Evaluating Ecology’s Impact Through the Lens of “Solution Science”

Ecological restoration (pictured here, sand dune restoration conducted by NH Sea Grant in New Hampshire, USA) is a form of solution science. (Image Credit: Caitlin Mandeville., CC BY 2.0, Image Cropped)

Shining a Brighter Light on Solution Science in Ecology (2020) Doubleday & Connell, One Earth, https://doi.org/10.1016/j.oneear.2019.12.009

The Crux

These days, it can feel hard to go even a day without thinking about the many environmental challenges facing the world. Climate change, habitat degradation, species extinctions… it can all feel a bit overwhelming sometimes. In fact, many of us ecologists chose careers in this field because we hope to contribute to solving these problems. There is no doubt that many of the questions investigated by ecologists have direct relevance to our ability to live more sustainably on earth. But how often do ecologists make the leap from basic ecological knowledge to the ways that this knowledge can be used to make a positive difference in the world?

In a January 2020 publication, authors Doubleday and Connell calculated the percentage of articles published in top ecology journals that have a clear focus on solving environmental problems and found that only 14% of top ecology articles focus on what they call “solution science”.

What They Did

The authors took each of the forty most impactful peer-reviewed ecology journals and reviewed every article published in their most recent issues. They classified each article as “solution focused” or “non-solution focused” (or, in a few cases, “uncertain”).

Additionally, they provided a wide-ranging review of the way that ecological solution science has evolved over the past several decades, from a focus on the reduction of environmental stressors in the 1970s to restoration ecology in the 1980s, an emphasis on resilience in the 2000s, and finally a modern focus on interdisciplinarity.

Did you Know: Impact Factors

Most modern scientific journals are rated on their influence in the scientific community using ‘Impact Factors’ (IFs). This is an index which measures the frequency with which articles within a journal is cited. Scientists often aim to publish in journals with high IFs.

The IF system has been the subject of criticism lately, with more and more scientists questioning its relevance. One problem is that whilst a solution oriented paper might be perfect for a specific journal, making it easy to find for managers and conservationists, its authors may couche it in more vague language to try and get it published in a journal with a higher IF.

What They Found

Only a small percentage of articles considered in this study were focused on solving environmental problems. Doubleday and Connell suggest some reasons for this:

 1) Maybe solution science happens, but is regularly relegated to lower-tier journals and grey literature (that is, documents that are found outside of scientific journals, like government reports).

 2) Maybe ecological research is often used to develop environmental solutions, but this process takes place after publication and is not formally recorded.

 3) Or perhaps solution science just doesn’t happen as often as we might hope.

The authors also noted that, among studies that do focus on solving problems, the type of problems that they tackle have shifted over time from relatively straightforward issues—like the impact of a single pollutant—to exceptionally complicated issues like climate change. Such complicated problems call for interdisciplinary approaches, bringing ecologists together with social scientists, policymakers, communicators, and more.

Problems

The sample size that Doubleday and Connell used to form their conclusion is, admittedly, small—just one issue from each of the top forty ecology journals.

Furthermore, the authors pointed out that the development of ecological subdisciplines entirely focused on solutions—for example, fisheries science and ecological restoration—is an emerging trend in solution science. And yet journals dedicated to these subdisciplines rarely rank among the top journals in ecology as a whole, so they are mostly excluded from this evaluation.

So What?

For me, one of the most insightful parts of this paper is the suggestion that solution science may be happening primarily outside the realm of peer-reviewed journals. Why would this matter? Well, if solutions remain “invisible” to ecologists, it will be hard for researchers to develop new questions that evaluate and refine these solutions. And if environmental solutions remain invisible, there is no doubt that a great deal of worldwide effort will be duplicated as researchers “discover” the same solutions over and over again, rather than building upon and enhancing each others’ work.

Even beyond these questions of how to best communicate about solution science, the Doubleday and Connell paper offers up a cause for some serious soul-searching among the ecological community. What is our role in addressing pressing issues facing society today? How do we decide where to prioritize limited research funding and resources? Does it even make sense to differentiate between “basic” and “applied” science? And how do we make sure that the knowledge we produce is connecting with those who can leverage it to enact positive change in the world?

Caitlin Mandeville is a PhD student at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology studying conservation applications of citizen science species occurrence data. You can read about her research here and see more of her writing for Ecology for the Masses at her profile here.

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