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Practical Recommendations to Help Students Bridge the Research-Implementation Gap and Promote Conservation

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Abstract

Seasoned conservation researchers often struggle to bridge the research-implementation gap and promote the translation of their work into meaningful conservation actions. Graduate students face the same problems and must contend with obstacles such as limited opportunities for relevant interdisciplinary training and a lack of institutional support for application of research results. However, students also have a crucial set of opportunities (e.g., access to academic resources outside their degree programs and opportunities to design research projects promoting collaboration with stakeholders) at their disposal to address these problems. On the basis of results of breakout discussions at a symposium on the human dimensions of the ocean, a review of the literature, and our own experiences, we devised recommendations on how graduate students can create resources within their academic institutions, institutionalize resources, and engage with stakeholders to promote real-world conservation outcomes. Within their academic institutions, graduate students should foster links to practitioners and promote knowledge and skill sharing among students. To institutionalize resources, students should cultivate student leaders and faculty sponsors, systematically document their program activities, and engage in strategic planning to promote the sustainability of their efforts. While conducting research, students should create connections to and engage actively with stakeholders in their relevant study areas and disseminate research results both to stakeholders and the broader public. Our recommendations can serve as a template for graduate students wishing to bridge the research-implementation gap, both during their current studies and in their future careers as conservation researchers and practitioners. Recomendaciones Prácticas para Ayudar a Estudiantes a Vencer la Brecha entre Investigación e Implementación y Promover la Conservación.
Essay
Practical Recommendations to Help Students Bridge
the Research–Implementation Gap and Promote
Conservation
DIANA M. PIETRI,GEORGINA G. GURNEY,† NANCY BENITEZ-VINA,‡ AUDREY KUKLOK,§
SARA M. MAXWELL,∗∗ LIBBY WHITING,§ MICHAEL A. VINA,‡ AND LEKELIA D. JENKINS§
School of Environmental and Forest Sciences, University of Washington, Box 352100, Seattle, WA 98195, U.S.A., email dianap@
uw.edu
†Australian Research Council Centre of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies, James Cook University, Townsville, Queensland 4811,
Australia
‡Department of Anthropology, New Mexico State University, P.O. Box 30001, Las Cruces, NM 88003-8001, U.S.A.
§School of Marine and Environmental Affairs, University of Washington, 3707 Brooklyn Ave NE, Seattle, WA 98105-6715, U.S.A.
∗∗Hopkins Marine Station, Stanford University, 120 Oceanview Boulevard, Pacific Grove, CA 93950, U.S.A.
Abstract: Seasoned conservation researchers often struggle to bridge the research–implementation gap and
promote the translation of their work into meaningful conservation actions. Graduate students face the same
problems and must contend with obstacles such as limited opportunities for relevant interdisciplinary training
and a lack of institutional support for application of research results. However, students also have a crucial set
of opportunities (e.g., access to academic resources outside their degree programs and opportunities to design
research projects promoting collaboration with stakeholders) at their disposal to address these problems. On
the basis of results of breakout discussions at a symposium on the human dimensions of the ocean, a review
of the literature, and our own experiences, we devised recommendations on how graduate students can
create resources within their academic institutions, institutionalize resources, and engage with stakeholders
to promote real-world conservation outcomes. Within their academic institutions, graduate students should
foster links to practitioners and promote knowledge and skill sharing among students. To institutionalize re-
sources, students should cultivate student leaders and faculty sponsors, systematically document their program
activities, and engage in strategic planning to promote the sustainability of their efforts. While conducting
research, students should create connections to and engage actively with stakeholders in their relevant study
areas and disseminate research results both to stakeholders and the broader public. Our recommendations
can serve as a template for graduate students wishing to bridge the research–implementation gap, both during
their current studies and in their future careers as conservation researchers and practitioners.
Keywords: conservation education, graduate education, interdisciplinary research, research–implementation
gap
Recomendaciones Pr´
acticas para Ayudar a Estudiantes a Vencer la Brecha entre Investigaci´
on e Implementaci´
on
y Promover la Conservaci´
on
Resumen: Investigadores de la conservaci´
on con experiencia a menudo batallan para vencer la brecha
de investigaci´
on-implementaci´
on y promover la traducci´
on de su trabajo a acciones de conservaci´
on sig-
nificativas. Los estudiantes de licenciatura enfrentan el mismo problema y deben luchar con obst´
aculos
como las oportunidades limitadas para entrenamiento interdisciplinario relevante y la falta de apoyo in-
stitucional para la aplicaci´
on de los resultados de la investigaci´
on. Sin embargo los estudiantes tambi´
en
tienen un conjunto crucial de oportunidades (e. g., acceso a recursos acad´
emicos fuera de sus planes de
estudio y oportunidades para dise˜
nar proyectos que promuevan la colaboraci´
on con las partes interesadas)
asudisposici
´
on para resolver estos problemas. Con base en los resultados de discusiones novedosas en un
Paper submitted September 25, 2012; revised manuscript accepted February 3, 2013.
