12 Things to Know about Working in the International Sustainability Arena

Tip #1: To meet leaders working on sustainability issues from different perspectives, attend the conference of an international cross-sector organization, suggests Katherine Sierra, a senior fellow in the Brookings Institution’s Global Economy and Development Program who spoke at our Leopold advanced training “Navigating the International Sustainability Arena.”

If you’re a researcher in sustainability science, and you want to make your research used and useful in solving sustainability challenges internationally, how do you engage? “The world is wide,” as the saying goes. How do you identify partners and determine where you can have the most impact?

The Leopold Leadership Program recently held an advanced training in Washington, D.C. to help participants answer these questions. All were academic researchers seeking to integrate their science into practice internationally.

During the two-and-a-half-day workshop, the group got an overview of the international sustainability arena through the lens of two organizations: the World Bank, which was the subject of a keynote by Katherine Sierra, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution; and the Global Environment Facility, which was the focus of a panel moderated by Tom Hammond, Secretary of the Scientific and Technical Advisory Panel for GEF. As happens with all Leopold trainings, participants immediately had the chance to put what they learned into practice. In this case, they interviewed professionals working at international organizations on their issue of interest to learn more about their work.

To prepare, the group first did a series of “speed interviews” during an afternoon session. Working in pairs, they had an hour to develop questions. They then used them in 12-minute interviews with volunteers from the World Bank, the Pew Charitable Trust, Climate Advisers, and the World Wildlife Fund. The goal was to learn as much as possible in a short time about the international sustainability arena. Armed with an understanding of which questions work best, they spent the following day visiting international organizations and doing their one-on-one interviews.

In their debrief, the workshop participants spoke about the power of informational interviews for building relationships to advance the work of solving sustainability challenges. “Aims to influence policy start with a real desire and ability to listen to policy- and decision-makers, rather than always providing information and thinking that ‘they will come,’” said Marc Jeuland, a workshop participant and faculty member in the Sanford School of Public Policy at Duke University.

Here are 10 other tips:

Marc Jeuland: “In the context of making connections, I learned how critical it is to tailor even a two-sentence introduction to be most relevant to the person and purpose at hand. I used to think that such clarity could come from subsequent conversations, but this workshop and the substantial practice interacting with others (in small groups, mock interviews, and then with my own scheduled interviews) really drove home the point that first impressions are very critical if one wants to maximize impact.”

Jill Caviglia-Harris: “I learned that the silos that we talk about in academia also exist in the international policy world… and that breaking into this new arena requires reaching out, building long-term relationships, and co-developing questions that can be addressed with research findings.”

Karen Holl: “I learned an immense amount about the goals and workings of several intergovernmental organizations, and how I could most effectively collaborate with them. As a result of one of my meetings, I was invited to participate in workshop in May to discuss forest restoration and monitoring with various countries participating in the Initiative 20×20, which aims to restore 20 million hectares of tropical forest in Latin America by 2020.”

Kevin Krizek: “If you’re asking for an informational interview with someone, include the name of the person who referred you in the subject of your email. This strategy works for getting a response, and I’ve begun teaching it to my students.”


“There are amazing efforts out there aiming to make the world a better and more environmentally humane place. These international agencies need different types of information from scientists and researchers at different points in various initiatives. A key challenge is finding out — and then delivering — the right info at the right time.”

Max Boykoff: “I found discussions surrounding our ‘theories of change’ very enlightening, in appreciating how we can chart different pathways to effective change in the international sustainability arena. My colleagues’ varied perspectives helped me to reflect on how to prioritize and plan my contributions going forward.”

Marco Janssen: “When I asked about the challenges they experience, representatives from the various international NGOs voiced the same message: ‘No more individual case studies, how can we scale up?’

Jennifer Cherrier: “All my interviewees reinforced the power of collective approaches for creating change that I learned in my Leopold training. I was reminded of the need to focus on your niche and work toward a series of ‘small victories’ (‘shrink the change‘) rather than trying to hit it out of the ball park. In all of this, doing your homework is key — you have to ‘know thy stuff’ and enough of your interviewees’ and collaborators’ stuff to effectively cross borders. Finally, be realistic with time constraints when you interview for information and plan accordingly.”

Margaret Krebs, Leopold program designer and training co-facilitator: “The rules of engagement are different for the international arena than they are for other spheres of sustainability work. Cultural differences are in play, and you need to respect and work with them.”


