Science and conservation are often driven by different agendas, partly because many researchers are reluctant to tackle applied topics perceived to be less competitive for publishing or too impractical to study. Consequently, research often fails to contribute meaningfully to conservation outcomes. We use leopards Panthera pardus in South Africa to illustrate this mismatch between research and conservation priorities. A review of the scientific literature showed that leopard studies in South Africa focused disproportionately on basic research, particularly on leopard feeding ecology inside protected areas. Academics were responsible for most articles but avoided applied studies, even though they were published in higher impact journals and took less time to undertake. An assessment of active leopard projects further demonstrated that studies were clumped in areas of low conservation concern and most failed to publish their findings. Many projects were also funded by commercial volunteer programs with financial incentives for conducting research. We recommend that leopard researchers in South Africa and carnivore researchers more widely engage with practitioners to ensure the most pressing issues are addressed. Scientists must also situate their research in a broader conservation context and evaluate the outcomes of management decisions. Finally, continued funding and permissions for research should at a minimum be contingent on research outputs being published in the peer-reviewed literature.