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.


In December 2003, the Dutch Ministry of Agriculture, Nature and Food Quality (LNV) published an evaluation study (EVA II) on the ecological effects of shellfish fishery in the Dutch part of the Wadden Sea. The evaluation consisted of about 2850 pages in 22 reports and 10 technical appendices (see extended summary: Ens, Smaal & De Vlas 2004). The report was the result of 4 years of research by a consortium of four ecological research institutes in the Netherlands. The ministerial publication was required to end a public controversy which had lasted nearly 15 years on the presumed negative ecological effects of shellfish fishery, especially cockle fishing. The main conclusion with respect to cockle fishing was that it had a significant negative effect on the cockle stocks (Cerastoderma edule) and thereby on the populations of shorebird species feeding on cockles, especially oystercatchers (Haematopus ostralegus), as compared to the levels of the 1980s.

Together with this scientific evaluation, a short and nicely illustrated ‘public version’ was published for information (LNV 2003). This public version, however, immediately revived the public debate, particularly because its first conclusion stated that it was plausible that the reduction of nutrient load in the Wadden Sea, as an autonomous factor, would probably lead to a reduction in the carrying capacity for shellfish species. Accordingly, the question of whether the Wadden Sea condition in the 1980s could still function as a reference for bird populations and fishery efforts was raised. In the popular press this conclusion was interpreted as evidence that it was not primarily the fishery but successful environmental policy (by lowering eutrification) that was responsible for the decline in the bird populations (for example, Trommelen 2003). However, conservationists found that it was now proved that cockle fishing had a devastating effect on the Wadden Sea ecosystem. Seven weeks later, at a scientific symposium on the results of the evaluation, it was concluded, however, that although this carrying capacity conclusion could be considered as an interesting hypothesis, it was scientifically clear that cockle fishing had a significant negative effect on the Wadden Sea ecosystem (Van Andel & Swart 2005).

Subsequently, an expert committee, established by the government to develop the EVA II conclusions into new fishery policies, advised that new and sustainable cockle fishing methods should be developed. However, after the fishery organizations made clear that it was not possible to do so in the near future, the Dutch Cabinet decided to ban mechanized cockle fishing completely from the Dutch Wadden Sea from 1 January 2005 onwards (Anonymous 2004a). Later, in September of that year, the Dutch Council of State decided that an appeal against cockle fishing by Dutch nature organizations was in line with the EU habitat directive 92/43/EEG (Raad van State 2004). This forces EU member states to implement the conservation of habitats and wild species in European territory in their national legislation. As a consequence, cockle fishing was immediately prohibited in the Dutch area of the Wadden Sea.

This case indicates that applied ecology – i.e. ecological research that informs management practice (Freckleton et al. 2005) – cannot always be separated from political, judicial, economic, ethical and public affairs. It may require a rethinking of basic assumptions on the relationship between science and society. In this paper we explore the topic in more detail in order to contribute to a transparent relationship between science and society in conservation research.

Survey methods

Rather than taking positions in the ecological and political debates themselves, we will attempt to describe and analyse the role of science in the debate on cockle fishing in the Dutch Wadden Sea, using some insights from science and technology studies. We assessed policy documents of the Dutch government and stakeholders, and articles in the media on the debate concerning cockle fishing in the Wadden Sea. We confirmed our findings by interviews with a number of the main players involved (listed in the Acknowledgements). A preliminary publication in Dutch on the cockle fishing affair (Swart 2005) was accordingly read and commented on by those interviewed. In order to assess the public attention paid to this debate we applied a frequency analysis of articles in six Dutch national newspapers (De Volkskrant, NRC Handelsblad, Financieel Dagblad, Algemeen Dagblad, Het Parool and Trouw) from 1995 to 2005 on the Dutch news module LexisNexis (, accessed on 30 March 2006). Articles were selected by the key-words ‘Waddenzee’ (‘Wadden Sea’), ‘kokkel*’ (‘cockle*’) and ‘gas*’ where the asterisk denotes a wild card for any word fragment at the end of a keyword. The term gas* may yield ‘contaminating’ articles through words starting with the fragment ‘gast’ (‘guest’). However, a test showed that this was less than 5% of the articles containing the term gas*. Other possible contaminating words are expected to have a much lower frequency.