Who you know matters. This training was possible because Leopold fellows and the Stanford Woods Institute for the Environment shared their networks to identify people who could advise us about the workshop content and matching participants with representatives of organizations to interview. Thanks to Josh Tewksbury, Lea RosenbohmEd Barbier, Ruth DeFries, and Rashid Sumaila for their help in this regard!”

Pam Sturner is the executive director of the Leopold Leadership Program.

Affecting change on the ground: an interview with Anne Guerry of the Natural Capital Project


To help catalyze change, scientists have to listen carefully to stakeholders and be prepared to change their approach and vision of the outcomes.

Moving science out of the ivory tower, off the pages of journals, and into the hands of conservation practitioners, regional planners, and corporate decision makers is not something most environmental scientists learned how to do in grad school. However, it is exactly what the scientists at the Natural Capital Project do day in and day out. The Natural Capital Project—NatCap for short—is a partnership among The Nature Conservancy (TNC), the World Wildlife Fund (WWF), Stanford University, and the University of Minnesota. NatCap aims to integrate the values of nature into all major decisions affecting the environment and human well-being—with the ultimate objective of improving the state of biodiversity and human well-being by motivating greater and more cost-effective investments in both.

In a recent paper in Ecological Economics, Mary Ruckelshaus and coauthors describe NatCap’s experience using ecosystem services to inform decisions. The paper outlines over 20 decision-contexts in which NatCap and partners have worked to quantify ecosystem services, change decision-making dialogues, inform plans and policies, and affect real-world outcomes. Anne Guerry is Chief Strategy Officer and Lead Scientist for NatCap—and, in the interest of full disclosure, she is also my wife. I recently spoke with Anne (at our dinner table) about what it takes to successfully bridge the divide between science and practice.

1. What lessons did you learn about bridging the gap between science and action/policy?

We’ve found that information co-produced with decision-makers and stakeholders is much more likely to affect decisions than information just chucked over the wall. Science is never central to decision-making; you have to work hard to make it resonate. I have a slide that I use that shows our heliocentric understanding of the universe pre-Gallileo—I use the image to remind people that scientific information, though we scientists like to think otherwise—is at least a few rings out from the sun. Decisions are often made based on innumerable factors and for our science to have a prayer of being used, it needs to be salient, credible, and legitimate (see David Cash’s work on this theme).

You have to be a good listener. Real decision contexts provide really interesting scientific questions: you just have to listen and be willing to let your work be shaped by those grappling with hard questions. If you’ve been a good listener at the beginning and throughout the process, you’ll be much more likely to find good listeners in your audience at the end of the process—because you’ll be talking about things that matter to them.

Real personal relationships and real time together makes things happen. In a lot of NatCap’s work, we’ve gotten deeply engaged with our partners on the ground. For example, in our work on the West Coast of Vancouver Island, our team logged many, many hours in stakeholder meetings, in trainings, in board meetings, on Skype, in conference calls, and simply working together in the same physical space. This allowed our team to have a real understanding of the decision context we were working to inform—and for our partners to have a real understanding of what we could bring to the table. The same has been true for our work on water funds in Latin America, our coastal planning work in Belize, and for many of our other projects. However, we can’t scale up this intensive work. A better, more sustainable model involves putting our tools and approaches in the hands of others who can take real ownership of the work and not need significant outside help. Then those real personal relationships and real time together still matter—but the science is done internally, enabled by credible science and accessible tools.

2. What kind of person does it take to bridge the gap?

You need an open mind. One size doesn’t fit all, so you have to be ready to adapt your science and tools to be relevant to the questions at hand. This means that we need creative people who can come up with new solutions and different approaches. Also, for those who will work with stakeholders and decision-makers, it is critical to have people who are personable. You are going to need to build trust and that’s unlikely, if not impossible, if you can’t connect with people.

Also, we’ve seen that you either need jacks-of-all-trades (people who are capable scientists, good modelers, decent GIS analysts, creative data hounds, clever big-picture thinkers, and likeable) or you need a diverse team that ranges from the technical experts to the big-picture people. Of course, it also helps to have people with some experience in the wild and wooly world of using science to inform decisions.

