Research for Impact

How do we design scientific research to have impact in the world?

TNC conservation scientist conducting research at the Garcia River Forest in Northern, CA. Photo: © Bridget Besaw

The Challenge

Scientists devote substantial time and resources to research intended to help solve environmental problems. Environmental managers and policymakers must decide how to use the best available research evidence to prioritize actions leading to desired environmental outcomes. Yet decision‐makers can face barriers to using scientific evidence to inform action. They may be unaware of the evidence, lack access to it, not understand it, or view it as irrelevant. These barriers mean a valuable resource (evidence) is underused. 

The authors of a paper in Conservation Science and Practice provide a set of practical steps for scientists who want to improve the impact their research has on decision‐making. These steps are outlined below and a summary can be downloaded here.

There are also two interviews about the paepr (from OCTO and Cool Green Science), a science brief, and a recording of a webinar about the research.

Focusing Steps

1.  Identify and understand your audience.

Before launching into new research, identify and engage the ‘audience’ (or partners) of the work. The audience should be decision-makers able to act to help solve a problem of mutual interest. Engage in the community working on this problem to learn more about how it is being addressed by other stakeholders. Seek to understand the audience’s needs, values and goals, how they see the problem, and whether they think more research is needed (that you could do).

Example: Urban forest managers need to know urban forest conditions and how their actions influence them. Research was conducted and the i-Tree tool was built to help measure urban forest condition. However, the audience was not clearly defined so it was not used in some target urban settings. The tool did not meet the needs of New York City forest managers, for instance, because the tool couldn't distinguish between street trees and urban forest patches, an important distinction for management. 

2.  Clarify the need for evidence.

Often the audience will have potential actions in mind, at specific spatial and temporal scales. Researchers should identify the actions being considered. If lack of evidence is a barrier to deciding how to act, researchers should determine what evidence would motivate and empower the audience to act. Develop research questions in partnership with the audience and should seek to understand the political and economic context, and respect the legitimacy of how the audience makes decisions.

Example: More evidence on the causes of climate change is unnecessary; beliefs about humanity’s role haven’t shifted much in response. But identifying how to best reduce greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions can help decision makers prioritize which actions to invest in to meet their GHG reduction goals.

3.  Gather “just enough” evidence.

Research design should reflect the appropriate time, rigor, and approach needed for gathering “just enough” evidence (no more than necessary) to inform an action or policy. Researchers should identify what kind of evidence the audience considers actionable, the timeframe over which decisions will be made (with or without evidence), their tolerance for risk, and whether adaptive management is an option before choosing a research approach. Resources are wasted when more research is done than necessary to inform action, research fails to meet the quality standards of decision makers to inform action, or research is too slow to be relevant.

Example: When a Brazilian company considered investing in conservation (e.g., reforestation) to improve water quality rather than a new pipeline to a neighboring watershed, researchers built a high-resolution spatial model on how nature would perform. However, what was required was simply coarser data and a rough estimate of return on investment for the audience to make their decision. By failing to understand the user’s needs upfront, researchers can miss the chance to reduce research costs and spend more on implementation.


4.  Share and discuss the evidence.

Most scientific articles are not read by their targeted or potential audiences. Early in the research process, researchers should work with the audience to plan how to share the results, including which styles, formats, and venues to use. This may include written briefs, in-person or online oral presentations, and more. Once results are available, develop a clear, compelling message and share it via the communications plan. Explain how the evidence is relevant and what caveats could affect its use. Researchers should get help from communications experts to publish accessible summaries of the research (e.g. blogs), improve their communication skills, promote the work, and have effective in-person meetings with the audience. Share all data and code (not only key results) and remove barriers to access (e.g. via preprint servers and open access).

Example: In developing the paper this summary is based on, the authors learned that conservation scientists often rely on peer-reviewed articles to inform their work, but due to limited time they are very selective with what to read. Based on that input, they wrote the manuscript with easy to understand language to make it more accessible. They then worked with communications experts to plan how to pique our audience’s interest, wrote this summary to accompany the paper, and presented online and in-person to target audiences (e.g., scientific conferences, graduate programs, etc.).

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