Rethinking the interface between ecology and society. The case of the cockle controversy in the Dutch Wadden Sea


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  • 1Applied ecology, like conservation research, may deal with societal issues if its scientifically based interventions have societal consequences. Human utilization plays a significant role in many ecosystems, so conservation ecologists often have to act on the interface between science and society, where controversies may arise.
  • 2Using insights from science and technology studies, we have analysed the 15-year controversy on the ecological effects of cockle fishing in the Dutch Wadden Sea, which began around 1990 and involved nature protection and shellfish organizations, as well as several leading Dutch ecologists, in a heated debate.
  • 3During this controversy, evaluative research on the ecological effects of cockle fishing was undertaken by a consortium of institutes in order to contribute to the process of political decision-making by the Dutch government on cockle fishery in this area. In addition to conservational and commercial interests, ecological research itself became part of the controversy.
  • 4The research projects on the effects of cockle fishing during this controversy are examples of societally contextualized science, implying that interests and societal disputes are intertwined with scientific arguments. We have applied a dynamic model of contextualization in which societal stakes and scientific uncertainty are considered as the main factors determining the different contexts in which conservation research functions.
  • 5Synthesis and applications. Conservation research, whether it is fundamental or managerially orientated, is related to greater societal aims and interests and might easily face more or less complex societally contextualized situations. Such situations imply extended responsibilities for scientists. Not only is there a need for sound science, but also for a sound way of interacting and communicating with the societal environment. Some elements of such a notion of extended accountability are presented.