1
Conservation Biology,Volume00,No.0,110
C
2013 Society for Conservation Biology
DOI: 10.1111/cobi.12089
2Graduate Students and the Research–Implementation Gap
simposio sobre las dimensiones humanas del oc´
eano, en una revisi´
on de la literatura y en nuestras propias
experiencias, dise˜
namos recomendaciones sobre como los estudiantes de licenciatura pueden crear recursos
dentro de sus instituciones acad´
emicas, institucionalizar los recursos y vincularse con las partes interesadas
para promover resultados de conservaci´
on reales. Dentro de sus instituciones acad´
emicas los estudiantes
de licenciatura deben fomentar enlaces con profesionales y promover el conocimiento y la compartici´
on
de habilidades entre estudiantes. Para institucionalizar los recursos los estudiantes deben cultivar l´
ıderes
estudiantiles y docentes patrocinadores, documentar sistem´
aticamente sus actividades del programa y par-
ticipar en planeaci´
on estrat´
egica para promover la sustentabilidad de sus esfuerzos. Mientras llevan a cabo
investigaciones los estudiantes deber´
ıan crear v´
ınculos y participar activamente con las partes interesadas en
las ´
areas relevantes de estudio y diseminar los resultados de la investigaci´
on tanto a las partes interesadas
como al p´
ublico en general. Nuestras recomendaciones pueden servir como plantilla para estudiantes de
licenciatura que deseen vencer la brecha investigaci´
on-implementaci´
on, tanto durante sus estudios actuales
como en sus futuras carreras como profesionales e investigadores de la conservaci´
on.
Palabras Clave: brecha investigaci´
on – implementaci´
on, educaci´
on para la conservaci´
on, educaci´
on de licen-
ciatura, investigaci´
on interdisciplinaria
Introduction
Research–Implementation Gap in Conservation
Many conservation researchers aim to advance knowl-
edge and obtain meaningful conservation actions. How-
ever, scientists often pay insufficient attention to un-
derstanding mechanisms through which conservation
research can be translated into action, resulting in a
“research–implementation gap” (Balmford & Cowling
2006; Knight et al. 2008; Boreux et al. 2009). A vari-
ety of factors contribute to the conservation research
implementation crisis, such as the disconnect between
scientists and policy makers and resulting difficulties in
integrating scientific knowledge into policy (e.g., Pietri
et al. 2011; Laurance et al. 2012). The science–policy
disconnect has multiple roots: the divergent time scales
of policy processes and conservation research (Cash &
Buizer 2005); institutional differences between academia
and the management and policy realms (Holmes & Clark
2008; Laurance et al. 2012); and mitigating factors such
as societal needs and political realities (Heazle 2004).
In addition to the disconnect between science, policy,
and management, conservation researchers often fail to
invest sufficient effort in collaborating with stakehold-
ers (e.g., community members, local organizations, and
managers); target research toward questions relevant to
local communities; and incorporate diverse perspectives
and expert local knowledge (Knight et al. 2008; Shack-
leton et al. 2009). Even when researchers are aware of
the importance of collaboration such efforts are rarely
implemented effectively; thus, the effectiveness of con-
servation actions is undermined (Boreux et al. 2009).
Researchers must make further effort to implement man-
agement recommendations and reduce threats—actions
that can eventually lead to improved conservation (Kapos
et al. 2008).
Combined, the suite of factors highlighted above
greatly limits conservation science’s ability to achieve
long-term effects. Scientists may be able to produce tangi-
ble research outputs, such as management recommenda-
tions or informational materials for stakeholders (Koontz
& Thomas 2006). However, outcomes (i.e., the effects
of research on environmental and social conditions) and
lasting effects (i.e., long-term changes in the status of
habitats or ecosystems) are more difficult to achieve and
document (Koontz & Thomas 2006; Kapos et al. 2008).
