95th ESA Annual Meeting (August 1 -- 6, 2010)

OOS 36-8 - The ecology-policy connection: Ecologists’ visions for their discipline

Wednesday, August 4, 2010: 4:00 PM
401-402, David L Lawrence Convention Center
Mark Neff, Environmental Studies, Western Washington University, Bellingham, WA

There is no one correct set of research questions that ecologists should pursue to most effectively explore the world. By choosing particular research topics, scientists influence the ways in which policy makers and managers view the world both by contributing to problem framing and by helping to identify potential policy intervention points to deal with those problems. The initial framing of policy problems can be self reinforcing, as it can motivate actors concerned with the problem, and both the actors and the scientific breakthroughs themselves can provide scientists with incentives to conduct further research in the area. As such, choices affecting the research portfolio, from problem choice on the level of the individual researcher to larger policy decisions, take on added importance.  

I report on a study that utilized Q method, a mixed qualitative and quantitative technique, to explore how individual scientists evaluate the merits of potential research projects. The study uncovered four sub-disciplinary epistemologies within the United States ecological research community with distinct understandings of what constitutes worthwhile science. This diversity existed despite the fact that all of the participants in this study shared the goal of informing policy and improving environmental management. These four groups operationalized that goal differently based upon divergent ideas of a) what constitutes an environmental problem, b) what policies might improve environmental conditions, and c) what scientists can and should do to help bring about those policies. This research uncovers heretofore-unrecognized epistemological communities at the sub-disciplinary level and begins to unravel the connections between politics, values, and research trajectories for disciplines with strong policy connections. These considerations are conflated and concealed in evaluations of research merit. Disentangling them through discussions of the purposes and goals of ecology may help to ensure that ecologists are effective in accomplishing their shared goal: creating useful information to improve policy and management.