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(Essay) Careers and Opportunities for the Conservation Science-Policy Professional

By Deborah Brosnan, Sustainable Ecosystems Institute

Conservation scientists contribute to policy through their jobs, and these roles bring different opportunities and constraints. Some conservation scientists take an activist role, going “toe to toe” with a politician to ensure that conservation science is the foundation of an upcoming bill in the legislature. Others prefer to work in a team with other scientists and managers to help design ways to better protect national parks. Still others most enjoy being in the field carrying out research that someone else can use in their policy-making decisions. All of these activities are essential to integrating conservation science into policy and each of them has a job title in an organization or agency. This short guide is meant as an introduction to careers and opportunities for conservation scientists, particularly at the science-policy interface.

Government Research and Regulatory Agencies

National and state government agencies employ conservation scientists in a wide variety of roles as diverse as the missions and programs of the agencies themselves. Research in a government agency is directed toward helping the agency meet its mission and mandate. Indeed, because of this applied focus, many scientists who have been working in government natural resource agencies consider themselves to have been active in conservation biology long before the discipline had a name.

Each agency has its own mission, mandate, and culture that determine the nature of its science programs and management actions. For instance, the U.S. National Park Service has a mandate and ethic to protect natural areas such as Acadia, Dry Tortugas, Everglades, Great Smoky Mountains, Yellowstone, and Yosemite National Parks. Because of this mission the science tends to be place-based research rather than topic based, and the agency actions are aimed at protecting biological and cultural resources. Other agencies, such as the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, National Marine Fisheries Service, and the U.S. Forest Service have mandates that include allowing access to and use of resources. In addition to research, they have a regulatory function, which means that they issue permits allowing individuals or groups to log, fish, alter the habitat, or otherwise use the system. Consequently, a significant part of their science is focused on applying research as a way of evaluating management efficacy and incrementally improving agency operations. Understanding the agency mission and its consequences should be an important screening factor in making career choices.

Regulatory agencies often expand the role of scientists to include making management decisions. For instance, agency scientists will be charged with implementing an agency’s “threatened and endangered species program” in a particular region of the U.S. This means applying science to decisions, but also spending time with the public, with groups who are being regulated, and with lawyers, in addition to scientific colleagues. In cases where decisions are controversial (e.g., a fishery closure), a scientist can expect to deal with outcry from those opposed to decisions as well as possible lawsuits. Indeed, with so many lawsuits now challenging agency actions, many agency scientists worry that they are spending more time preparing for court actions than doing science. But in general, responsibility for the bridge between science and policy is most often placed on senior scientists and administrators late in their careers who are no longer leading research efforts, rather than on younger research scientists.

Scientists who enjoy applied research, management, and policy are likely to have many rewarding opportunities in government agencies worldwide. However, certainly in the U.S., the prohibition on lobbying prevents federal scientists from becoming advocates in their official capacities. For scientists who want to be stronger activists or advocates for public policy, a career in the federal government executive branch science is probably a bad choice. This type of scientist will feel more comfortable in a setting where there are not such strict barriers to advocacy, and where activism is more encouraged.

Nongovernmental Organizations: Conservation and Environmental Advocacy Groups

Conservation and environmental nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), generally known as non-profits, are public interest organizations. They span a wide spectrum from environmental advocacy to science organizations, and exist for the public good. Many of the larger organizations including World Wildlife Fund, The Nature Conservancy, Conservation International, and others, employ conservation scientists worldwide. Because they have more resources, many of these large organizations can support science programs and diverse departments. They generally see science as a tool to advance their effectiveness in meeting their goals of biodiversity or habitat protection.

The IUCN is made up of states, government agencies, and NGOs that are organized into six commissions that focus on topics ranging from the Species Survival Commission to the Commission on Environmental, Economic, and Social Policy. In its scientific work the organization relies heavily on teams of scientists (many of them volunteers) to help it design and implement conservation policies for species and ecosystems. Among its most recognized activity is the IUCN Red List which is a list of threatened and endangered species throughout the world. Scientists have been responsible for setting the threatened and endangered thresholds and are continually evaluating the status of species globally. Although this list has received much attention and has a strong and evolving foundation in science, it has no regulatory power unless governments chose to adopt its methods and conclusions.

Some NGOs focus on science without advocacy. For instance, the Sustainable Ecosystems Institute’s (SEI) mission is to remain non-partisan and make scientific information available and useful to all parties who have to make management or policy decisions. SEI works to resolve disputes around science. Many individual university scientists and institutes also take this approach to working with stakeholders who are making environmental decisions.