What you do NOT need are big egos – Trying to inject some science into decision-making is about politics, stakeholders, and decision-makers. It is so not about you or your science. It is about their process, their decisions. You are there to help them. You may get no credit, your work may be very much behind the scenes, and you need to be comfortable with that.

3. How did you link-up with different stakeholder groups?

There are a lot of different ways that we get connected with different decision-making processes. In many cases, we work through our NGO partners (TNC and WWF) in their priority projects and regions. Some examples include our work on setting up water funds in Latin America (with TNC) and our work on creating an integrated coastal zone management plan in Belize (with WWF). In other cases, we have received a grant to do research with an applied component and have included a scoping phase in the project during which we’ve found an on-the-ground partner interested in applying the new science and tools in local decisions. Also, people come to us and ask for help; in those cases we have an “applications team” that uses various criteria to decide whether or not such work might be a good fit.

4. What lessons have you learned about working with stakeholders and practitioners?

The science is critical, but it is a very small part of the decision-making process. We’ve learned to be more realistic about the ways in which science gets used in decisions. Sometimes we’ve seen different kinds of “success” than we initial envisioned. Although we may start out with the ultimate objective of improving outcomes for people and the environment on which they depend, we have learned to recognize interim successes along the way. These include producing and publishing results from our analyses, changing dialogues, and seeing an imprint of our work in plans and policies.

Also, as we talked about earlier, it is really important to co-produce information for maximum relevance. This means you’ve got to listen carefully and be ready to change your approach and vision of outcomes to match their needs.

5. Do you have any parting words of wisdom for those of us trying to more effectively use science to effect meaningful change?

This is where the real magic happens. It is hard work. And it takes practice. But it is extremely rewarding to see your work actually making a difference. If this sounds appealing to you, roll up your sleeves and find ways to get engaged with real decisions. The world needs you.

Josh Lawler, a 2013 Leopold Leadership Fellow, is an associate professor in the School of Environmental and Forest Sciences at the University of Washington. Follow him on the web and on Twitter @jjjlawler.

The Power of Collective Approaches: An Engagement Strategy for the Long Haul

Karen Lips (right, turquoise jacket)

Karen Lips (right, blue jacket), teaches a graduate course in cross-disciplinary analysis. It will enable students to help inform policy questions about animal imports.

When we created our advanced training program last year, our vision was to help Leopold Leadership Fellows gain a skill or learn about a context they need to understand in order to integrate their science into practice. In January we held our first advanced training, “Hitting Your Policy Mark: Leveraging Networks and Collective Impact,” in Washington, D.C. as a joint pilot with COMPASS. Participants learned how to identify partnerships, pathways, and criteria for selecting opportunities to engage. They also gained skills for mobilizing interdisciplinary sets of experts, drawn from the Leopold Leadership network and elsewhere, to combine knowledge and provide an integrated synthesis of an environmental issue. Chad English, Director of Science Policy Outreach for COMPASS, was the facilitator.

One thing we hope to learn from advanced trainings is what makes it feasible for researchers to engage effectively, in limited time and for the long term, with policymakers, NGOs, businesses, and communities. Chad has written about a creative approach taken by Leopold Leadership Fellow Karen Lips, a participant in the January training. Karen studies the decline of amphibians and has examined risks to them from imported animals that may carry disease. By carefully defining her role in the conversation about this issue, Karen mobilized a community of scientists to analyze data needed to inform policy questions about animal imports. As Chad notes, her strategy ensures that policymakers benefit from the breadth and depth of her community’s collective knowledge.

Karen has also taken an innovative approach to engaging her graduate students. They play a pivotal role in conducting the analysis, which brings together data from science, policy, and economics. Her group is unique in crossing these disciplines to inform animal importation policy questions, and they receive training through an interdisciplinary course that Karen teaches at the University of Maryland. By working with graduate students in this way, Karen is able to provide timely analysis that speaks to policymakers’ needs.

Read Chad’s post for more about how Karen uses a collective approach to have an impact with this work. Is an approach like this part of your engagement strategy? Leave a comment about how it’s working for you.

Pam Sturner (@PamSturner) is the executive director of the Leopold Leadership Program (@LeopoldLP). Subscribe to “Leopold Leadership 3.0″ to read how Leopold Leadership Fellows are linking their knowledge to action.

