Academics Are from Mars, NGOs Are from Venus – Looking at Conservation from Two Sides of the Solar System

In his new role directing the Luc Hoffman Institute, Josh Tewksbury works with a wide range of policy makers, including the European Parliament.

In his new role directing the Luc Hoffmann Institute, Josh Tewksbury works with a wide range of policy makers, including the European Parliament.

I was an academic. PhD, Post-doc, 10 years as a professor in a big research university, all in the general area of ecology, conservation biology, evolution. But now, and for the last couple of years, I am clearly not an academic (or at least not in the way that anyone in an academic job would recognize). Two years ago, I started a new job as the Director of the Luc Hoffmann Institute, and I have been building this institute as a boundary organization within WWF International, the secretariat office of WWF.

I used to teach conservation biology; now I am trying to create better conservation outcomes by bringing research more closely into the process. The learning curve has been steep. Most days it is a little bit like drinking from a firehose, but I think I have now been in my current role long enough to appreciate some of the differences in the culture and practice within academic organizations and within large conservation organizations. At the same time, I have not been out of academia long enough to forget what it was like to be an academic.

While the memories of being an academic are both bitter and sweet, I think I would like to remain in this place, perched between the two cultures, because I am more and more convinced that a big part of the difficulties we have connecting science to conservation action and policy comes from the mystery of how the other half works. For more on why we need to strengthen the links between these cultures, see my argument, with Gernot Wagner, here). Here are a few observations on the cultural differences, and the challenges these present:

1. Language and goals. In academia, everyone speaks the same language (science), but nobody shares the same goal (unless you count the “pursuit of knowledge” as a common goal). In an NGO, nobody speaks the same language (as people come from a huge array of backgrounds — business, policy, journalism, advocacy, policy, science, management etc.), but everybody shares the same goal. And that goal is explicit and measurable (and generally quite difficult to attain).

2. What can you do for me today? Because the goals are shared in an NGO, what matters is what your team can do to get the organization closer to the goals. Your resume, your schooling, and your past successes are not nearly as important as your ability to solve problems. This leads to a bit of advice for newly minted PhDs wanting to work at an NGO: show that you can solve problems, that you can work an issue from knowledge creation all the way to an outcome, and that you can do this with a diverse set of stakeholders.

3. Sitting at the side table. The goals are always big and action-oriented in the NGO world (“sustainable production,” “zero poaching,” “30% reduction of the human footprint,” “preservation of the rainforest,” etc. etc.). Science shows up as just another wrench in the toolkit. There are many conservation and sustainable development problems where the science, however elegant, just does not get you much closer to the solution. I call this “science at the side table.” There are also problems where science is critically important, but even in these cases, the science is almost never sufficient to get us the outcome we are looking for. This is “science at the main table,” but not at the head of the table. Finally, there are a very few issues and situations where a science process is at the center of decision-making, and these are the times when I sit at the front of the table. Effectiveness is knowing the difference between these situations, and being comfortable in your seat.

4. Fast or not at all. Policy windows are narrow, and they remain open for only a short period of time. Big NGOs are perpetually in a rush to deliver solutions. About the only times these organizations are not focused on delivering on a “Theory of Change” are the times they are re-evaluating their Theory of Change. This urgency means that science that does not arrive when it is needed simply does not count.

5. Who do you know? No matter where you work, who you know matters, but it matters more in some work cultures than others. And in the NGO community, it matters a lot. In academia, who you know can influence grant and paper reviews, and it can even influence where you get hired out of graduate school, but a great resume can break through that noise. In addition, because peer reviewed papers are a major part of the academic currency system, finding out who controls what information is relatively easy.

In the NGO community, where knowledge is a tool rather than an end in itself, knowing where the knowledge sits is more difficult, and it is generally more important. Almost anything you do in a big NGO will be a networked effort. It will almost always involve working with people spread among different locations, often in different disciplines, and typically across organizations. Keeping everybody up to speed, and staying up to speed on developments that affect a project, becomes a big part of the job.

Tip to job seekers: Your network matters. A lot. If you want to bring an idea to a big NGO, and you have not done this before, here are a few tips:

First, get to know folks within the NGO community. Building your network before you get started is critical, and you will be much more successful if you have a well-respected champion inside the NGO.

