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Translational Ecology

Translational Ecology: an emerging area of inquiry and practice


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Immediate Objectives

The Southwest Climate Science Center, with collaboration from the University of Arizona, will lead an effort to increase knowledge about translational ecology, and to explore and articulate the theory and practice of translational ecology. We will give special focus to understanding past successes and failures in scientist-stakeholder engagements, seeking solutions to critical barriers and challenges in knowledge co-production, and summarizing best practices for translational ecology.

Part of our efforts include convening a workshop and working group on Translational Ecology at the National Center for Ecological Analysis and Synthesis (NCEAS), in November 2015.  The working group will include scientists from research institutions (universities and science agencies) and resource-management agencies, science translators and knowledge-brokers from boundary organizations (agencies, NGOs), and decision-makers from natural-resource management agencies and NGOs.  All participants will have ‘in-the-trenches’ experience with knowledge co-production from one or more perspectives (researcher, decision-maker, knowledge broker).



The coming years and decades will see increasingly rapid environmental change with dramatic ecological and societal consequences.  Anthropogenic processes, including global warming, species translocations, land use changes, biogeochemical alterations, and harvesting of wild populations, will interact with natural geophysical, ecological, and biogeochemical processes in ways that remain partially understood.  Novel climates, ecosystems, and landscape configurations will arise, requiring both scientists and decision-makers to think outside the conventional envelopes of past experience, historical states, and resource-management practices. 

Science-informed management, policy, and planning decisions are needed in the face of these mounting challenges.  Natural-resource managers and policymakers want to make sound decisions using the best available information, and most are under direct mandate to do so.  Reciprocally, ecologists and other scientists have a strong desire to contribute directly to policy and management decisions.  However, scientific researchers and natural-resource decision-makers comprise different cultures, and dialogues between them can result in misunderstanding and miscommunication.  Researchers often default to one-way communication, focusing their attention on how to improve their ‘messaging’.   Decision-makers frequently express frustration that scientists provide answers to the wrong questions, or otherwise fail to address their information needs in the contexts in which decisions are made. 


A Promising Approach

These problems are increasingly recognized, leading to proposals for developing translational ecology, modeled after translational medicine and requiring “constant two-way communication between stakeholders and scientists” (Schlesinger, 2010). This parallels recent work focused on the practice of knowledge co-production, particularly in the context of climate adaptation. Co-production refers to strong collaborations between scientists and decision-makers during all phases of research, from project inception to preparation of research products, and through iterative interactions to address emerging research and information needs.



Schlesinger, W. H. (2010). Translational Ecology. Science 329(5992): 609.


For more information, contact:

Stephen T. Jackson (

Carolyn Enquist (

Gregg Garfin (


National Center for Ecological Analysis and Synthesis (NCEAS)

Southwest Climate Science Center (SWCSC)

Working Group on Translational Ecology – November 17-20, 2015


Stephen T. JacksonDOI Southwest Climate Science Center, USGS

Carolyn EnquistDOI Southwest Climate Science Center, USGS

Gregg GarfinInstitute of the Environment, and School of Natural Resources and the Environment, University of Arizona



To address the gap between the practice of ecological research and the application of ecological knowledge to practical problems of natural-resource management. 

Translational ecology has been proposed as a way to bridge that gap, drawing from translational medicine and other emerging enterprises working at the boundary between science and decision-making.  Although ecology has a long and rich history of researchers engaging with practitioners, the communities of research and those of practice remain largely in separate silos.  Institutional, linguistic, cultural, and other barriers separate the communities.


Motivating Questions

  • How can translational ecology most effectively surmount those barriers?
  • Is it simply a matter of clearer and louder communication on the part of the researchers?
  • Are more fundamental changes in research practice required?
  • What can practitioners do to foster better dialogue?



We assembled a diverse group to discuss these questions and related issues.  The group includes scientists from research institutions (universities and science agencies) and resource-management agencies, science translators and knowledge-brokers from boundary organizations (agencies, NGOs), and decision-makers from natural-resource management agencies and NGOs.

We discussed the opportunities and challenges of making translational ecology effective in the real world.  We aim to capitalize on the real-world experience of the participants – successes and failures alike—in order to identify compelling case studies, highlight challenges and their solutions, and develop a working set of practices or principles for application. 

The initial product of the working group will be a special issue of Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment devoted to translational ecology, to be published in late 2017. 


Participating Organizations

Arizona State University

California Department of Fish and Game

CLIMAS (Climate Assessment for the Southwest)

College of the South

Department of the Interior (DOI) Alaska Climate Science Center, USGS

Department of the Interior (DOI) Northeast Climate Science Center, USGS

Department of the Interior (DOI) Southeast Climate Science Center, USGS

Desert Research Institute, California-Nevada Applications Program

Environmental Defense Fund

National Park Service (Sequoia – Kings Canyon National Park)

The Nature Conservancy

NOAA (National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration) Earth System Research Laboratory

University of Arizona

University of California – Davis

University of California – Santa Barbara

University of Colorado

University of Notre Dame

USDA (U.S. Department of Agriculture)-Forest Service

U.S. Department of the Navy

USGS (U.S. Geological Survey)

USGS Western Ecological Research Center

USGS Northern Rocky Mountain Science Center

Western Water Assessment