The Controversy On Cockle Fishing In The Dutch Wadden Sea

The Wadden Sea is a shallow sea located at the rim of the north-western European continent (lat 52°28′N, long 4°43′E). The area consists of tidal flats, salt marshes and barrier islands and is generally recognized as a wetland of international importance (Olson & Dinerstein 1998). It is, for example, included on the list of the Ramsar Convention (Anonymous 2006). The Wadden Sea has a high level of primary production and functions as a nursery for many fish species. Many animal species can be found in this area, and the islands and salt marshes are important wintering and resting places for migratory birds. Since the late 1960s, many debates have taken place on embankment, seal management, nutrient load, gas exploitation, and shellfish fishery (Wolff 2000a,b).

Cockles were initially harvested by manual methods, but since the early 1960s the exploitation was scaled up by the introduction of mechanized suction-dredge cockle fishing technology, which sucks a layer 3–5 cm deep and 1 m wide from the sea bed. Cockles of sufficient size are selected, and the remaining mud and smaller organisms are returned to the sea. The efficacy of this technology is illustrated by the fact that the annual yield of fresh cockle mass increased from about 2 million to nearly 80 million kg between 1960 and 1989 (Dijkema 1997).

The estimated surface of the Dutch Wadden Sea that underwent dredging in the period 1992–2001 is 1·2% of the tidal mudflat area or 31% of the fishing area, defined as quadrants of 2 ha with more than 2% dredging. In this period, most cockle beds in the open areas (areas permitted to be fished) were fished, resulting in an average harvest of 9·5% of the total Wadden Sea cockle stocks (Ens, Smaal & De Vlas 2004: 49–54). The presumed ecological effects of cockle fishing gave rise to a combined scientific and societal controversy which we will describe in four episodes.

Episode I: 1990–98

In the early 1990s, the reduction and disappearance of both mussel and cockle banks as a consequence of the intensified and mechanized cockle fishery were identified (Abrahamse & Revier 1991; Verbeeten 2000; Swart 2005). This increased public and political concern about the decline and impoverishment of the Wadden Sea as a natural area. Subsequently, the Dutch government announced protection measures (LNV 1993). The most important measures were the compartmentalization of the area by closing about 26% of the area for mussel seed and cockle fishing, and the requirement that oystercatcher and eider duck populations in the Wadden Sea should be able to satisfy about 60% of their food needs from shellfish stocks. To realize these measures, ships were equipped with black boxes for the satellite registration of their geographical positions, and fishing quotas were announced every year based on the results gained from monitoring by the governmental fish research institute (RIVO).

In 1998, these measures were assessed by an ecological evaluation study (later known as EVA I), performed by a number of ministerial ecological research institutes. It was concluded that, in spite of some local recoveries, full recovery had not taken place. However, because of strong fluctuations in cockle reproduction and mortality (due to severe winters, storms, etc.) and because of the short period studied, definitive conclusions were not possible (LNV 1998). Ministerial advisory committees interpreted these results somewhat differently and advised the continuation (WAR 1998) or intensification (RLG 1998) of the measures then current. The Secretary of State responsible concluded accordingly that the evaluation results were ‘robust enough’ for ‘not concluding’ that cockle fishing should be banned in spite of protests from nature protection organizations (Anonymous 1999). As a result, the practices of compartmentalization and food reservation then current were somewhat intensified and it was decided that a second, more thorough evaluation study (the so-called EVA II) should be carried out.

Episode II: 1997–99

At the same time there was an intensive public debate about cockle fishing because of a report by the Royal Netherlands Institute for Sea Research (NIOZ) that had not been taken into account by EVA I (Piersma & Koolhaas 1997). The authors concluded that mechanized cockle fishing had strong negative effects on the Wadden Sea ecosystem, as was apparent from field research near the Wadden Sea island of Griend (lat 53°14′N, long 5°15′E). Shellfish harvesting over one weekend in September 1988, which was accidentally observed by the authors, led to the disappearance of shellfish banks around the island. The system had not returned to its former state even after 8 years. The authors hypothesized that intensive mechanized cockle fishing, leading to a reduced silt fraction in the sediment, in combination with natural incidents such as heavy storms and the fluctuating reproduction rates of shellfish had prevented the recovery of the bivalves (see also Van Gills et al. 2006). In an interview in the Dutch biological news magazine Bionieuws (Van den Broek 1997), Piersma warned of the severe and lasting ecological effects of shellfish fishing and especially of cockle fishing.

