. It would be particularly desirable for students to know more about species identification or the legal environment, as well as for them to develop soft skills such as communication and negotiation skills.
SB: We have to ask ourselves whether training people only in theory and not in practice is not a waste of resources.
RH: In addition to basic research, we also need applied research at Swiss universities and research institutes. Such research is not only important for practice, but also for politics and society, which expect research to contribute to solving current problems and not only focus on having an excellent scientific reputation. Basic and applied research often go hand in hand and can be mutually beneficial.
But does basic research contribute anything at all to practice?
RH: Often only indirectly and to a limited extent. Take the term ‘trickle down effect’. It implies that, even though the focus of basic research is not on obtaining applicable results, its findings will, at some point, seep through into practice anyway. In reality, this approach does not work, or if it does, it takes a very long time.
SB: But it worked in genetics. In the beginning, this was basic research, but now genetic methods are used widely in nature conservation. I think the assumption that research findings will eventually be of practical use is basically correct. There are probably only a few practitioners who see basic research as a problem. However, there must also be sufficient room available for practice-relevant research to take place, as well as corresponding funding.
How useful is applied research in practice?
SB: Very useful. But I have become a little bit more critical of science in recent years. I frequently come across studies that don’t convince me, even if the statistical evaluations are correct. All too often there are methodological errors that could have been avoided if an expert from practice had been involved. Research also often places too little weight on relevance. How important is it if five percent more or less of a particular insect species are found when a certain mowing technique is used? Perhaps other factors are more relevant? However, I don’t like, as a practitioner, to accuse researchers of making mistakes in a study. It is always easy to criticise.
Turning the question around, what does research want from practice?
RH: Many research questions relevant to practice could be answered with data from practice, especially from the cantons. But we cannot access this treasure trove of data because it has not been processed sufficiently. I would like to see greater openness here, also with regard to what research has to offer. You hear people coming out with preconceptions like: “Researchers only want to publish. When you talk to them, you can’t understand them. They tell us how to interpret their results, but in the end you don't have a conclusion that is applicable in practice.” This cliché is true to a certain extent, but there are many researchers who are accessible and would love to discuss their work with people in practice.
SB: This negative attitude actually exists among practitioners. Above all, species specialists are sometimes incredibly intolerant here. They believe that you will not be able to get good results if you have only studied for a few years, have no experience in fieldwork, and first need to become familiar with a particular species group.
How can these prejudices be overcome?
RH: We have organised several conferences specifically for practical purposes, for example on overpasses and conservation genetics. Here it is important for the topics
to have a practical focus and for practitioners to also have a say in organising and contributing to the programme. And there must be plenty of time for discussion so that people can talk and get to know each other.
SB: I find such meetings very valuable. There could be more of them. In Basel there is the conference “Nature conservation in and around Basel”, where all conservationists from the region come together with researchers and scientific findings are presented.
RH: From my point of view, personal contact is the most effective way of exchanging information between research and practice.
(Lisa Bose, Diagonal 2/19)