The research implementation gap

By Joern Fischer

Andrew Knight, Richard Cowling, and their colleagues have written for some time on the research implementation gap. It’s the gap between what we know and how it’s implemented. They have also termed it the “knowing-doing gap”. Basically, for lots of problems, the science is there to know how things could be done better, but they’re still done badly. So why is this?

There are a number of qualitatively different answers to this question, and on that basis, different kinds of initiatives to rectify this situation.

One answer is to systematically establish what is scientifically known, synthesise the findings, and thereby provide specific answers to clearly defined policy questions. This is the approach taken, for example, by the Centre for Evidence-based Conservation.

In a recent paper in Conservation Biology, Murray A. Rudd discusses how and when this approach might be most useful. He considers the nexus of (1) how well a policy issue is defined, versus (2) how well the science is established. An evidence-based approach is most useful when the policy issues are well defined, and when the scientific knowledge is adequate to provide clear answers.

A focus on evidence thus can be quite useful in some circumstances. But it can also be criticized (as Rudd points out in his paper) because it is based squarely on scientific rationalism – basically, the belief that knowledge is obtained through objective empirical observation of physical phenomena.

This way of seeing the world makes might make sense to a scientist, but it ignores that many other people learn about the world in different ways. Is there even one objectively knowable truth?

These questions raise some other issues for the research implementation gap. Biggs and colleagues, in their recent paper in Conservation Letters, highlight the importance of mental models. Essentially, different people have different internal models of how they think the world works. These models, in turn, change how they go about solving a problem. (I discussed this issue in the related entry on problem framing.)

Many conservation problems are complex, and many stakeholders need to be brought together to effectively solve the problems. Biggs et al. conclude that a focus on different stakeholders’ mental models could help to increase their awareness of their own assumptions and values and could help to foster a shared vision towards a conservation solution.

Interesting then – at the same time, in leading conservation journals, we have scientists who emphasise the importance of ‘cold, hard evidence’, versus those who emphasise the importance of taking into account multiple people’s perspectives. These, in their own right, are very different ways of understanding the challenge of biodiversity conservation!

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One thought on “The research implementation gap

  1. Pingback: Sustainability or societal relevance? | Ideas for Sustainability

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