The authors and the NIOZ institute were subsequently accused of conducting poor science and of behaving like conservationists rather than independent scientists. A representative of the Dutch ministry wrote that the data was not convincing as they could not falsify the hypothesis that shellfish fishing was safe for the ecosystem. Moreover, the study was criticized because it was not published in a peer-reviewed journal (Van Duijn 1997). Subsequently, a discussion started on the burden of proof in environmental affairs between Dutch biologists and representatives of the Dutch shellfish fishery organizations. According to a number of leading Dutch ecologists, the precautionary principle should be a guiding principle in matters with such strong societal or conservational consequences instead of the classic priority of avoiding so-called type I errors, in this case the assumed safety of cockle fishing (Prins, Van Wieren & Olff 1998). They felt themselves supported by the code of conduct recently published by the Netherlands Institute of Biologists (NIBI), which states that biologists should be aware of their responsibilities towards the lasting consequences of their actions on nature (NIBI 1997). According to these ecologists, scientific integrity should be connected to societal responsibility, as is the case in many other professions. Dutch daily newspapers also reported the controversy and public attention started to increase from that time onwards (Fig. 1). A public letter to the government, signed by more than 50 Dutch biologists, stated that administering the 1998 permits for cockle fishing in the Dutch Wadden Sea conflicted with the government policy view that the Wadden Sea is an important natural area. They considered the Wadden Sea as the ‘last wilderness’ in the Netherlands (Bakker 1998). However, based on current policy the permits were granted.

Figure 1.

The dynamics of the debates on gas exploitation and cockle fishing over 11 years. The figure demonstrates the increasing public attention paid to the cockle-fishing affair (Waddenzee AND kokkel*) and a varying level of attention paid to the controversy about gas exploitation (Waddenzee AND gas*) as compared to the overall numbers of articles about the Wadden Sea (Waddenzee). The percentage of articles containing both the terms Wadden Sea and cockle* gradually increased from 4% in 1995 to 38% in 2004, after which it declined in 2005 to 19%.

Episode III: 1999–2003

The second evaluation study (EVA II) started in 1999 and was carried out by the same research institutes as EVA I, although some were now in the process of privatization and renaming: Alterra (formerly the Institute of Forest and Nature Research, IBN), the National Institute for Coastal and Marine Management (RIKZ), the Institute for Inland Water Management and Waste Water Treatment (RIZA), and the Netherlands Institute for Fisheries Research (RIVO). The NIOZ institute was however, excluded because the EVA II project team was convinced that they could do the job themselves. Moreover, it was expected that NIOZ participation would generate new conflicts because of the positions taken by some NIOZ researchers in the debate described in episode II (T. IJlstra, Ministry of Agriculture, Nature and Food Quality, personal communication, 1 March 2005). The EVA II research was heavily organized. Besides researchers from different ecological institutes and a supervising steering committee with representatives of different stakeholders, an independent audit committee consisting of recognized scientists was installed to guarantee the scientific quality of the project (Ens, Smaal & De Vlas 2004). To feed the growing public need for information, a newsletter and later a website were organized.

Meanwhile, the public debate continued. One of the reasons was that the oystercatcher population had not returned to the levels of the 1980s in spite of the measures. Moreover, Piersma and co-workers published their extended and confirmed data from the NIOZ report (see episode II) in a peer-reviewed journal (Piersma et al. 2001) and Piersma concluded in the popular media that it was now scientifically clear that cockle fishing was harmful for the whole Wadden Sea ecosystem and not only for the location near the island of Griend. In addition, reports and observations of death from starvation among eider ducks in the 1999–2000 and 2000–01 winters (Camphuysen et al. 2002) raised public concern even more. In the popular press nature protection organizations accused shellfish fishing of being the cause of this starvation and they called repeatedly for a ban on cockle fishing in the Wadden Sea. However, shellfish fishery organizations replied that such events were just signs of a dynamic and fluctuating nature, which fishermen had always dealt with. They were convinced that they employed a responsible and sustainable way of fishing and referred to the so-called triple-P concept of Profits, Planet and People (ODUS 2001), an internationally used integrative sustainability concept that was introduced in the Netherlands by the very influential Dutch Social Economic Council (SER 2000). The shellfish organizations also referred to scientific publications to support their vision. However, these publications were criticized because they were published in the so-called grey literature (Prof J. De Leeuw, personal communication, 2 February 2005).