Engaging Graduate Students in Bridging the Gap
Graduate students in conservation face similar challenges
in bridging the research–implementation gap as seasoned
researchers, if not more so, given they are still working to
establish themselves. Students cope with problems that
established researchers also face, such as limited inter-
disciplinary training (e.g., social sciences, practical skills
used by conservation practitioners) and lack of institu-
tional support for the application of findings (Duchelle
et al. 2009; Christie 2011). When limited research funding
is available, students may be forced to limit their research
scope and exclude activities promoting application of
results. Narrowing research scope due to limited funds
can be a particular problem for master’s students be-
cause programs are shorter and less funding is available.
However, students have a unique set of opportunities at
their disposal to address research-application problems
(Duchelle et al. 2009; Courter 2012). Students may be
able to capitalize on opportunities within their institu-
tions and take courses, such as program evaluation and
science communication, that strengthen their interdisci-
plinary knowledge (Per´
ez 2005; Muir & Schwartz 2009).
Additionally, students may design their research projects
to promote collaboration with stakeholders and may have
the flexibility to spend longer periods in the field than
seasoned researchers.
Despite recent literature on the role of graduate stu-
dents in overcoming the research–implementation gap
(e.g., Kroll 2007; Duchelle et al. 2009; Courter 2012),
there is still a critical need to understand mechanisms
Conservation Biology
Volume 00, No. 0, 2013
Pietri et al. 3
by which students can increase the likelihood that their
research yields conservation actions. The existing litera-
ture focuses on how students can collaborate and share
knowledge with stakeholders. However, it provides few
concrete examples of pathways for realizing productive
collaboration without significant institutional support or
existing stakeholder connections. Furthermore, discus-
sion of methods that students can use to engender insti-
tutional support is missing in the literature, as is consid-
eration of tactics for bolstering practical skills that are
useful for stakeholder collaboration. Therefore, we offer
suggestions on how students can bridge the research–
implementation gap by exercising self-agency and cre-
ating grassroots changes in ways that require minimal
resources and institutional support.
Our recommendations are the result of a 3-day work-
shop in 2012 on the human dimensions of the ocean.
The event fostered breakout discussion groups to solicit
expert and participants’ opinions on strategies for grad-
uate students to promote conservation effects. On the
basis of the workshop’s results, a review of the literature,
and our own practical experiences, we devised recom-
mendations related to 3 key topics: creating resources
for graduate students within their academic institutions;
institutionalizing resources; and engaging with stake-
holders to promote the potential achievement of real-
world conservation outcomes. The practical experiences
represent successful strategies students in conservation-
oriented programs at Duke University, James Cook Uni-
versity, New Mexico State University, University of
California Santa Cruz, and University of Washington
found helpful in advancing the application of their
research toward conservation actions. Each of the pro-
grams referenced throughout this paper provides ba-
sic support and institutional guidance for graduate re-
search (e.g., preliminary research funding, introductions
to nonacademic partners). However, students found that
research funds were often limited and securing institu-
tional support to engage in application activities was dif-
ficult. The examples outlined below document common
roadblocks and successful strategies to overcome them,
which students encountered at various stages of their
training and research. Although there are many factors
that influence whether a student’s research has conser-
vation effects, our recommendations (Table 1) provide a
way for students to conduct research that can promote
tangible conservation effects.
Creating Resources within Institutions
Graduate students entering master’s or PhD programs in
conservation fields expect to gain knowledge and skills
necessary to apply their future research toward conserva-
tion action. However, study programs generally focus on
academic theory and research techniques. Students are
often not taught skills they can use to apply theoretical
knowledge, whether they remain in academia or move
into the nonprofit or government sector (Duchelle et al.
2009; Courter 2012). However, if students are not gaining
the expertise they need for future employment from their
educational institution, they have opportunities to exer-
cise self-agency and create their own resources. By going
beyond skills that a study program directly provides, stu-
dents expand their professional network, practical skills
and experience, and access to additional resources and
funding (Table 1).
Foster Links to Practitioners
Although conservation researchers and practitioners
share many goals, difficulties in communication be-
tween them limits the effects of conservation activities
(Laurance et al. 2012). Graduate students often have op-
portunities to interact with practitioners directly. How-
ever, students must put effort into engaging effectively
with practitioners. One technique students can use to
further practitioner connections and create opportunities
for nonacademic professional development is informa-
tional interviews (Per´
ez 2005) (i.e., interviews students
can hold with professionals to gather information about
career realities, research relevant to practitioners, and
advice on getting started in the field). Informational in-
terviews and engagement with practitioners will help
students increase their research relevance; align with
agencies that could bolster research effects; and ex-
pand their professional network and future employment
opportunities.
