Science Communication for Biodiversity Conservation

Moderator: Caitlin Kight

Panelists: Sharon Guynup, Antony Lynam, EJ Millner-Gulland, Milagre Nuvunga and Kartik Shanker

While most people would quickly agree that conservation is an important practice, many might struggle to define what, exactly, it is (for instance, how it differs from preservation), what sorts of activities it involves, how we know to pursue those techniques and not others, and why such efforts are helpful.

These details might arise from expert studies, but they affect us all — which means that we rely on researchers to effectively translate their knowledge into a format that can be widely understood and applied. This is not something that academics typically have a great reputation for doing often or well, but it is an area that has seen steady improvement. 

Current Conservation has long aimed to support this shift, encouraging an increase in the quantity and quality of conversations between scientists and the rest of society. To further this goal, the magazine recently partnered with the Society for Conservation Biology to foster creative, dynamic science communication by conservation researchers to a diverse international audience. 

To celebrate this collaboration and provide aspiring writers with a few tips, the two organisations brought together a panel of veteran conservationists with expertise on science communication. Their thoughts on the intersection between science, communication, and conservation are shared below.

Written by – Caitlin Kight and Eduardo Gallo Cajiao


Sharon Guynup (National Geographic Explorer and a Global Fellow with the Wilson Center in Washington DC.)

Scientists can be powerful agents for change. But as researchers, you’re trained to write for peer-reviewed journals that use acronyms, jargon, and technical language that make your findings inaccessible to many outside your field. The result: Important research often remains locked away in scientific journals. 

It’s critical to share your work in a broader, more accessible way so it can have a real impact. People need to understand why your research matters.

How do you engage a wider audience and inspire people to care about important issues when already bombarded with news and social media? It comes down to basic human communication: storytelling.

You need to start by identifying your audience: is it the local community, the general public, policymakers? Distill your message down to the main findings and hone it to your target audience. A news hook related to your work –– a new initiative, an event, or legislation –– helps gain media attention.

Style is another important consideration. Media outlets use an  engaging, descriptive, narrative style that avoids acronyms and jargon and  uses specifics rather than broad statements. The structure leads with the conclusion, then outlines significance; describes the research, history, context, national or international legal implications; and has a compelling ending. Don’t forget the power of photographs or video. It is also important to consider that, amidst a daily torrent of disturbing news, we all need to hear success stories. 

You might want to try writing opinion pieces for newspapers or pitching stories to media outlets that cover science, natural history, or news. That requires a few-paragraph story pitch. “Explorer” grantees from the National Geographic Society’s grant program get a lot of attention. Consider writing a book or working with a film crew on a documentary. 

Awareness sparks public understanding and support for conservation of species and ecosystems, and it brings funding. To spark awareness and change, science needs to reach the general public and policymakers.

Now, amidst the COVID-19  pandemic, many have been made aware that wildlife, ecosystem health, and human health are deeply interconnected. With this new appreciation of how our wellbeing is inextricably linked with that of the planet, ears are open, offering unique opportunities for impact and change. Share your work!  

Tony Lynam (Wildlife Conservation Society, Center for Global Conservation, and SCB’s President-elect)

The Society for Conservation Biology (SCB) is a global network with around 3,500 members, including students, academics, practitioners, and policymakers. Our mission — which we often pursue by partnering with other institutions and organisations that share our values — is to advance the science and practice of conserving Earth’s biodiversity. We do this through supporting our members, publishing journals (Conservation Biology, Conservation Letters and Conservation Science and Practice), providing fellowships and training scholarships, and holding conferences. 

It is the last of these that I would like to focus on here. In particular, I’d like to address two questions: 

  1. How important are conferences in bringing together academics, practitioners, and policymakers to communicate about science? 
  2. If conferences are important, how can we ensure access and participation to those events?

We know from surveys that our members value conferences as opportunities to network and communicate the findings of research and conservation. SCB conferences — global and regional — have been historically well attended. Talks, speed talks, poster sessions, panels, and interactive workshops all offer ways for members to engage with and communicate science. We also offer short training courses at our conferences.

One issue that requires thought and planning is conference location. A study published in Nature Ecology and Evolution found that 40% of conservation and ecology meetings over the last decade were held in places which were perceived as not welcoming to all. If a substantial number of members feel unsafe attending, they might avoid conferences, so we as organizers need to consider ways to ensure access to all.