The EVA II researchers were restricted from making their results public during the research periods, as is usual in contract research. They could therefore only marginally contribute to the public debate. This was in contrast to ecologists and stakeholders outside the research team who were able to mobilize the public interest via the media. A pressure group ‘The wild cockles’ was established and the public call for a solution increased. Comparisons were made with the Government's response to gas exploitation, which was banned in 2000 from the Wadden Sea for reasons of nature protection. Why did this not happen with cockle fishing and why not buy it out with the profits from gas exploitation, as had already been suggested some years before by the former minister for Environmental Affairs, Winsemius (Trommelen 2002)?

The expectations of nature protection organizations were high after the publication of some draft results of the evaluation in the annual report of the National Institute for Public Health and the Environment, which appeared to be very critical of cockle fishing (RIVM 2003). In this atmosphere the publication of the results had become an inevitable major event. After two postponements, publication was announced for 15 October 2003. However, one week before this date the Ministry of Agriculture, Nature & Food Quality (LNV) postponed publication again; the Ministry also forbade the contracted EVA II researchers to speak on a public symposium planned for the day after the intended publication. In spite of almost 200 people registered to attend, including scientists and non-scientists, the symposium had to be cancelled. The EVA II results were finally published on 11 December 2003, and a new symposium involving all interested researchers, nature managers, fishermen, politicians and the press took place on 29 January 2004 with more than 250 participants (Van Andel & Swart 2005).

Episode IV: 2003–04

As described in the Introduction, the final report and especially the public version gave new stimulus to the debate, but following the symposium there was a more or less public consensus among scientists. The government created an advisory committee to explore possible politics with regard to gas exploitation, shellfish fishing and nature in the Wadden Sea area, which published its integral policy plan covering all these issues (Meijer, Lodders-Elfferich & Hermans 2004). They proposed a transitional period of 7 years for the sector to develop new sustainable methods of cockle fishing, especially through the development of culture lots like those already used in mussel fishing. The committee also advised allowing gas exploitation and the investment of a considerable percentage of the gas profits (EUR 750–800 million) in the Wadden Sea area for ecological restoration and reclamation, sustainable development and research.

Not surprisingly, this publication revived the debate yet again. Biologists doubted whether this proposal would lead to sustainable practices and, according to the fishery organizations, 7 years was not long enough to develop completely new methods of harvesting. Subsequently, over 100 biologists signed a public letter to the minister responsible for Agriculture, Nature & Food Quality expressing their concern and stressing the importance of basing decisions on scientific insights with respect to the harmful effects of cockle fishing (Anonymous 2004b).

Finally, on 23 November 2004, the Dutch House of Representatives approved the plan of the Dutch Cabinet (LNV 2004) to ban mechanized cockle fishing, to lift the current moratorium on gas exploitation in the Wadden Sea, and to invest a considerable amount of money (EUR 800 million) from gas exploitation profits in Wadden Sea nature, infrastructure and research (Anonymous 2004c).


contextualized science

The cockle case outlined in this paper shows that not only ecological knowledge, but also societal issues can be considered as influential parameters in conservation research. Several authors have stressed that current scientific enterprise is increasingly characterized by a tendency in which societal perspectives (social, legal, ethical and economic) play a pivotal role. Environmental sciences, biotechnology, and medical sciences are presented as such enterprises. Functowicz & Ravetz (1993) stress that scientific uncertainty in combination with the high societal stakes of the natural sciences has led to a type of science which they have labelled as ‘postnormal science’. Similarly, Nowotny and co-workers (Gibbons et al. 1994; Nowotny et al. 2001) conclude that the classic approach of ‘pure’, curiosity-driven, fundamental or autonomous science, detached from society is currently being superseded by contextualized versions of knowledge production, characterized, inter alia, by an applicative context, multiple interpretations of science results, and extended forms of accountability. Thus, not only the scientific quality – as reflected by traditional approaches such as peer-review assessment procedures – is important, but also the so-called societal quality, reflected by the involvement of stakeholders in the research process (Van der Windt, Swart & Keulartz 2007).