Self-advocacy is imperative in expanding a professional
network and creating skill-development opportunities,
particularly given the challenges students may face in
identifying and forming meaningful connections with
nonacademic partners. Students should seek experiences
that align with their career goals and help them develop
opportunities to build skills needed for a conservation
career (Muir & Schwartz 2009). One way to build skills
is through volunteering with conservation organizations
or participating in embedded experiences where a stu-
dent spends an intensive period of time enmeshed in
nonacademic communities, such as nongovernmental
organizations (NGOs) or government agencies (Jenkins
et al. 2012). For example, because of a desire to de-
velop practitioner connections, a student volunteered
with Sea Grant—a federally funded research, outreach,
and education organization—throughout her master’s
program. Volunteering allowed her develop a profes-
sional network and led to a position with Sea Grant
upon graduation. Although students are often overtaxed
with existing academic requirements, for some, the ben-
efits of expanding their professional network and form-
ing connections outside of academia may outweigh the
costs.
Conservation Biology
Volume 00, No. 0, 2013
4Graduate Students and the Research–Implementation Gap
Table 1. Summary of key strategies, tasks, benefits, and challenges for students working to bridge the research–implementation gap.
Phase Strategy Tasks Benefits Challenges
Creating resources
within institutions
foster links to
practitioners
conduct informational
interviews with
practitioners
educates students in
conservation career realities
difficult to form
connections with
nonacademic partners
provides employment leads and
expands professional
network
limited time for
extracurricular
activities
volunteer with and
participate in
internships with NGOs,
government agencies,
and conservation
organizations
creates new links to
nonacademic partners
promote knowledge
and skill sharing
among graduate
join peer discussion
groups for improving
nonacademic skills
allows students to improve
nonacademic skills
students provides forum to share
nonacademic experiences
Institutionalizing
resources within
academic programs
cultivate leaders and
sponsors
engage diverse student
leadership
fosters shared ownership,
diverse membership, and
smooth leadership transfer
difficult to find sponsors
because of limited
perceived value in
academic system
transferring products
to and engaging new
leaders effort required
to conduct program
evaluation
obtain faculty champions
and sponsors
demonstrates legitimacy of
student-led efforts helps
activities achieve formal
university status
document activities
and plan
strategically
record, evaluate, and
archive outputs,
outcomes, potential
impacts, and lessons
learned
helps students sustain their
programs builds support for
programs w/in organizations
and communities
Engaging with
stakeholders to
promote real-world
conservation
outcomes
create stakeholder
connections
target research toward
stakeholder needs
(e.g., agencies, NGOs,
communities)
budget for stakeholder
engagement
increases relevance and
applicability of research
expands students’ field
research and engagement
opportunities
provides opportunities for
ongoing engagement
temporal and financial
constraints of academic
programs
engage actively with
stakeholders
encourage local
participation in
research activities
increases stakeholder
knowledge, skills and
capacity to continue future
research, monitoring, and
management efforts
political realities may
limit ability to connect
with relevant
stakeholders cultural
differences may
share research with
stakeholders
disseminate research
results through reports
and workshops
engage with stakeholders
in interpretation and
implementation of
recommendations
creates potential for local
stakeholders to continue
conservation efforts
increases likelihood research
results will influence
policy/management decisions
pushes students outside
of comfort zone
students must develop
effective science
communication skills
disseminate research
to the broader
public
discuss research results in
social media outlets
(e.g., blogs, Twitter)
write general media
research articles
creates broader audience for
research results
increases potential for public
support of research and
related policy decisions
Conservation Biology
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Pietri et al. 5
Promote Knowledge and Skill Sharing among Graduate
Students
In many instances, it is not necessary for students to look
beyond their university to expand their skill set. Students
can form peer discussion groups aimed at improving
nonacademic skills, such as science communication and
mechanisms for stakeholder collaboration (Per´
ez 2005;
Duchelle et al. 2009). Students at one university used this
strategy and formed a Science and Culture Club to encour-
age science communication and the union of science, art,
and culture in the broader community. The group holds
monthly exhibitions at an art gallery, which features art
works produced through collaborations between local
scientists and artists. The first exhibition featured a video
installation of coral reef images. In addition to facilitating
engagement between the public and scientists, this club
has enabled the students involved to develop their skills
in communicating their work to the general public—a
skill that is underdeveloped in academia. Spurred by a
similar desire to increase their ability to communicate
science and promote peer learning, students from 2 uni-
versities formed a group called Women in Marine Science
and Conservation. This group provides a forum through
which they share their experiences and knowledge of
applying science to management and conservation, lend-
ing a personal perspective to a largely theoretical field.
