Impacts of synthesis research on policy and practice

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Case studies of biodiversity conservation and natural resource management from around the world show that research synthesis is having an impact on policy and practice.

Research synthesis integrates existing knowledge and findings relating to an issue, aiming to increase the applicability of those findings and develop new knowledge.

Synthesis activities operate in a range of contexts and at different scales. For example, the Intergovernmental Panel on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES) aims to increase access to knowledge that will support decision making on biodiversity and ecosystem services. IPBES has 127 governments as members, involves over 1,000 experts worldwide and has conducted a range of global, regional, thematic and methodological assessments. The first thematic assessment on pollination was used extensively by the Convention on Biological Diversity in making recommendations for action by governments.

In contrast, working groups supported by the Science for Nature and People Partnership (SNAPP) or the National Socio-Environmental Synthesis Center (SESYNC) generally involve groups of 10-20 experts who meet three or four times during a one to two-year period. These experts come from a range of sectors including academic, government, community groups, industry, business or NGOs. As  examples of the impact of these efforts a SESYNC team developed new models and tools that inform decision making for endangered species listings in the United States while a SNAPP working group developed recommendations that were used by the Chinese government to support an ivory trade ban.

While research synthesis is gaining prominence in the science-policy landscape, there has been little study of its impacts. A paper published in Environmental Science & Policy involving several Luc Hoffmann Institute staff members presents a new framework to assess the impacts of research synthesis and the underlying assumptions of how it will lead to change. The paper draws on 10 case studies related to contemporary sustainability challenges.

The findings suggest that research synthesis is having diverse impacts including creating a new understanding of problems, establishing new networks and contributing to changes in policy and practice.

The conceptual frameworks used by the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment and IPBES have changed how we think about the relationships between people and nature, spawning a new way of integrating ecosystem services into decision making.

Often the process of producing synthesis – which brings together people with diverse expertise and experience – leads to new initiatives or networks. In one example, the UK Commission of Inquiry on Peatlands united a disparate community of actors working on peatland conservation to successfully advocate for policy change.

The proliferation of synthesis initiatives appears to be founded on the assumption that synthesis will impact policy and practice but this assumption remains largely untested,” says Carina Wyborn, lead author and research adviser at the Luc Hoffmann Institute.

We found that synthesis can have an impact and this impact is largely shaped by the ‘work’ that is done to tailor the synthesis to a particular context and engage with those who will use it.

The Luc Hoffmann Institute has built on the study’s findings to guide its work programme. This involves understanding thoroughly the context in which knowledge will be used, developing robust theories of change and building coalitions of actors with the knowledge, expertise and capacity to tackle complex conservation challenges.

The paper is available here.

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