New Field, ‘Translational Ecology,’ Aims to Offer Actionable Science to Resource Managers

UMass Amherst Northeast Climate Science Center contributes to national movement
Toni Lyn Morelli
Toni Lyn Morelli

AMHERST, Mass. – Most students and early career scientists in ecology and environmental science are keen to do meaningful, field-applicable work to address such problems as habitat loss, reduced biodiversity and climate change, says Toni Lyn Morelli, a U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) research ecologist with the Northeast Climate Science Center at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, but this can be a challenge because they must first meet the academic demand to “publish or perish.”

To address this, a new field called “translational ecology” is springing up, inspired by approaches used by biomedical researchers who are now increasingly partnering with clinicians to overcome the same sorts of obstacles that once prevented fundamental medical research from finding its way into practice.

Morelli contributed to three research articles and a commentary in today’s special, free issue of the leading journal Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment, dedicated to exploring the new field of “translational ecology.” That is where ecologists seek to solve the communication gap between those who conduct relevant research and publish in the peer-reviewed literature, and decision-makers who actually direct environmental management and policy. The goal is to increase the likelihood that research will contribute to direct action, she says.

Morelli explains, “Natural resource decision-makers frequently express frustration that scientists provide answers to the wrong questions, or otherwise fail to address their information needs in the contexts in which decisions are made.” Further, “researchers often default to one-way communication,” rather than seeking collaborations or getting creative about shepherding their results toward outlets used by ecologists in the field.

In the invited commentary, Morelli and two colleagues, one from the USGS’s Alaska Climate Science Center (CSC), the other from its Southeast CSC, note that “whether the scientific focus is on fires or frogs, lemurs or landscapes, there is an increasing need not just for pure science, and not just for applied science, but for translational science.” They also point out that “scientists increasingly bear a responsibility to present science in ways that are directly useful for, and are even produced with, those who face decisions in complex, real-world situations.”

One of the papers contributed by Morelli and lead authors at the Southwest CSC (SWCSC) and the University of Arizona in Tucson, with others across the country, defines the foundations, goals and methods of translational ecology. As the authors explain, the new approach “seeks to link ecological knowledge to decision-making by integrating the science with the full complement of social dimensions that underlie today’s complex environmental issues. Notably, it is distinct from both basic and applied ecological research.”

They emphasize using interdisciplinary team approaches and “scientist-practitioner partnerships.” They point out that “addressing research questions arising from on-the-ground management issues, rather than from the top-down or expert-oriented perspectives of traditional science, can foster the long-term trust and commitment that is critical for long-term, sustained engagement between partners.”

An example is the work that Morelli has been doing to identify and conserve climate change refugia, areas that are buffered from climate change. Work in the Northeast and Midwest has focused on identifying particularly cold streams and lakes that can enable prized fish like brook trout and walleye to persist despite warming temperatures. Scientists including Morelli are working closely with state and federal managers to map these cold water refugia so that they can be protected from pollution and other stressors.

Another of the special issue articles co-authored by Morelli focuses on “principles to guide academic scientists” in overcoming institutional obstacles. Approaches include working with organizations such as regional non-profits that have direct connections to projects on the ground, focusing on place-based research and being open to new opportunities. Their goal is “to cultivate a culture of translational ecology,” she says.

Morelli also contributed to an article on how to help more students become translation ecology professionals. The authors write that “becoming a translational ecologist requires specific attention to obtaining critical non-scientific disciplinary breadth and skills that are not standard within a classical graduate education in ecology.” They describe the need for “broad training in interdisciplinary skills,” and outline “methods by which interested ecologists may take steps toward becoming translational.”

Work featured in the special issue was funded by the USGS through the SWCSC and National Climate Change and Wildlife Science Center.

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