Initiating and engaging in peer-learning efforts may be
challenging because of the increased time and effort on
the part of the already busy student; however, students
interested in expanding their skills may see the trade-offs
as worthwhile.
Institutionalizing Resources in Academic Programs
Initiatives to create effect-oriented student groups or net-
works with nonacademic partners often have initial mo-
mentum and garner excitement from colleagues. How-
ever, such enterprises require long-term collaboration
among students and multiple partners. Beyond the initial
start-up phase (Sharfman et al. 1991) of effect-oriented
collaborations, it is important to consider their long-term
sustainability. If students build and institutionalize their
efforts (Table 1), they can provide continued resources
for other students and seasoned researchers in their in-
stitutions who wish to engage in effect-oriented conser-
vation work.
Cultivate Leaders and Sponsors
Creating conservation-oriented research and outreach
requires collaboration among students, professors, and
outside organizations (e.g., NGOs, communities, profes-
sional societies). One way to enhance the sustainability
of such activities is to engage diverse student leadership.
Although one student may spearhead an initiative, if this
student is the sole leader and supporter of the program
it is unlikely to last beyond the leader’s academic tenure
(Bryson et al. 2006). Engaging multiple participants can
create shared program ownership, facilitate continued
engagement of new students, and aid smooth leader-
ship transfer. A student chapter of The Coastal Society
provides a useful example of a diverse and sustained
conservation-oriented student group. The student chap-
ter endeavors to provide links among students with an
interest in marine and coastal issues, professionals in the
field, and local communities through networking events,
community service, and student conferences. Because
many of The Coastal Society student members are en-
rolled in 2-year master’s programs, in all of their efforts
one chapter aims to involve many students and encour-
ages them to hold leadership roles. Additionally, this
chapter has coordinated with similar student organiza-
tions, such as a university chapter of the American Fish-
eries Society, to coproduce events. Although the student
chapter of The Coastal Society at one university has en-
countered roadblocks (e.g., years with waning student
membership, difficulties raising sufficient funds for con-
ferences), their wide engagement of student partners and
collaboration with like-minded students groups demon-
strates one of the ways the student chapter has been able
to sustain and build upon their successes.
Obtaining faculty champions and sponsors who are
interested in effect-oriented conservation work can also
promote the longevity of student-run programs. Faculty
support helps demonstrate the legitimacy of student ef-
forts to the wider academic community. Legitimacy is
a crucial factor in the sustainability of any collabora-
tion (Bryson et al. 2006) and thus imperative to student-
initiated programs. Faculty support may help institution-
alize programs by connecting students to resources not
at their disposal, such as listing groups on departmen-
tal websites or helping a group transition from a skill-
building club to an actual course. For instance, at UW
students decided to create a Coupled Human and Nat-
ural Systems (e.g., Liu et al. 2007) journal club. The
club was designed to expose students to useful examples
of interdisciplinary conservation research and its policy
and management applications, areas that many students
believed were lacking from existing curricular options.
By obtaining a faculty sponsor for the journal club, stu-
dents were able to obtain an official seminar listing on
the university’s time schedule. The club’s formalization
led to diverse membership in the course with students
from over 4 departments. The journal club allowed the
students to become familiar with a wide array of interdis-
ciplinary conservation literature and has been sustained
over multiple quarters.
Creating sustained leaders and obtaining faculty sup-
port are not without their difficulties. Students are un-
likely to be able to ensure the sustainability of their efforts
Conservation Biology
Volume 00, No. 0, 2013
6Graduate Students and the Research–Implementation Gap
once they complete their program, particularly because
some cohorts may be more enthusiastic about extracur-
ricular activities than others. For finding faculty sponsors,
one difficult reality is the lack of incentives for faculty to
engage beyond their existing and substantial academic
responsibilities. Courter (2012) suggests rewarding fac-
ulty for their applied conservation work, but graduate
students rarely have the tenure or political clout to alter
faculty-level reward structures. Rather, an approach that
is practical for more graduate students and institutions
is to seek out faculty who are supportive of the types of
student initiatives outlined above and who are willing to
engage because they find the work personally fulfilling.
Although personal values and fulfillment might be the
primary driver for faculty participation, graduate students
should still seek opportunities (e.g., nominating faculty
for distinguished service awards, inviting them to give
seminars) to recognize supportive faculty in ways that
are valued within academia.
Document Activities and Plan Strategically
Documentation is critical for perpetuation of research
and outreach activities and understanding their possible
contribution to conservation. It is imperative for students
to document their efforts, lessons learned, and successes.
