As a conservation scientist, I have spent a lot of time pursuing applied conservation questions. Along with thousands of other folks in academic institutions, I was publishing papers and hoping to generate research results that would inform conservation practice and policy.
But there came a time a few years ago when I realized that my science, by itself, no matter how good it was, would likely make very little difference in the world beyond academia.
This realization came from really looking at the process by which research enters practice and policy. Because of large differences in incentives, motivations, culture and timelines, the gap between the world of research and the world of practice and policy is large, and so only a very small fraction of the work that gets done in the name of conservation actually informs conservation practice and policy. Most of it never even gets registered in the debate. And yet with our increasingly global society, with information generation growing at an exponential rate, we just don’t have the luxury of that level of inefficiency anymore. We’ve got to find ways of connecting research capacity, practice and policy savvy around the critical issues.
And there is plenty of urgency here. First, because the policy debates and strategy decisions going on right now in governments, insurance agencies, large and small businesses, and NGOs around the world are taking place, generally, without all the best evidence at hand (and their decisions often reflect this). Second, looking forward to the next 20-30 years, I think it is fair to say that the human proposition, as it is currently laid out across the world, will require a global-scale transition that crosses many sectors and changes many aspects of our society. The functioning of our global society simply depends in too many ways on the stability of our natural resources, and many of our current approaches are now pushing up against the limits imposed by the planet. Part of the issue, of course, is timing. There are many great innovations trying to break in, but the global system has been slow to change.
Yet despite the slow pace of change, and in some cases because of it, many leaders in government, the private sector, and civil society are struggling to engineer, or at least influence, this transition. Everyone picks their tools and their metaphors, ranging from Donella Meadows’ transition to sustainable society, Kate Raworth’s ‘Doughnut Economics’ and Johan Rockstrom’s ‘Planetary Boundaries’ to the various definitions and blueprints for a “Blue Economy” or “Green Economy” future and the Chinese Communist Party’s framing of the issues as a transition to an “Ecological Civilization.” As the Director of the newly formed Luc Hoffmann Institute, I have found myself walking pretty far out on this sheet of metaphors, attempting to figure out where a stronger evidence-base is needed, where better research can help build a ladder to where we want to go. As a scientist, it feels a bit like ice-fishing in spring – it is best done with a safety line.
The solution is to break the issues down and get the evidence in place to crack the hard problems, the “wicked problems” that are underneath all of these metaphors. These are often complex-system issues, involving multiple disciplines, linking the intricacies of human behavior and social dynamics to the complexities in natural and human-modified systems. They are typically too thorny to be solved by individual researchers or even small teams from the same field. Issues like finding the appropriate pricing system for the social cost of carbon, indicating the inherent socio-economic value of intact ecosystems and the services they provide, choosing which conservation interventions will have maximum impact, and securing the food, energy and water needs over the next 30 to 50 years for an ever growing population. These are issues where individual excellence is absolutely necessary and not nearly sufficient.
And this is where boundary organizations like the Luc Hoffmann Institute are key. The Luc Hoffmann institute sits at the crossroads between civil-society and science, searching for the strategic paths where evidence can deliver change, and bringing together diverse groups of thought-leaders that can create that evidence. What we do is science and synthesis inspired by policy and practice needs and hitched to policy and practice uptake. It is exciting because when done right, it creates change, and if it is hitched to an organization with enough capacity, the results can be large.
And this is why the Luc Hoffmann Institute has a particularly interesting role to play. We have the honour of being named after Luc Hoffmann, one of the founders of WWF, and a person who has brought science and conservation together again and again to benefit people and our planet. On top of that, we sit at the nerve center of WWF. As one of the world’s largest and most experienced global conservation organizations, with over 5 million supporters, 6000 staff, and a global network active in more than 100 countries. The reach of the organization, and its capacity to be ‘local’ around the world (representing over 60 national NGOs, each local in its own country), gives it a unique ability to help turn evidence into action. WWF’s mission is to stop the degradation of our planet’s natural environment, and build a future in which humans live in harmony with nature. The Luc Hoffmann Institute’s goal is to bring the knowledge and evidence to the table fast enough to make that possible. More generally, our goal is to build stronger links between science and urgent solutions to the most pressing issues facing ourselves and our planet. We aim to be the premier partner for global research and synthesis seeking to respond to the problems that stand in the way of sustainability.
We are already working on multiple projects, collaborating with other leading synthesis centers, and looking for top talent for two Luc Hoffmann Fellows positions. We also have a call out now, asking researchers and experts around the world to team up with WWF staff and pitch us ideas for collaborative research and synthesis. These calls are at the interface of research and practice, science and policy, and that is why we have opened up our “pitch” to everyone.
At the Luc Hoffmann Institute, we are engaging in a global debate about the future of conservation and sustainability. We can’t do this alone. We look forward to hearing from you, and working together on the solutions we all need today for tomorrow’s world.