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.

Writing To Be Read: Tips from a Freelance Journalist

Stacey Solie spoke to my lab group about writing for diverse audiences

Stacey Solie, a freelance journalist, spoke to my lab group about writing

As scientists, we are all writers. That is, we write. But we all know that the papers and reports that we produce have very specific, narrow audiences. For most of us, even our most cited papers are read by only a negligible fraction of the population. I suspect that many of us who aspire to write for broader audiences could use some advice—advice that will likely prove useful for scientific writing as well.

Stacey Solie is a Seattle-based journalist and contributor to, the New York Times, the Seattle Times, and the Daily Beast, and she got started writing as the creator and editor of the in-house Nature Conservancy newsletter, the Science Chronicles. She can write for diverse audiences. I met Stacey about eight years ago at a writing retreat hosted by The Nature Conservancy in wintery Millbrook, New York. I recently invited her to talk to my lab group at the University of Washington. She provided us with a plethora of suggestions, which I have boiled down into six tips.

1. Write first, edit later

If you are like me, you write a sentence, then you rewrite it. Then perhaps you write two more sentences. Then you go back and rework those three sentences—one step forward, three steps back. Solie suggests a powerful alternative—write first, edit later. Get it all out as fluidly as you can. It will be messy, it will be ugly, and it will be incomplete, but it will get the ideas down that you can work with later. Her advice reminded me of some offered to me by one of my postdoc advisors: write drunk, edit sober—probably not the best advice, particularly if you do a lot of writing. Solie’s advice is in the same spirit, but better for your liver.

2. Practice free writing, daily

Solie advocates freewriting.  Freewriting is exactly what it sounds like: one writes, well… freely, without regard for grammar, spelling, form, or even topic. Inspired by a book, Writing without Teachers, by Peter Elbow, Solie recommends doing a bit of freewriting every day. She assigns the graduate students in her Environmental Science Writing for Impact class at the University of Washington 15 minutes of daily freewriting. Solie does her daily freewriting by hand, and she writes about anything — food, life, what’s happening outside her window. Like other pursuits, the more you practice, the better you’ll become. While preparing to write on a specific topic, Solie recommends employing focused freewrites, which allow you to put questions and concerns on the page without judgement, and to pursue tangents and free-associate, which can help stimulate original thought.

3. Prime the pump

This one is somewhat radical.  Solie suggested treating the first draft of a piece as a practice run. Sit down and write a very rough draft, quickly and freely. Then put that draft aside and write an entirely new draft—without looking at the first. This can also be done on a paragraph-by-paragraph basis. Treating the first draft lightly instills confidence.  While the first words you jot down may not be the best, the idea is to trust that more and better words and sentences will come to you if you provide the opportunity by letting go and creating space.  I have to admit, I haven’t tried this one yet, but I want to.

4. Talk it out

It can help to discuss what you are writing with someone else. You may find that after telling someone what you are writing about, you have a firmer grasp on the matter yourself. Solie gave me a concrete example when I talked to her shortly after she returned from Darrington, Washington, where she was reporting on the Oso landslide. She talked me through the story she was working on and afterward noted that doing so had given her a bit more direction through the complex pile of leads and details she had amassed.

5. Keep a journal

Particularly if you plan on writing for nonscientific audiences, you will want to amass the fodder for good stories. Jot down details while you are in the field—the color of the sky, the sound of the river, the size of the bull moose that almost didn’t back down when you turned the corner to find him and his 6-foot rack blocking the trail. This stuff may come in handy.

6. Read good writers

This is advice we all likely give our students—read the literature and note how the really good papers are written. Not surprisingly, the same goes for popular writing. Solie gave my lab an excellent example to read—a piece by Robert Sapolsky.

These suggestions will not work for everyone—you need to find your own way to your voice. But I have found Solie’s tips to be useful for writing for both scientific audiences and for the general public.  And they have already helped my writing—believe it or not. What are your favorite writing tips?  Leave a comment.


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.