Our global conference, the International Congress for Conservation Biology (ICCB), provides an important opportunity for participants to join together to communicate an important message on a topic of special interest. For example, at ICCB 2019 in Kuala Lumpur, we issued a Declaration on the Species Extinction Crisis. ICCB participants called on SCB members to urge their organisations, including government agencies, research institutions, non-governmental conservation organisations, and the private sector to contribute to the new Strategic Plan for Biodiversity 2021-2030 and support various conservation initiatives. 

We are planning to hold ICCB 2021 in Kigali, Rwanda. This will be an opportunity for conservation practitioners to meet and network, and to communicate the important conservation work being done in Africa and around the world. 

EJ Milner-Gulland (Tasso Leventis Professor of Biodiversity at the University of Oxford)

I speak as a Professor of Conservation Science in a traditional university. One of the key things to say is that, as scientists, we have to remember that we are part of society and not apart from society. We need to be responding in our science communication to the concerns of our citizens and helping them to empower themselves. I think a lot of what we currently do as scientists instead is to transmit information or to tell people off, to scold them — and people don’t like to be scolded. If you can engage with people on their terms and in their media, then it really helps. In particular, I think we have a responsibility to give hope and resources to people in the wider world about how to make the changes that we all need to make for this to become a more sustainable planet. I think that’s important because people need to feel, in this fairly gloomy time, that there is a way forward.

I’ll illustrate how this works using the example of Conservation Optimism, which I started in 2016 having attended an inspirational talk that Nancy Knowlton of Ocean Optimism gave at the Student Conference on Conservation Science. Conservation Optimism started off as a one-off symposium, but it was brilliant and it was very clear that there was a hunger for this kind of optimism amongst young conservationists — and older ones as well. So here we are five years later and it’s a thriving team of volunteers, an employee and advisors, all of whom are working really closely together to make a difference. Our India hub is now a year old, we’ve just started our UK hub, and we’re hoping to start one in West Africa next year. 

Within Conservation Optimism I’ll just point you to one little example that illustrates some of the things that I want to say, and that’s a youth resources section that we have on the website. It started off because during the first wave of Covid-19 in the UK in April 2020, I really felt that teens and young people were suffering and didn’t really understand what was going on, and there was a lot of discussion around wildlife trade in the press. I wanted to give teenagers some information about the illegal wildlife trade and about its relationship to Covid-19; I thought that would be a way to help them. 

The scientists in my research group worked to produce some information sheets about the illegal wildlife trade to put on the Conservation Optimism website. The resources were very colourful and lovely, and led on to one of my students doing an Instagram takeover to talk about her work on penguins. It also led to our commissioning a podcast on eco-anxiety from a psychologist. Better still, it then got a life of its own, just self-motivated: For example, some biology students in our university self-organized to make some short videos about how they had interacted with nature during lockdown; the students also shared some of their artwork. We also got a lot of bottom-up content from our broader community. 

The lesson which I took from this experience was: It started with something rather traditional, which was the kind of thing that I, as a 50-something-year-old conservation scientist, would want to do. But because there was the opportunity built into the platform for more organic engagement, this starting point blossomed into something that allowed all sorts of people to participate in all sorts of different ways. 

Another thing that I and a group of friends started during lockdown is an initiative called Pledge for Our Future Earth, which is a platform helping people to get inspired about changing their relationship to nature, to find resources about how to do this, and then actually commit to changing their behaviour. 

I would not say that I am the greatest science communicator. I’m a fairly traditional academic conservation scientist. We all have our limits, but I do feel that over the time that I’ve been in academia, I have learned — I’ve made myself learn — how to communicate better with different audiences, even though I might not have wanted to. I can do better and I am getting there! The other thing is that I’ve been really trying to facilitate the early career researchers in my group (and other people who I come into contact with) to embrace the ‘pain’ of science communication and realize that it’s not so bad. I try to mentor them so they have the confidence to communicate their work and to see it as an integral part of their role as conservation scientists. Then they can come up with novel, more imaginative ways of communicating!

