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Keywords:

  • interdisciplinary research;
  • knowledge-to-action;
  • problem solving;
  • sustainability science;
  • vernal pools

Summary

1. Despite the dramatic growth in the understanding of freshwater ecosystems in recent decades, many analyses indicate that the magnitude, complexity and urgency of freshwater environmental problems are increasing rather than decreasing. This pattern serves as a sobering reminder that ecological science is necessary but not sufficient for addressing a wide range of sustainability challenges and suggests the need for alternative strategies that can increase the effectiveness of science in environmental problem solving.

2. One key step in efforts to link knowledge with action more effectively is to use a conceptual model that examines factors leading to mismatches between the demand for science to achieve various societal goals and the supply of scientific information by researchers. Some common examples of supply and demand mismatches include instances where scientific information is provided but not needed, is needed but not provided, is not sufficiently trusted or reliable or conflicts with user’s values or interests.

3. Recent work in sustainability science and related fields suggests that such mismatches can be reduced by more careful attention to the design of interdisciplinary research programmes and stakeholder partnerships. For example, research should be salient to the concerns of stakeholders. Research also needs to be independent and objective, so that it is credible to stakeholders. Moreover, researchers should work with stakeholders in ways that foster legitimate decision-making processes. We show how such design criteria can help in identifying and overcoming potential obstacles which limit the influence of ecological research on decision making.

4. These strategies are illustrated by a collaborative programme designed to promote the sustainable management of vernal pools in the northeastern U.S.A. These unique ecosystems are vulnerable to multiple stressors associated with urbanisation, forest management and climate change. An interdisciplinary team of researchers with a wide array of expertise (e.g., ecology, economics, communication, institutional governance, regional planning and forestry) has established a long-term partnership with multiple levels of government, the private sector, conservation organisations and citizens. Using a variety of approaches for linking knowledge with action, this programme has helped produce new land use regulations and management practices designed to balance economic development and vernal pool protection.

5. Thematic implications: freshwater ecosystems are increasingly impaired by multiple stressors that are usually the product of complex interactions between socioeconomic and biophysical factors. Thus, an understanding of the biophysical causes and consequences of such impairment will rarely be sufficient for achieving sustainable management policies and practices. Rather, we need a more integrative and action-oriented approach that explicitly acknowledges the strong coupling between natural and human systems and focuses on reciprocal interactions between knowledge-generating and decision-making processes. We believe that the emerging field of sustainability science holds considerable promise for strengthening connections between knowledge and action.