The evaluation enterprise described does indeed show such characteristics of societal contextualization. For example, it is clear that the evaluative research projects have been conducted in order to contribute to political and conservational ends. EVA II in particular was meant to reveal what the effects of shellfish fishing on the ecosystem were, whether the measures so far taken had been effective, and whether other measures were needed. An extended quality control was realized by the public EVA II newsletters, the ministerial EVA II website, and in the last phase of the policy-making process by public hearings. Moreover, the Dutch scientific community of ecologists initiated a public assessment of the evaluation by publishing open letters and by organizing a public symposium with many visitors from outside the scientific community.

boundary work

Contextualization implies the involvement of societal players in the research process by which the difference between scientific and societal statements may become less clear. Establishing a claim as scientific in such situations requires active efforts by the people involved, which might also imply typifying the opposing claims as political or interest-driven. Gieryn (1995) has labelled the activities of actors to redefine what counts as scientific or societal as ‘boundary work’. Boundary work occurred in the discussion on the NIOZ report (episode II) where scientists and stakeholders entered and explored each other's areas. A number of scientists stated conservation ends and stressed and explored societal responsibility by departing from the classic rule of focusing on avoiding type I errors, with reference to the NIBI code of conduct. On the other hand, fishery stakeholders and policy-makers stressed the classic view that scientists should not behave like stakeholders but solely as truth seekers. In addition, the publicity sought by ecologists, the activities of pressure groups, the open letters from a large part of the ecological community in the media, and the fact that many stressed the scientific underpinning of their points of view, are all examples of boundary work in which it was often not clear whether scientists were speaking as scientists, citizens or stakeholders.

Boundary work is not only done in an antagonistic but also in an agonistic sense, meaning that the stakeholders involved search for collaboration. Star & Griesemer (1989) introduced the term ‘boundary object’ as a linguistic embodiment of such collaboration in the balancing process of binding and loosening different parties: ‘Boundary objects are objects which are both plastic enough to adapt to local needs and the constraints of the several parties employing them, yet robust enough to maintain a common identity across sites’ (p. 393). Star & Griesemer (1989) have applied this concept to the Museum of Vertebrate Zoology at the University of California in the early twentieth century in order to describe how tensions arising from the different needs, interest and habits of, e.g. professionals, amateurs and trappers were managed. In addition to repositories, maps and standardized forms, the state of California itself was presented in that case as an example of such a boundary object since its geopolitical borders were quite clear to everybody, but its content and meaning strongly differed for the different players. The Wadden Sea area can also be seen as such a boundary object because its meaning is also interpreted quite differently: to some biologists and conservationists it is the last Dutch wilderness, but for fishermen it represents their traditional fishing grounds. Several other boundary objects can be recognized in the cockle fishery debate. For example, the stakeholders often used terms such as nature, real nature and sustainability, but often interpreted them quite differently (see also Swart, Keulartz & Van der Windt 2001; Swart & Van der Windt 2005).

The example of the Museum of Vertebrate Zoology discussed by Star & Griesemer (1989) demonstrates another aspect of boundary work; namely, that it can occur in institutionalized environments, in their case a museum. Such institutions – referred to as boundary organizations – provide opportunities and incentives for the development of boundary objects, facilitate the involvement of different players in boundary work, and integrate contrasting rationalities. They also derive their own legitimization and stability from this intermediary position (Guston 2000, 2001). Governmental research institutes and consultancy institutes conducting research for conservation management ends may be considered as boundary organizations, and they may present themselves as such (De Wit 2004).

The (former) governmental research institutes involved in the cockle fishery case may thus be considered as boundary organizations because they aim to conduct research for policy ends and thus have to connect different worlds through their professional mission. The exclusion of the NIOZ from the evaluation consortium can be seen from this perspective. This institute is funded by the Netherlands Organization for Scientific Research (NWO) and it has an excellent and worldwide scientific reputation in fundamental marine research, which can, however, easily clash with political paradigms. Nevertheless, excluding key scientific players runs the risk of ignoring relevant information. For example, after the report of the EVA II evaluation was published, investigators from NIOZ (Beukema et al. 2004) pointed out that the size of shellfish stocks in the Wadden Sea is primarily determined by recruitment success in preceding years, and that recruitment in turn appears to be primarily governed by the climate-related predation by shrimp on early benthic stages of bivalves. This explanation differs strongly from declining nutrient levels as a key underlying process in the decline of shellfish stocks (see also Beukema & Dekker 2005, 2006).