There are 2 main audiences for this documentation: fu-
ture project participants and stakeholder groups inter-
ested in the students’ work, for whom the documentation
can serve as an important communication tool (Duchelle
et al. 2009; Courter 2012). For example, a student at Duke
University spearheaded the development of a graduate
student handbook for her department. The handbook
documented lessons learned and best practices for all
aspects of graduate student life, including the graduate-
student-initiated community and conservation outreach
activities. The handbook summarized the various out-
reach events, jobs that needed to be filled to orchestrate
them, and a timeline of tasks—all of which were im-
portant factors in helping students sustain conservation-
oriented programs.
Critically evaluating the outputs, outcomes, and ef-
fects of conservation programs is recognized as crucial
for their success (e.g., Saterson et al. 2004; Ferraro &
Pattanayak 2006). Thus, students should strive to record,
evaluate, and archive all products created. Recording and
highlighting the outputs, outcomes, and any potential
long-term effects of student collaborations not only helps
students sustain their programs, but also builds support
for programs within partner organizations and commu-
nities. Evaluating a program’s success requires additional
time and effort on the part of the students; however, an
archive of the group’s work can publicize the story of
the work and build legitimacy both within the program
and from external partners. When publicizing the results
of their efforts students should be sure to emphasize the
collaborative partnerships they have formed with those
outside of their academic institution. For instance, a post-
doctoral fellow highlighted research team members from
the local community in her research blog (Jenkins 2011).
Other students were able to include research assistants
from local conservation organizations who had served
as critical partners in data collection and interpretation
as coauthors on papers published as a result of their re-
search (Pietri et al. 2009; Maxwell et al. 2011).
Once students have established that their activities
provide a productive pathway for engaging with nonaca-
demic partners and offer the potential to promote posi-
tive conservation outcomes, they have the ability to lever-
age their initiative’s reputation and get funding. Students
can present the program to departmental or university
administration and market it as a proven program that
already has informal university affiliation but no financial
support. If students can demonstrate that the department
or university would be sponsoring a legitimate program,
the university has the potential to reap immediate ben-
efits by extending the program’s reach and formalizing
its relation with the university. Additionally, formaliza-
tion may encourage the university to commit additional
multiyear funds to the program. By following a similar
process, a graduate of Duke University was able to con-
vince the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administra-
tion (NOAA) to sponsor an American Association for the
Advancement of Science and Technology Policy Fellow.
The director’s office of NOAA has since committed funds
for new fellows for 5 years and is dedicated to extending
this funding in the future. Although securing institutional
funding may be challenging given the current financial
cutbacks in many universities, attempting to gain official
support for student-initiated efforts still represents an im-
portant avenue for graduate students to pursue.
Although students should plan for the future through-
out building of student-led conservation programs, such
long-term vision is especially important when trying to
institutionalize a program. Actions such as conducting
end-of-year evaluations, drafting action plans and bud-
gets, and creating an online platform to share resources
will help assure a program’s longevity. If students are
able to institutionalize and sustain conservation-related
endeavors they can increase the likelihood that future
cohorts of students will have access to these resources.
Phases of Stakeholder Engagement to Promote
Real-World Conservation
Many students’ chief motivation for undertaking graduate
degrees in conservation science is achieving real-world
improvements (Lowman 2009). Although partnering
with local stakeholders will not guarantee that research
has an effect, it has many potential benefits. These in-
clude enhancing the relevance of research, fostering the
Conservation Biology
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Pietri et al. 7
exchange of knowledge between students and stakehold-
ers, and increasing the likelihood of success (Kainer et
al. 2009). Students can engage with stakeholders directly
associated with their study area (e.g., resource users,
local government organizations, NGOs) throughout the
different phases of their research (Table 1).
Design
Engaging with stakeholders when initially developing
research questions greatly increases the probability
research will have on-the-ground effects (Jenkins &
Maxwell 2011). Resource users, local agencies, and NGOs
involved in the management of resources or species of-
ten have a wealth of knowledge regarding conservation
issues, local context, and management information needs
(Kainer et al. 2009; Laurance et al. 2012). Local parties
may not always be interested in student collaborations.
