Skirting the “valley of death”: 2 new initiatives


Ever since I started the life-altering Leopold Leadership training with twenty over-achieving new friends, I’ve been keenly aware of one thing: the vast majority of science for sustainability is doomed to be relegated to the dusty virtual shelves of the primary literature and—for a select few—short-lived local applications.

It’s not because the researchers aren’t smart, or the ideas aren’t good. Even brilliant people with super ideas fall into the same traps.

The arcane fate prevails because the vast majority of this sustainability-oriented research is rooted in inspirations from the academic literature and/or a deeply naïve theory of change. If I had a nickel for every student or colleague’s idea for revolutionizing the use of science that began with a peer-reviewed journal article and ended with a well-crafted press release, I’d be rich. The sad truth is, the press release is not only the end of the theory of change, it’s usually also effectively the end of the engagement effort and any ripples of change it causes.

The Leopold Leadership Program is an effort to inoculate a handful of folks against these dusty fates. But of course we’re not immune: I’ve caught myself and other Leopold fellows falling into the same habits. I’ve tried to introduce such thinking much earlier in scientists’ careers, forcing my students to state their theory of change and their strategy for achieving it, and building bridges to appropriate folks in NGOs, government agencies, and the private sector who can help them along the way.

This is a hard nut to break, because societal change is hard. Several forces must align, and often the key actors are spread across multiple institutions. If only there were a program to help align these forces, where powerful organizations work with academics to identify areas of needed science and pave the way to ensuring that this science gets used by the folks who can use it effectively.

By chance, the past year has brought two emerging programs to meet this need: Science for Nature and People (SNAP), a joint initiative of The Nature Conservancy, the Wildlife Conservation Society, and the National Center for Ecological Analysis and Synthesis; and the Luc Hoffman Institute (LHI), an initiative of WWF International (directed by another member of my Leopold cohort, Joshua Tewksbury). In a new blog postPeter Kareiva eloquently describes the need for SNAP, and how SNAP will deliver what’s needed.

Nothing will make societal change easy. But SNAP and LHI are exciting new initiatives that promise to make it much easier.

Kai Chan, a 2013 Leopold Leadership Fellow, is a Canada Research Chair (tier 2) and associate professor in the Institute for Resources, Environment and Sustainability at University of British Columbia. Read more at his lab’s blogs and follow him on Twitter.

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About kaimachan

Kai Chan is an associate professor and Canada Research Chair (tier 2) at the Institute for Resources, Environment and Sustainability at the University of British Columbia. Kai received his PhD from Princeton University in Ecology and Evolutionary Biology and a concurrent certificate in Science, Technology and Environmental Policy. He subsequently did a postdoctoral fellowship at Stanford University in Conservation Biology. Kai’s research is interdisciplinary and policy-relevant, in four primary areas: (1) biodiversity and ecosystem services (the processes by which ecosystems benefit people, directly and indirectly), with a particular focus on cultural/intangible values; (2) sustainability science, connecting ecosystems to human producers and consumers; (3) models of social-ecological systems for ecosystem-based management; and (4) applied environmental ethics. In all, he strives to understand the workings of and values associated with social-ecological systems, in order to facilitate decision-making that promotes human well-being and social and ecological justice. Kai leads CHAN’S lab (, Connecting Human and Natural Systems; he is a director on the board of the BC chapter of the Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society (CPAWS), a Leopold Leadership Fellow (2013), a member of the Global Young Academy, and a senior fellow of the Environmental Leadership Program. In 2012, Kai was the Fulbright Canada Visiting Research Chair at the University of California, Santa Barbara.

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