The exclusion of certain players, whether this is wise or not, can thus be seen as an element of boundary work used to control the process of mediation between politics and science. In the case of the EVA II consortium, the required boundary work was considerably complicated by the rise of public concern about the ecological effects of cockle fishing (see Fig. 1). The traditional task of mediation between science and politics had, therefore, to be extended by further communication with the public, which was done by ministerial newsletters and a website. However, at the same time, much counter information was produced by parties that were not part of the EVA II consortium. Conservation organizations, shellfish organizations and non-EVA II researchers fuelled the public controversy continuously with their points of view.

a dynamic model of contextualization

Boundary work operating at the interface of science and society can easily generate contradictions. On the one hand, it is stressed that science should contribute to important ends such as sustainability, health, welfare, economics and justice (for example, Lubchenco 1998). On the other hand, scientists are expected to work independently and in a disinterested way, as is regularly illustrated by references to the often-cited set of norms put forward by the sociologist Merton (Merton 1973). This so-called scientific ethos includes the pursuit of universal truths, openness and access to scientific results for scientists, societal disinterestedness, and a critical attitude towards scientific claims themselves. As Merton stressed himself, such norms imply a detached attitude to society.

That these norms function in practice is illustrated by the requirements from both camps in the cockle fishery controversy that the findings on the effects of cockle fishing be published in peer-reviewed journals, and by explicit references to the classic view of the separation of science and society. For example, in response to a suggestion by one of the authors (JVA) to investigate scientifically the feasibility of ecological conditions needed to achieve sustainable cockle fishery practices within 7 years, as was proposed by the expert committee (Van Andel 2004), the research leader of the EVA II project stated that researchers should monitor the adequate use of their results but that politics and science have different tasks (Ens 2004).

In spite of such references to the separation of science and society, scientists are often unable to avoid societal challenges, although the form and extent of this impact may differ (Nowotny et al. 2001). Based on the approach of Functowicz & Ravetz (1993), we have described a model in which different types of contextualization of science are distinguished (Van Andel & Swart 2005). We assume that societal interests and scientific uncertainty generate different contexts in which science operates (Fig. 2). When interests are low we can speak of autonomous science, irrespective of the scientific uncertainty that is involved, since uncertainty and competing scientific traditions are key characteristics of a flourishing scientific practice. Autonomous science often occurs in academic settings and is usually curiosity-driven. Boundary work is often restricted to fundraising activities but only scarcely affects the scientific work itself. Things change when well-established scientific insights are to be used in an applied context, where we can speak of applied science. The latter requires boundary work between scientific and societal contexts. Scientific claims in the applied context are strongly assessed and even adapted for their practical use or impact. Research is then primarily problem-driven, as is the case in conservation management research. This ‘chain’ relationship between autonomous and applied science is depicted by the solid arrow in Fig. 2. Of course, in reality the trajectory is often more complicated because applied research may also generate new fundamental research questions.

Figure 2.

Different modes of scientific research as a function of societal interests and scientific uncertainty. After Van Andel & Swart (2005). The solid arrow in the figure indicates the classic route of autonomous science that is followed by applied science. The dashed arrow is a schematic representation of the route of research projects involved in the cockle fishery controversy which became strongly societally contextualized.

This classic chain procedure was also planned for the cockle fishery evaluation: after some years of research, measures would be taken by the government. However, this classic trajectory was frustrated when the research project ran into a public controversy. This can be attributed to the fact that the Wadden Sea area had already been widely recognized as an internationally important natural area, that some of the devastating effects of shellfish fishery were already known but also challenged and, last but not least, that there was an effective and influential conservation movement with scientific support which, in turn, mobilized their scientific counterparts in the fishery sector. As a consequence, scientific uncertainty was mobilized as a strategic element in a political discussion. We have labelled this situation as ‘societally contexualized science’ to distinguish it from weak contexts in autonomous science and from efficacy considerations in applied science. Societally contextualized science is issue-driven, implying that scientific claims are also interpreted and understood from societal – i.e. economic, legal, ethical and political – points of view (Gibbons et al. 1994; Nowotny et al. 2001).

When scientific uncertainties and societal interests are both heavily involved, we can even speak of politicizable science as a radical form of such societal contextualization. Scientific claims are then mainly assessed and questioned from political points of view. Thus, it is not that politicizable science generates political statements (although this may happen) but that science (including the presentation of scientific insights) is vulnerable to political intervention. The prohibition stopping EVA II researchers speaking at the October symposium about the effects of shellfish fishing can be seen as an example of this.

