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UW’s Groff Leads Study About the Gap Between Knowing and Doing in Conservation Paleobiology Science

February 23, 2023

A University of Wyoming researcher led a study -- through a systematic review and questionnaire survey -- that assessed the impact of conservation paleobiology research papers on real-world conservation management practices.

“We discovered that the knowing-doing gap is wide -- only 10.8 percent of studies had a tangible impact on conservation, restoration or management. We also found that half of these studies included conservation practitioners as co-authors, which suggests that, when we collaborate, we are more likely to bridge the knowing-doing gap,” says Dulcinea Groff, a postdoctoral research associate in the UW Department of Geology and Geophysics.

Groff was lead author of a paper titled “Knowing but Not Doing: Quantifying the Research-Implementation Gap in Conservation Paleobiology” that appeared Feb. 9 in Frontiers in Ecology and Evolution, a multidisciplinary journal that coves the spectrum of ecological and evolutionary inquiry. The journal provides insight into the natural and anthropogenic world and how it can best be managed. 

Researchers from Colby College in Waterville, Maine, Cornell University and the Paleontological Research Institution in Ithaca, N.Y., contributed to the paper.

“The world is changing rapidly, and an all-hands-on-deck approach to conserve, restore and manage species and their habitats is urgent,” Groff says. “However, there is a disconnect between the academic discipline of conservation biology and on-the-ground conservation happening. The scientific research produced by academics, in the form of peer-reviewed papers, is often not noticed by practitioners nor used for on-the-ground conservation, despite the intentions of researchers.”

Groff says this disconnect is referred to as a gap between knowing and doing, or a research-implementation gap. The research-implementation gap also may exist in the field of conservation paleobiology, a relatively young field that uses geohistorical records to address conservation issues.

“As paleobiologists and paleoecologists, we wanted to know whether a research-implementation gap, or knowing-doing gap, exists in the field of conservation paleobiology and how wide the gap might be,” Groff says.

The study entailed a systematic review and survey that targeted the last decade of “applied” conservation paleobiology literature in search of studies that informed conservation, restoration or management of natural resources.

“In our study, we identified ‘bright spots’ in the literature of real-world examples that show how conservation paleobiology has ‘put the dead to work’ in various environmental contexts such as marine, terrestrial and freshwater areas,” Groff says.

Some of the “bright spot” studies developed restoration recommendations for forests, lakes and wetlands or sought to understand the drivers of recent declines in economically important animals, such as fish, or in the geographic range of small mammals compared to past fluctuations, she says. Geohistorical records have aided management decisions by addressing questions about setting a baseline to know when restoration has been successful. This can include recolonization of aquatic plants in lakes or determining whether current levels of lake nutrients exceeded past levels.

Other conservation paleobiology studies demonstrated how management intervention would be most effective. These studies would include determining the native status of a species or whether lakes with high nutrient concentrations have been enriched before recent anthropogenic influences.

“Paleobiologists contend that the field of conservation can learn from the past,” Groff says. “The geohistorical records that paleobiologists use are incredibly valuable for understanding long-term trends in the environment that extend beyond the historical observations made by people. Yet, they are underused in addressing conservation, restoration and management issues.”

The research findings can be used by ecologists, paleoecologists, conservationists and managers, Groff says.

The Roy J. Shlemon Center for Quaternary Studies at UW funded the research.

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