Most researchers working in applied ecology are aware that much of what is published in leading ecological and environmental science journals makes little difference to the day-to-day management of species and ecosystems (Nature 2007). In recent years, several editorials have made this point and attempted to identify a way forward to bridge ‘The Great Divide’ (Born, Boreux & Lawes 2009; Milner-Gulland et al. 2010; Memmott et al. 2010). The onus has largely been on the scientific community to communicate the value of its science more clearly, become increasingly involved in extension activities and, heaven forbid, step down from their ivory towers and get their hands dirty. Yet the reality is that many scientists are doing this already, several very successfully (Possingham 2009). A more serious concern is that academic journals are simply not the best medium to communicate practical messages to a wide audience who need specific solutions to particular problems that have to be delivered on a tight budget. We should not be surprised; much academic research aims to be innovative, internationally competitive and globally relevant – aims which are not always congruent with finding practical solutions. It is against these criteria that many editorial decisions regarding whether or not to accept a paper for publication are made. Irrespective of how much hand-wringing might take place among editors this situation is unlikely to change as publishers judge the viability of journals using bibliometric indices and numbers of institutional subscriptions. Yet, potentially there is another way.
Communication is a two-way street, even if much of the academic traffic is heading in one direction with no clear destination. So how do scientific researchers hear about the concerns and needs of those tackling problems in the field? Surveys of stakeholders are certainly one way to confirm that they feel the scientific community is not listening to them (e.g. Andreu, Vilà & Hulme 2009) but questionnaires do not address the problem. An alternative is to provide an opportunity within the pages of academic journals for non-standard pieces to be written by individuals who have a different perspective on what is needed in applied ecology research and whether the papers published in academic journals get anywhere near it. With this aim, the Journal of Applied Ecology launches its first ‘Practitioner’s Perspective’. These ‘prick our conscience’ pieces can be contributed by anyone who has a strong opinion on the current state of applied ecology research, whether academic or not, as long as they can provide an original perspective and a constructive way forward. Although practitioners have been identified as a distinct group of actors in applied ecology that ‘buy land, put up fences, set fires, put out fires, lobby politicians, negotiate with farmers, spray invasive weeds, poison rats and guard against poachers’ (Nature 2007), we are not placing restrictions on who is or is not a ‘practitioner’. Thus, we welcome pieces from academics (at least those with a bit of dirt under their fingernails) as well as civil servants, environmental consultants, park managers and environmental lobbyists. The truth is we are unsure what to expect in terms of submissions under this new feature, hopefully provocative pieces from writers whose voices are rarely heard in our journal. To kick-start this initiative we have commissioned a few articles that might give a flavour of the pieces we would like to see published in the future. Our greatest challenge to date has been to prevent these pieces from becoming advertorials for the activities of NGOs, conservation groups or consultancies. This is certainly not what we want, but we do welcome examples of best practice that may not have made it into the wider academic literature. The first Practitioner’s Perspective appears in this issue (Goulson et al. 2011) and illustrates the viewpoint of the Bumblebee Conservation Trust, although the lead author is a senior academic at Stirling University, UK. Hopefully, in addition to highlighting how science informs the conservation of bumblebees it will challenge readers to consider what more needs to be done.
We encourage future submissions under Practitioner’s Perspectives but please be sure to contact the Editors to discuss your piece beforehand. There is no prescribed structure to Practitioner’s Perspectives apart from our hope that they will be thought-provoking and challenge the science community to consider the perspectives of those individuals addressing applied ecological issues. However, authors may wish to consider covering the activities of the individual or organization with regard to ecological management, the key issues they are addressing (see Sutherland et al. 2006, 2009 for a range of key questions), the extent to which applied ecological research has supported their activities (if at all), how future research might assist them to address ecological problems more effectively and how this might best be achieved (e.g. through greater dialogue, joint projects, new research techniques etc.).