Thus, the path of evaluative research during the cockle controversy followed a different route to the classic route, as is schematically shown by the dashed arrow in Fig. 2.

responsibilities in contextualized science

Ecological and conservation research under weak contextualized conditions may follow a more or less classic trajectory, as depicted by the solid arrow in Fig. 2. It is a well-known path with respect to societal responsibilities. Contacts, contracts and boundary work with respect to the political or commercial sectors are governed by formal or informal conventions. A process of societal contextualization may start challenging this route, as happened in the cockle fishery case. Conservation research is sensitive to this process of contextualization as it aims to contribute to nature and wilderness considered as common-good resources with huge public interests (Ostrom 1990). Conservationists and ecologists have sometimes stimulated such a process of contextualization by political agenda setting, as has occurred in the history of Dutch nature conservation (Van der Windt 1995).

We may wonder how scientists, conservationists or policy-makers can deal with the process of societal contextualization, which often arises as an unavoidable circumstance. One response is to attempt to maintain the classic trajectory: cooling down the public debate by stressing the necessity of waiting for the final scientific results of the research and, in the meantime, supplying the public with reassuring information on the research procedure. Such forms of boundary work can be achieved rather easily in institutionalized environments because involved research is bounded by imposed rules. However, this strategy of cooling down the debate failed in the case of cockle fishery because the debate was heated up by external players not bounded by these rules and conventions, and because the protection of Wadden Sea nature area was already an important issue.

To deal with such situations, extended forms of accountability are needed. Not only sound science is required, but also sound ways of interacting and communicating with the societal environment (Higgs 2003). This implies a departure from the classic scientific ethos where distance from society was a pivotal element. The following summarizes some elements of such an extended mode of accountability for conservation research.

  • 1Consider the field of autonomous science as an opportunity, not as a safe area for research. Accept the fact that during a project a public controversy may arise; there is no such thing as a guaranteed ‘safe’ path. Thus, recognize the potential context of the research project and be prepared to conduct open and interactive communication.
  • 2Consider an open scientific debate as essential. Requirements of confidentiality should be an exception in government-funded research, especially in the case of common pool resources.
  • 3Be willing to consider seriously competing, including politically inspired, rationales. This may imply a shift in the burden of proof for scientific claims if huge societal and conservational interests are at stake.
  • 4Present scientific results and interpretations in publicly accessible texts and check the scientific quality intensively. Realize that the translation of scientific insights into public-friendly texts inevitably leads to a loss of the nuance that is inherent to the scientific text.
  • 5Attempt to evaluate scientifically the political decisions that are based on the presented research results. This can perhaps be implemented in research contracts and may result in ‘subsequent research’ after a political principal has already translated the research insights into concrete measures.

These recommendations may not prevent controversies but they can contribute to a transparent relationship between science and society. They may even contribute to a controversy by including scientific reservations or scientific comments on measures taken by the government. As long as such contributions to a debate are scientifically sound and societally transparent they may improve the scientific debate. The recommendations summarized above can only be enforced in institutionalized situations and only to a certain extent. However, most of the main players in conservation controversies are related to institutions in one way or the other, and partly derive their professional persuasive power from them. Thus, research as well as educational institutes have a responsibility to develop such extended forms of accountability.

As a matter of fact, many of the earth's ecosystems are currently subject to a variable but considerable level of human impact. The human impact may vary but is not expected to decline soon. Even so-called pristine ecosystems have societal connections in the sense that they are evaluated and often dependent on societal care for their existence. Societal contextualization of conservation research is often inevitable and therefore implies extended modes of accountability.


We would like to thank the following people for their willingness to inform us about the controversy: Prof T. Piersma and Dr M. Van Leeuwe, University of Groningen; Prof J.W. De Leeuw, Drs B. Spaans, NIOZ, Den Hoorn (Texel); Dr B. Ens, Alterra, ′t Horntje (Texel); Dr A.C. Smaal, RIVO, Yerseke; A.H. IJlstra, Ministry of LNV, The Hague. We thank Dr André Clewell from the SER Science and Policy Group who co-organized the research session of the World Conference on Restoration in Zaragoza (2005) where a previous version of this paper was presented. We also thank Matthias Gross (Helmholtz Centre for Environmental Research), Mike Weinstein (New Jersey Marine Sciences Consortium), Jozef Keulartz (Wageningen University and Research Centre), Henny van der Windt (University of Groningen) and the anonymous reviewers of our manuscript for their valuable comments.