By Hilary Smith, Sustainability Resource Center
Scientists across the globe are hot on the trail of solutions to many of our current ecological crises. Unfortunately, their research outcomes do not always engage or reflect the needs of non-academic stakeholders, like environmental managers, policy makers and citizen scientists. Tomorrow, Nov. 18, from 4 to 5 p.m., Utah State University biology professor and ecosystem ecologist Michelle Baker will present “Lost in translation: adventures in applied ecosystem ecology and combat science,” where she will discuss the practice of translational ecology—a concept she describes as “a mode of inquiry that engages academic scientists and different stakeholders in knowledge exchange that results in actionable research.”
The term ‘translational ecology’ was coined by biogeochemist William Schlesinger, who is also the president of the Cary Institute of Ecosystem Studies, a non-profit environmental research group based in Millbrook, NY. In a 2010 article in the journal Science, Schlesinger compared translational ecology to translational medicine, a process by which doctors simplify and share new basic research with their patients. Schlesinger notes that the sharing of environmental research is particularly important because many environmental issues are time-sensitive. “Unless the discoveries of ecological science are rapidly translated into meaningful actions, they will remain quietly archived while the biosphere degrades,” he writes.
Baker says the idea of translational ecology has piqued the interest of multiple faculty members at USU. Mark Brunson, head of the university’s department of Environment and Society, teaches a graduate seminar on the topic. He and Baker have teamed up to form a working group, funded by the National Socio-Ecological Synthesis Center, to explore “how translational ecology might be a good theme to integrate social and natural sciences to solve environmental problems,” says Baker. A water-related research organization for which Baker is project director—Innovative Urban Transitions and Aridregion Hydro-Sustainability, or iUTAH—is also looking to incorporate principles of translation ecology, she notes.
In her talk, Baker will outline some of the challenges of practicing translational ecology. “Sometimes the scientific process can be used or manipulated by some stakeholders in ways that are not expected,” she notes. Another challenge she identifies is that “academic reward systems do not always align well with applied research.”
However, she also sees great potential in translational ecology. When research is publicly funded, researchers have an “obligation to make [their] work relevant to society,”—and in its applied focus and active integration with additional stakeholders, translational ecology seems to meet this requirement, she says.
Baker’s talk will apply translational ecology to the real-world example of the Jordan River. She will explain the river’s impaired state, caused by inputs of organic matter like dead leaves, dead algae and other organisms, which lead to low levels of oxygen. “I hope that the audience comes away with a better understanding and interest in the Jordan River, which is in their own backyard,” she says. “I also hope the audience might be inspired to find a way to make their academic interests align with interests of other stakeholders who face real environmental problems everyday,” she adds.
Baker’s talk is the second to last in the Global Change and Sustainability Center fall seminar series. The talk is free and will take place Nov. 18th from 4 to 5 p.m. in 295 FASB (Sutton building). Next on the docket will be Arizona State University biology and ecology professor Kevin Gurney. Gurney’s talk, “Revisiting anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions: how new science can enable reductions from the building to the globe,” will take place from 4 to 5 p.m. Dec. 2nd in 295 FASB.