However, when possible, early discussions can prove in-
valuable for identifying key issues and designing research
that is likely to be valid, relevant, and fill information
gaps (Morgan & Curtis 2008; Kainer et al. 2009). For
example, some university students undertook their mas-
ter’s research in the Philippines and worked closely with
a local NGO, Coastal Conservation and Education Foun-
dation (CCEF). To conduct research in line with local
needs, they collaborated with CCEF when designing their
research. Consequently their research addressed infor-
mation needs integral to CCEF’s conservation activities,
such as helping communities design a network of marine
protected areas (MPAs) (e.g., Pietri et al. 2009; Varney
et al. 2010). Additionally, some of their research findings
were later incorporated into educational material devel-
oped by CCEF and a student regarding the establishment
of community-based MPA networks (Varney et al. 2010).
This guide has been distributed broadly as a handbook for
small communities wishing to establish MPA networks.
Although collaborating with CCEF often meant students
had to wait until arrival in the field to fully develop
their research approach (as opposed to having a con-
crete plan ahead of time), it allowed them the flexibility
to adapt their interests to align with those of the local
organization.
If students can communicate with local groups prior
to beginning research (which may be difficult due to
time and location constraints), they may also develop
and submit grant applications in conjunction with rele-
vant local management institutions. Collaborative grant
applications may increase the chances the management
institution will have an immediate and vested interest in
the work and thus bolsters the likelihood the institution
will implement recommendations generated by research.
Implementation
During the implementation phase of research, graduate
students can engage local stakeholders by encouraging
their participation in research activities. Although in cer-
tain contexts students may be hindered by cultural differ-
ences that take them outside their comfort zone (Kainer
et al. 2009), involving stakeholders in research provides
potential mutual advantages. Students gain local skills
and knowledge of the biological and cultural system,
and stakeholders may gain knowledge and research skills
from students, which may increase awareness and capac-
ity to manage resources and undertake future conserva-
tion activities (Cabanban & White 1981; Stepath 2000).
Conservation students can further contribute to knowl-
edge and skill building by involving stakeholders in data
analyses and manuscript preparation (e.g., Maxwell et al.
2011). For example, to foster strong community connec-
tions that could lead to long-term conservation effects, a
PhD student conducting research in Indonesia engaged
closely with a local NGO at each stage of her research. She
developed her research questions to align with the NGO’s
management information needs (as well as the theoret-
ical demands of her PhD research) and worked directly
with the NGO to conduct research, including data collec-
tion and analyses and interpretation of information used
to inform their adaptive-management process. Although
students should avoid biasing their research by catering
to any specific NGO agenda, this student found many
advantages to the collaboration. She was able to draw
on the NGO’s previously established relationship with
villagers and wealth of local knowledge, and the NGO
gained skills and knowledge in experimental design of
conservation-related research.
Dissemination
Upon completion of research projects, it is helpful for
conservation scientists to disseminate findings to rele-
vant stakeholders in order to contribute to real-world
conservation outcomes (Morgan & Curtis 2008). Students
can disseminate research results to local communities
through presentations, reports, and posters that are cus-
tomized to a community’s educational and cultural con-
text and interests. For example, while working in Gabon,
Africa, a researcher disseminated the outcomes of her
turtle research in a short report aimed at stakeholders
that was translated into the local language and included
local-language translations of scientific publications as
supplementary material (Maxwell et al. 2011). As a result,
stakeholders have been able to continue the study after
her departure. Additionally, due to involvement from a
local NGO that interfaces directly with management agen-
cies, her results have been applied to the expansion of
existing MPAs to create the region’s first international
MPA.
The more active a stakeholder’s role in interpreting in-
formation presented to them, the more likely the informa-
tion is to be incorporated into their beliefs and attitudes,
potentially leading to concomitant behavioral change
Conservation Biology
Volume 00, No. 0, 2013
8Graduate Students and the Research–Implementation Gap
(Freire 1970). Therefore, active learning approaches,
such as workshops and community forums can be useful
for building stakeholder knowledge and disseminating
research findings. However, more passive learning ap-
proaches, such as posters, brochures, and reports can
serve as important and long-lasting complements to more
active tools. Unfortunately, political realities may limit the
ability of students to engage actively with individuals or
institutions able to make policy or management changes.
However, graduate students should attempt to involve
relevant management institutions and local groups in
translating data into management recommendations (as
opposed to just providing them with management sug-
gestions). In addition to improving stakeholders’ under-
standing of issues, local groups will be better positioned
to translate data into management recommendations in
the future.
An active approach is more likely to be possible if
the relevant management institutions were involved in
the research design phase. A student had local fish-
ers help attach satellite-tracking tags to sea turtles as a
tool to inform fishers about the effects of bycatch in
Mexico. Fishers gained knowledge about turtle behav-
ior and were involved in interpreting the effects of by-
catch. Their experiences prompted them to undertake
a number of voluntary conservation actions, including a
community-wide gear-switching project, voluntary retire-
ment of high-bycatch gear, and implementation of self-
enforced closure of areas to fishing to protect turtles
(Peckham et al. 2007).