Second, interview people so you understand how they approach the issue you are working on, who they see as the most important “actors” in the system, and what their goals look like. Most folks in an NGO measure their success against clearly defined goals, and if your issue is not squarely within one of those goals, you will have a hard time getting their interest.

Finally, ask and answer, for yourself, the following questions about your idea: how does it fit into the larger political landscape? How can it be scaled to create bigger impact? Who is the audience? What are the milestones and products and when can they be ready?

If you want to work in an NGO, here are a few additional tips. Having a boss can be a good thing (really, it is quite cool), but like all relationships, it takes some work. Working with and learning to respect people with divergent views is crucial. Working from knowledge to impact requires a lot more communication than creating research, it requires respect and trust between people with very different skill sets, and the work of the team is much more important than the brilliance of the individual. Go-it-alone individuals often find themselves isolated in the NGO community, and their effectiveness is compromised.

Big NGOs have the network, the convening power, the brand, and the access to private and public sector stakeholders to incubate an idea and bring it to scale. In many cases, working with an environmental NGO is the best way to plug into the knowledge to action continuum, but if you go in knowing a few things about how the ecosystem works, you can have a lot more impact.

Josh Tewksbury, a 2013 Leopold Leadership Fellow, directs the Luc Hoffmann Institute. Follow him (@tewksjj) and the work of the institute (@LucHoffmannInst) on Twitter.

Integrating Science: The Work of A Boundary Organization

The California Ocean Science Trust connects science to ocean policy and management

The California Ocean Science Trust connects science to ocean policy and management

In our first post, we described a few key concepts and findings that have emerged from research on boundary organizations. What does this look like in practice? Here are a few examples from our work at the Ocean Science Trust.

Science Needs Assessment

Scientists and decision-makers operate in different worlds, at different paces, and with different priorities, which can often lead to missed opportunities. One way to remedy the disconnect is by developing a deeper understanding of how agencies interact with and use science. Through “Science Needs Assessment,” we map decision makers’ science needs using interviews, focus groups, and surveys. Conducting these interviews helps us capture the priority information needs of managers, and the processes by which new scientific information could be used. With this knowledge in hand, we can work more effectively with the scientific community to align its activities with decision making.

Expert Judgment

Expert judgment can be a valuable tool in helping to translate science for decision makers. We define expert judgment as a process that takes advantage of specialized knowledge and experience to inform a management or decision making need. Expert judgment can be helpful in cases where empirical evidence is lacking or insufficient. Or in deriving useful information from large amounts of data, or in assessing complex situations. Expert judgment is used in an extremely wide range of circumstances. In our own context, we see an increasing need for expert judgment processes that inform adaptive management of complex socio-ecological systems.

Scientific & Technical Review

Ocean Science Trust employs scientific review on behalf of ocean and coastal management agencies in California to help ensure that decisions are supported by the highest quality science. Unlike academic journal articles, agency products often have diverse review needs due to the fact that scientific and technical aspects are intertwined with regulatory components, and there is often significant public interest involved. While there is no “one size fits all” review process, review processes must be considered transparent, credible, and scientifically rigorous.

These are just a few examples of the work of one boundary organization. They do not represent everything Ocean Science Trust does to help link science with decision making. Moreover, the boundary space is diverse. One of the exciting aspects of this growing field is that different boundary organizations are using different models and approaches, and focus on different skill sets or areas of expertise (e.g., science communications, law, management processes, etc.). The producers and users of scientific knowledge will benefit most when all these institutions are functioning well and working together constructively.

So why should scientists care about boundary organizations? They can efficiently improve your relevance and impact by:

1) Taking care of process

These examples have one element in common, and that’s process, process, process! In having access to an organization with the expertise and capacity to design and implement strong processes, scientists and decision makers gain the support and guidance they need to constructively collaborate and learn from each other. Often the gap between science and decision making is bridged by the right process at the right time.

2) Finding the right audience for your work

Boundary organizations can serve as a valuable guide to the policy issues and decision making audiences where your research might be relevant. An effective boundary organization can relieve some of the pressure that gets heaped onto scientists through mechanisms such as the NSF’s “broader impacts” criterion by pointing out credible avenues through which your work can make a difference.

3) Identifying new collaborations

In the course of working with scientists and decision makers to align information with users’ needs, boundary organizations often generate new opportunities for collaboration and for expanding the utility of scientific research.

Do you engage with a boundary organization as part of your work? Leave a comment about your experiences!