Many environmental advocacy organizations have missions, policies, and opinions that are not driven by science. Consequently, their decisions on what to support or oppose are likely to be made by a range of factors including the interests of their membership or how best to use their limited resources. Most environmental groups are strong supporters of science and argue that decisions should be based on the best science. However, these organizations also have agendas that they look to science to support. For example, an advocacy organization may decide to protect a population of large animals, not because the population is endangered, but because their membership loves large this animal. The organization may ask scientists for help in designing a science-based conservation strategy aimed at sustaining that population. Most scientists will feel comfortable in this scenario. However, the organization may also ask scientists for evidence showing that this population is at risk, exhibits particular behaviors, or is limited to a particular area. This is a less objective approach and one that will make many scientists feel uncomfortable professionally.

Environmental advocacy organizations use a variety of methods to get their messages across and to influence policy, including media, political pressure, or scientific arguments. If the science appears too uncertain, irrelevant, or unsupportive the organization may chose to downplay or ignore it in favor of alternatives such as a media campaign. Conservation scientists need to be aware of this before engaging with activist organizations.

Conservation Scientists in the Private Sector

Scientists who work for natural resources industries will also find that they may have great opportunities for research as long as that research meets the needs of the company. Most large natural resources companies (e.g., timber and oil industries) have wildlife departments that employ scientists. Although many publish applied research in respected peer-reviewed journals, they often have little time for interest-driven research and publications. Nevertheless many industry scientists have made important contributions to applied and conservation research.

It is well recognized that companies have “corporate cultures” and some of these are more or less friendly to scientific information and conservation. For instance, some timber industries depend on their scientists to tell them how to manage their forests and still maintain wildlife. Those companies may be concerned about wildlife because they have a family or corporate ethic to maintain biodiversity or because they required to do so by law. But while government agencies serve the public, companies exist to make a profit. Indeed the Board of Directors of public companies must, by law, act in the interests of their shareholders, which is taken to mean they must run the company profitably. Thus there will always be a tension between conservation science and its implementation, especially when that implementation costs money and resources.

Sometimes scientific results may be detrimental to the operation of the company; for example, finding an endangered species on company lands could close those lands to activities such as logging or development, and place large regulatory and financial burdens on the company—something every company wants to avoid. Corporations vary on the levels of seniority that they give their scientists and how closely they allow scientists to interact and influence upper level management, which is where policy decisions are made. Have no illusions: it is not easy to convince management to adopt costly conservation practices. But conservation scientists who can translate their scientific results into advocacy for science-based practices within the boundaries of a for-profit organization can be effective in promoting conservation on private lands. Given that over 50% of biodiversity depends on private lands, and that natural resources companies have major impacts on biodiversity and habitats, this is a hugely important achievement.

Environmental consulting firms employ a range of conservation scientists. In the U.S. alone the environmental consulting business is a U.S.$220-billion industry (Environmental Business Journal 2003). Environmental consulting firms are hired by clients that include government agencies (Department of Transportation) as well as the private sector (e.g., developer, landowner, and occasionally an environmental advocacy group). Some environmental consulting firms specialize in doing business with government, others work almost exclusively with the private sector. Smaller- to medium-sized firms often work with both. The range of environmental work is as diverse as the laws, policies, and regulations that drive the business. It ranges from environmental planning under the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA), to wetlands planning and mitigation, toxic substance monitoring and clean up, compliance with environmental laws, regulations, and agreements.

For instance, under NEPA, any large project that will have a significant impact on the environment requires an environmental impact statement (EIS) which must be approved by the regulating agency. This applies regardless of whether a developer or an agency itself is proposing the action. An EIS is a formal evaluation of the potential environmental risks of the project and an analysis of various alternatives. Usually an environmental consulting company is hired to carry out the EIS. Scientists in the company will be responsible for gathering the data, carrying out analyses, conducting any additional field surveys if they are needed, putting the document together, and finally presenting and defending it in public or agency meetings.

Because firms serve and represent their clients, there will always be some tension between science and the needs of the clients (which include finding a solution that allows them to proceed with an action while complying with environmental laws, and keeping costs minimal.) But this tension is counter-balanced by the fact that scientific integrity and credibility is essential to the client as well as to the environmental consulting firm. Any scientist or firm that becomes sloppy in its scientific efforts will quickly develop a poor reputation with the agencies that regulate their clients, with the clients themselves, as well as the general public.