Conservation students can extend the effects of their
work on local communities beyond the duration of their
research in a number of ways, which require different lev-
els of temporal and financial commitment. For instance,
if students aid in the development of decision-support
tools for management during their project, these can be
made available to local stakeholders. The regional-scale
coral reef simulation model developed by Melbourne-
Thomas et al. (2011a, 2011b) is accessible to the public
on a dedicated website (www.reefscenarios.org), where
practitioners can use the model (with a user-friendly in-
terface) to explore potential conditions of coral reefs
under alternative climatic and management scenarios.
Researchers may also engage in the implementation of
recommendations from their research findings directly,
through methods such as working with communities to
determine the appropriate design of an MPA network.
Enacting recommendations, particularly in partnership
with local organizations and stakeholders, will enhance a
researcher’s potential to promote conservation at a local
level.
Engaging with communities beyond the scope of a
research project enables students and scientists to have
positive effects on the ground and to solidify relationships
with stakeholders. To help increase the capacity of the
local community, a student organized the distribution of
discarded computers from his university to a local ecolog-
ical management group in a rural Ecuadorian community
that had expressed a need for them. The group, formed
by community residents, used the computers to organize
local cultural and ecological information and set up an
Internet station that residents could use to research con-
servation, land-rights issues, tourism development, and
other conservation-related issues. Although these types
of rewards and continued engagement may not always be
feasible or appropriate, they provide an example of ways
students can think about the best mechanisms for pro-
viding additional capacity to the communities in which
they are working.
Although stakeholders associated with a student’s
study area are generally the main audience for research
results, students may also contribute to conservation
through engaging with other sectors of the nonacademic
community. This community may include local resource
users, practitioners, and policy makers in the area near
the student’s academic institution or field site. An in-
creasingly effective means of reaching the general public
is through modern communication technology, includ-
ing creating or contributing to blogs and websites and
posting pertinent information, videos, and images on so-
cial media outlets. Another method for influencing the
general public is for students to write articles targeted
at general media outlets to explain the activities, short-
and long-term outcomes, and potential effects of their
research. One student, for instance, wrote an article for
the informed public explaining the science behind com-
plicated pending regulatory changes for sea turtle con-
servation, and the article continues to be accessed online
regularly, indicating the utility of translating this research
(Jenkins 2002).
Graduate Students as Future Conservation Pioneers
The disconnect between conservation research and real-
world conservation action is an important factor in the
widespread failure of management to stem environmen-
tal degradation and biodiversity loss. We have provided
suggestions on how students can engage with stakehold-
ers throughout each stage of their research in order to
increase the practical applicability of their work. Given
that graduate students undertake a substantial portion of
conservation research, training in practical skills and find-
ing the synergy between research and action is critical
to bridging the research–implementation gap. Graduate
students are the senior scientists and conservation pio-
neers of the future. Ensuring that they are equipped with
the skills and knowledge necessary to conduct applied
research that can be implemented on the ground has
the potential to catalyze conservation now and in the
future.
Conservation Biology
Volume 00, No. 0, 2013
Pietri et al. 9
Acknowledgments
We thank the organizers of the Our Oceans, Our Future:
A Human Dimensions of the Environment Event work-
shop and public symposium (http://depts.washington.
edu/smea/our-oceans-our-future), including the Univer-
sity of Washington’s School of Marine and Environmental
Affairs and the College of the Environment and lead or-
ganizer, P. Christie. This event initiated the productive
discussions and breakout groups that resulted in the cre-
ation of this article.
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Conservation Biology
Volume 00, No. 0, 2013
... Adequate training of graduate students in the particular skills necessary to become successful conservation professionals is one approach that may shorten the knowledgeimplementation gap in conservation science (Knight et al., 2008;Pietri et al., 2013;Schwartz et al., 2017). Graduate students often lack both interdisciplinary training opportunities and institutional support to conduct applied research. ...
... Graduate students often lack both interdisciplinary training opportunities and institutional support to conduct applied research. Pietri et al. (2013) recommends graduate students work with peers, faculty sponsors, stakeholders, and the general public during their graduate careers to cultivate the skills needed to bridge the knowledge-implementation gap for their future careers. For example, graduate students can benefit from increased preparation in science communication as well as training in the use of tools used by practitioners (Blickley et al., 2012). ...
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