Zoos vs. Ecosystems: Jon Foley on the Importance of Networks in Leadership

Jon Foley (Photo by Josh Kohanek)

Jon Foley (Photo by Josh Kohanek)

Note from Kate: As the director of the Boreas Leadership Program at the University of Minnesota’s Institute on the Environment (IonE), I’m interested in developing effective environmental leaders. In Boreas we emphasize that leadership is more than a set of skills; it’s a way of working. Networks are a key part of working effectively as a leader.

I’ve been inspired in this regard by Jon Foley, the director of IonE, a Leopold Leadership Fellow, and a recent recipient of the Heinz Prize in the Environment. I interviewed him about leadership and promising paths he sees for developing the next generation of leaders. This is the first in a series of posts drawn from our conversation.

One question I asked Jon was how, as an academic, he works in networks to help solve environmental challenges. Here’s what he had to say:

Confidence and license to try things

JF: Within the academic community things like the Leopold Leadership Program provide networks that universities sometimes don’t provide themselves very well. I remember when I did the Leopold training over ten years ago, it was with a cohort of 19 other people. It instantly bonded into group that became a go-to network of confidantes, advisers, friends, and champions for things that we wanted to do. That gave you license to try a little bit harder to do something a little different…. It’s the unusual couple of people in each institution who want to try out this crazy stuff… it’s kind of your tribe, so to speak.

Reaching beyond the academy

JF: What the Leopold program exposed us to was to really build your network of other folks outside the academy. Get out of the Ivory Tower as much as you can. Leopold exposed us to people in the media who became not just one-time acquaintances but eventually colleagues themselves: reporters who may use you as a source because they know you and trust you and your work; editors who recognize your work; people who ask you to write op-eds. That takes years to develop. But those are important nodes.

Defining your role: what to take on, and when to find partners

JF: I can’t reach the same number of people as a good op-ed writer can. Or a good media person can… Or, in businesses and government, there are key gatekeepers, decision-makers who are highly influential, who you might be able to reach. They can carry your message better than you can into halls of influence and decision-making and power that you might not even be able to enter. You have to figure out where the strategy is and who can help you get the job done.

Networks as ecosystems

JF: My sister-in-law once came up with this analogy: biodiversity matters, but if we’re all in a zoo, if we have two academics in a cage, and a couple policymakers in another cage, and couple reporters in some other cage, that’s not a vibrant ecosystem. What we need is them all interacting together like a real ecosystem. Again, that’s the idea that if we get out of our comfort zone and start circulating among unusual characters, we might find that a lot of interesting interactions are possible in very rich ways that we never thought were possible. I’ve certainly benefitted from the networks of other kinds of people that I’ve built up over the last couple years. I’d like to think I’m benefitting them. At least it seems so, since they keep referring more people to us and our institute. It looks like it’s going both ways. But boy, is it really different than anything the normal academy prepared me to do.

Networks as catalysts for better science

JF: The stuff I’m working on today has nothing to do with what I was doing ten years ago, or even five years ago. A lot of it was guided by the questions people have been asking over the years. It’s been driven more outside of the academy, rather than inside.

KK: So, you’d say the mutual network is making your science…

JF: Better.

Engagement, Not Outreach

JF: I hate the word “outreach,” because it’s a very static notion of knowledge. It assumes we have the knowledge inside the Ivory Tower: all we have to do is put up an antennae and broadcast it to the world, and we’re “outreaching,” telling people who don’t know stuff what we know. That’s so naïve and wrong. It’s mutual engagement — saying, “Hey I can help you, but you’re helping me, and let’s form a powerful, synergistic relationship somehow.” That’s where this networked leadership and engagement model really can be effective. It will make you a better scientist. It will make you a better scholar, thinker, teacher, and leader within your university. To those who used to argue that doing this stuff is sacrificing your science is total and utter bullsh*t. Because if you do this well, it will make you think more critically about the work you’re doing, why it’s relevant, how to communicate it better. It will certainly make you a better teacher, at least. And it will hopefully make you a better scientist. In my case, I think it did a lot.


Check out my next post for a conversation with Jon about leadership development in graduate education and beyond.

Kate Knuth, Program Director of the Boreas Leadership Program at the University of Minnesota’s Institute on the Environment, served three terms in the Minnesota House of Representatives. She is pursuing a PhD in conservation biology. You can follow the Boreas Leadership Program and Kate on Twitter, @BoreasIonE and @KateKnuth.

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.