Milagre Nuvunga (Cofounder and Executive Director, the Micaia Foundation, Chimoio, Central Mozambique)

I work in central Mozambique and I consider that my work puts me in that interface between scientific and indigenous knowledge, and common practice. I look at myself as a conduit, in that I facilitate processes that enable communities living in biodiversity-rich areas to make decisions based not only on their own knowledge but also on existing science as well as national and international policies. Most of those areas are targeted for conservation either by the state or by the world, and communities need to be able to negotiate ensuing tensions — to use their knowledge as a basis to translate and interpret scientific information and national policies and legislation, so they can develop strategies that will enable their incorporation into their daily lives. 

When asked about science communication for biodiversity communication, I immediately focus on the channels and tools we should have at our disposal, or work on developing, to be able to facilitate communication of scientific research findings and to the wider public. I think it is particularly important to consider interactions with communities living in biodiversity-rich areas — people whose lives and livelihoods could be impacted by research findings, particularly if these lead to the assignment of higher conservation status.

When we engage with communities, we assume, of course, that they have and use indigenous knowledge to inform their life choices (it is an assumption in the case of Mozambique as communities have been displaced several times by wars and extreme climatic events). We assume community life is often based on the understanding they have of the natural systems within or around which they live. As the scientific community brings in different ways of translating that knowledge, of deepening it or even bringing in new dimensions that might challenge existing knowledge, we need to establish how these findings can be shared effectively in order to enable communities to analyze the information for themselves. This could facilitate a process that would enable communities to decide if this new information warrants changes to local resource management and, therefore, the definition of new rules and regulations. This process could help them engage positively with policymakers.

Effective science communication, therefore, can help nature-dependent communities decide how best to use their resources to ensure the sustainability of their lives and livelihoods – for instance, what species to use and how to use them. This is particularly true in areas where there are nature-based value chains that could be affected by new scientific information. 

Kartik Shanker (Faculty at the Centre for Ecological Sciences. Indian Institute of Science in Bangalore and Founding trustee, Dakshin Foundation)

We largely think about science communication as communicating our ideas and knowledge to different stakeholders. We talk about putting science in language that is intelligible to policymakers, bureaucrats, civil society, etc. Almost every non-profit has some sort of environmental education program, where we’re trying to communicate to children or youth. And while I think that those are all very important goals, they miss a few things. 

First, for true engagement, I think it’s really important to go from ‘communicating science to society’ to ‘connecting scientists to society’. As a first step towards this, we get the scientific community to write for us at Current Conservation, rather than have their work mediated by professional writers. 

Going a step further, communication really needs to be a two-way street — and science itself can serve as a bridge. Citizen science may have started out as a way for scientists to collect data at larger spatial and temporal scales, but one of the things that citizen science does really well is engaging civil society with the world of knowledge through the medium of science. Through our work at Dakshin, particularly with fishing communities, we are finding that science is actually a very effective way to bridge communication barriers between communities, the state, and us. I’ve said elsewhere that science is the ‘lingua franca’ of the state – data and graphs and figures and so on. For communities that bear knowledge in a different form, science can become their English, their way of talking to the rest of the world.

Finally, I think it is really critical to use different media for communication, such as art and music and theatre. We need to use all these different bridges to share knowledge with each other, as, actually, humans have done for centuries. It’s like scientists didn’t get the memo. But we have that opportunity now to dig deep and find creativity along other axes, and make science whole by engaging the world in it.

Final remarks

Science communication has been long recognised as a key tool to advance biodiversity conservation. Roles can include shaping attitudes, raising awareness of issues, reducing uncertainty for decision-making at various levels, garnering support for conservation actions, and promoting accountability of publicly funded research. However, barriers may seem to still be present amongst conservation scientists, which can range from issues such the science-advocacy divide, low incentives within the academic system, lack of appropriate training, to insufficient knowledge of editorial processes outside the peer-reviewed system and a lack of networks within the journalism realm. 

This great panel on science communication was largely aimed at addressing some of these concerns, yet we know there is a long road to further increase our science communication footprint. By definition, science communication entails the approaches to transmit scientific knowledge to non-scientific audiences. In a conservation context, science plays a key role by helping us improve problem definition and reducing uncertainty for decision making. Considering that decision-making at various levels is what ultimately must change in order to advance biodiversity conservation, we can only hope that conservation scientists take advantage of Current Conservation as an outlet to increase their impact in conservation practice.