Read more about the Ocean Science Trust’s approach to its boundary role here, and look here for a presentation on boundary organization theory and practice.

Senior Scientist Ryan Meyer and Program Manager Emily Knight work for the California Ocean Science Trust, a boundary organization that advances a constructive role for science in decision-making by promoting collaboration and mutual understanding among scientists, citizens, managers, and policy-makers.

What Is A “Boundary Organization” And Why Should You Care?

1024px-Fence,_cloture_Point_Michaud_Nova_ScotiaThis post is the first of a two-part series on the roles that boundary organizations play in linking science with decision making.

There’s so much that scientists can do to connect their work with users! Look no further than the pages of this blog for evidence of that. On the other hand, there’s only so much that scientists can do to connect their work with users!

A scientist working at a university needs to teach, get grants, publish papers, mentor students, and serve her department, among other things. Linking science with decision making requires working across the cultural and institutional boundaries that divide academia from potential users of academic knowledge. While it is critical for scientists to make time to engage, the reality is that making your science useful is a full-time job on its own. Also, why should we place this burden entirely on scientists?

This is where “boundary organizations” come in. These are organizations whose central purpose is to create and sustain meaningful and mutually beneficial links between knowledge producers and users. They are, we believe, an extremely important component of the complex picture of science and policy that swirls around any natural resource issue. (Full disclosure… we work at one!)

What exactly is a boundary organization, and what does it do? The term is thrown around more and more these days, and there’s no end-all definition. Researchers investigating the links between science and decision making have looked at boundary organizations in different ways, and are constantly tinkering with criteria, terminology, and theory about best practices.

Here are some robust and, we think, useful research findings about the roles boundary organizations play:

1) Translation

Boundary organizations speak multiple languages. They might be conversant in, for example, minutiae of water management bureaucracy and the cutting edge of dynamic and statistical approaches to modeling inter-annual climate variability. Knowing these languages allows for more than just effective communication. It can help to create and sustain relationships, or get the right people in the room at the right time, with the right agenda.

2) Participation and Co-production

When producers and users of knowledge collaborate, the product is often much more useful and valuable than when knowledge is produced in isolation. Boundary organizations excel at creating and sustaining the space–physical, temporal, institutional, political, etc.–where co-production can occur. At the Ocean Science Trust, we often describe this as “process expertise.” We work to understand what would be a good outcome from multiple perspectives, and then design a process than can get us to that co-produced outcome.

3) Dual Accountability

In cultivating and sustaining relationships with both producers and users of knowledge, boundary organizations become accountable to these different worlds. Both rely on the boundary organization in different ways. For example, scientists might be looking to see that their work is represented effectively and accurately. Users might be watching to see that their needs are being met, and trusting that the information presented to them is credible, legitimate and salient. This dual–or multiple–accountability circumstance is both precarious and a source of power. It can also be very hard to establish and maintain (see the case study by Parker and Crona, listed below).

In our next post we’ll discuss some of these activities in practice using examples from Ocean Science Trust. That said, there are a variety of boundary organizations out there–independent institutions, affiliated with universities, and more. If you work with a boundary organization, or have questions about them, tell us about it in the comments!

Senior Scientist Ryan Meyer and Program Manager Emily Knight work for the California Ocean Science Trust, a boundary organization that advances a constructive role for science in decision-making by promoting collaboration and mutual understanding among scientists, citizens, managers, and policy-makers.

Further Reading

Dilling, L., & Lemos, M. C. (2011). Creating usable science: Opportunities and constraints for climate knowledge use and their implications for science policy. Global Environmental Change, 21(2). doi:10.1016/j.gloenvcha.2010.11.006

Guston, D. H. (2001). Boundary Organizations in Environmental Policy and Science: An Introduction. Science, Technology, & Human Values, 26(4), 399–408. Retrieved from<399:BOIEPA>2.0.CO;2-D

Parker, J. N., & Crona, B. I. (2012). On Being All Things to All People: Boundary Organizations and the Contemporary Research University. Social Studies Of Science, 42(2).

SPARC. (2005). Climate Science Policy: Lessons from the RISAs. (E. C. McNie, R. A. Pielke Jr, & D. Sarewitz, Eds.). Honolulu, HI: Workshop Report from the Science Policy Assessment and Research on Climate Project. Retrieved from