One of the challenges for conservation scientists entering this arena and for the consulting companies that hire them is that there is no real educational path to being an environmental professional. Most scientists come to it from a specialized field and without the full spectrum of understanding the science, the policies, and the regulations that drive the business. A conservation scientist may have to be an expert in many fields of science and related activities. One day they are carrying out field surveys, another running simulation models or doing GIS mapping, and another putting an Environmental Impact Statement in the proper format or defending it with agencies and the public. There is usually a significant amount of on-the-job training. A conservation scientist who enjoys variety in their work life, who can learn on the job, is solution-orientated, and who combines people skills with scientific ones is likely to be happy in this job environment. A scientist who is interested in advancing their own research, wants a long-term project that they can deeply engage with for many years, and feels overly constrained by the needs of clients and regulatory requirements will not be happy here. This is a professional home for those who want to implement science on the ground, not those who are interested in developing new theories and concepts.

Other Opportunities to Participate in Conservation Science and Policy

There are other less-traditional ways of being active in conservation policy. Many senators and congressmen hire conservation scientists on staff to help them with their environmental policies. Committees such as the U.S. Senate Committee on Public Works (which deals with many environmental issues) are staffed by full time employees, some of them scientists. A conservation scientist in this role has the opportunity to inform and influence thinking on major conservation issues. They are expected to become knowledgeable on key issues, advise congressmen and senators, listen to concerns and input from constituents and lobbyists, convene hearings on important environmental issues, and recruit witnesses (including scientists) to testify at these hearings. A conservation scientist who is interested in field research will not enjoy this job. But one who likes interacting with a diversity of scientists and disciplines and who enjoys gathering, evaluating, and synthesizing research findings into a coherent message that is useful and used by decision-makers is more likely to be happy in this job.

Conservation scientists have the opportunities to move among different roles, sometimes trying new ones for a limited time through fellowships and sabbaticals. For instance, the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) offers year-long congressional fellowships for conservation scientists who wish to learn more about policy. The Aldo Leopold Leadership Fellows program offers mid-level scientists an opportunity to train in communicating science to non-scientists and policy makers.

In recent years environmental foundations have hired conservation scientists to manage their conservation science programs. This is notably true of the larger foundations such as the David and Lucile Packard Foundation and the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation. A conservation scientist in this role is usually an experienced scientist often in the mid to upper level of their careers, but more junior scientists are also hired as staff to the program. Conservation scientists who manage foundation programs have the opportunity to shape the foundations thinking and activities in conservation science. Because their foundation supplies essential resources (funding), and because they are often on the front line to grantees, program managers have a significant role in determining what science and which scientists are considered for funding. More foundations are producing their own conservation reports (e.g., Pew Commission reports) and program managers play an important role in facilitating them. They collaborate with potential grantees to ensure that the project and its implementation plan meet the scientific and conservation goals of the foundation. Internally within the foundation, the program manager provides scientific and program feedback to the foundation’s Board of Trustees or Directors which in turn makes decisions on which areas of science to target and fund. This role is for a scientist who has a strong sense of direction, and organization, and who likes to make thing happen in conservation science, but who is either ready to move on from basic research or does not want to carry out primary research. Thus a strong science foundation with a measure of practicality is essential.

Conservation scientists, no matter where they work, can help to advance conservation science and policy through professional societies, and by serving on committees. For instance, The Ecological Society of America has an active public policy program that prepares position papers, provides briefings for politicians and staff, and communicates with the press (Blockstein 2002). Other organizations like the Society for Conservation Biology, Ornithological Council, or American Association for the Advancement of Science all have strong public policy programs. Participating in scientific advisory groups, review panels, or outreach to advocacy groups are important professional avenues for conservation scientists. Testimony to this is that we have now come to expect that conservation scientists will actively participate in review panels, such as the Intergovernmental panel on Global Climate Change, as part of their professional responsibility.

The scope for participation in public policy as a conservation biologist is quite large. As you begin to think about potential career paths, it is often helpful to visit the kinds of organizations you would like to work in, and to meet people who have jobs you think you would enjoy to learn more about what they do, and how they prepared (or wish they had prepared) for their careers. Conservation needs many people with good minds and will to work hard—we hope you will pursue a conservation career!

Literature Cited

Blockstein, D. E. 2002. How to lose your political virginity while keeping your scientific credibility. BioScience 52: 191–196.

Environmental Business Journal. 2003. Environmental Industry Overview: We’ve Seen that Road Before. Environmental Business Journal XIV (5/6): 1–7.