Refocusing the Debate about Advocacy


The long-standing debate about whether conservation professionals should practice advocacy has been complicated, in part, because defining advocacy is challenging and controversial. Moving the debate beyond the current morass requires two things. First, the conservation community needs a clear and consistent interpretation of advocacy and those actions or statements that do and do not represent advocacy. This is necessary to dispel the notion that one is either an advocate for certain conservation policies or does nothing to contribute to conservation policy. Second, we believe a more fruitful discussion would unfold if the debate were refocused on the goals of the Society for Conservation Biology (SCB) and on how those goals can be achieved most effectively. Here we examine these issues and suggest a way forward for the SCB and its members.

The SCB has a long history of discussing and debating the issue of advocacy, its pros and cons, and whether or not advocacy should be practiced by conservation professionals (Noss 1996; Tracy & Brussard 1996; Scott et al. 2007). In a broader context, this debate addresses how SCB and its members can most effectively shape practices and policy that promote conservation of biological diversity. Indeed, one of the six goals outlined by SCB in its 2006–2010 strategic plan is to advance conservation policy by providing the “highest quality scientific counsel, analysis, and recommendations” (

Defining Advocacy and Focusing on Effective Communication

Although most people have a gestalt understanding of the concept, advocacy has been defined with many nuances (Wiens 1996; Nelson & Vucetich 2009). Advocacy is most simply defined as “the act or process of advocating or supporting a cause or proposal” ( Lackey (2007) similarly defined policy advocacy as “active, covert, or inadvertent support of a particular policy or class of policies.” Some have sought to distinguish among types of advocacy, suggesting that some types are more appropriate for scientists than others (Brussard & Tull 2007; Pielke 2007). Variations of the word in relation to science (e.g., science-based advocacy or scientist-advocate) (Meyer et al. 2010) conflate the understanding of advocacy and science. We suggest Lackey's definition of policy advocacy is clear and accurate and that it could serve as a standard for evaluation of whether statements or actions represent advocacy.

Despite challenges in defining advocacy, leaders of professional scientific societies in the natural resource disciplines exhibit relative agreement about actions that constitute advocacy. We invited officers and board members who had served since 1985 in the SCB, Wildlife Society, and American Fisheries Society to participate in an on-line survey about advocacy. We received 64 responses out of 129 invitations from leaders of all three societies. There was relative agreement that advocacy was associated with promoting a particular policy and that selective sharing of research results is advocacy (Fig. 1). For example, sharing results of research only with groups or organizations with a common view on an issue was considered by most to represent advocacy, but sharing results with all interested parties was not perceived as advocacy (Fig. 1).

Figure 1.

Responses to the question “In your opinion, do the following activities constitute advocacy or not?” presented in an online survey of the leadership of the Society for Conservation Biology, Wildlife Society, and American Fisheries Society. Bars enclosed by squares are responses to questions that differ only with respect to stipulating a policy and pertain to sharing results with all versus a subset of interest groups.

Clearly, not all actions scientists might take related to policy fall under the umbrella of policy advocacy. In fact, there is a wide range of ways to engage in the policy process without advocacy. For example, scientists can work with decision makers to identify policy-relevant questions (Sutherland et al. 2009), conduct rigorous research in a transparent environment (Wiens 1996). They can publish results in refereed journals (Black et al. 1994) that clearly stipulate implications of the work for natural resources under different policy or management scenarios. Additionally, there are many ways scientists can more actively deliver their information and its implications to the full spectrum of interested parties, including the media, the public, nongovernmental organizations, and industry, for their use in testifying before legislators or other decision makers (Scott et al. 2007, 2008). All these activities increase the ability of science professionals and professional societies to inform and shape policy and promote the use of science in policy development. Such actions also increase an organization's chance to be perceived by all participants as a resource for the best available science.

What is lost if scientists or professional societies take positions for or against particular practices or policies? The primary argument against scientists advocating positions is the often-repeated concern about loss of credibility (Hilborn 2006; Ruggiero 2010). The issue of scientific credibility is complex (Nelson & Vucetich 2009). Research on conflicts over natural resources suggests that a scientist's credibility is relative and that perceptions of credibility differ between scientists and nonscientists (Yamamoto 2010). We suggest a more relevant issue is that of effectiveness in achieving the goal of applying science to policy decisions that influence biological diversity. We acknowledge that effectiveness is likely as difficult to quantify as credibility, but it is the critical element to assess.

Our greatest strength as scientists and members of professional scientific societies is the quality of our research and its relevance to society. That is our unique contribution to informing policy decisions that influence natural resources. Scientists can leverage this strength when their information is used by others who are also participating in the discourse, but are doing so with a policy preference (e.g., nongovernmental organizations, advocacy groups, concerned citizens). Thus, our challenge is to deliver the results of our work and its policy implications to all interested parties and decision makers. When scientists stipulate a policy preference, particularly at the beginning of a process, they are aligning with a subset of the public and might be seen as having an agenda rather than being providers of the best available science. By stating implications of research as if-then statements, scientists can make the policy implications of their work crystal clear. For example, the following statement makes policy implications explicit: If the goal is to maintain ecosystem function, then policy x or y will not accomplish this goal; however, policy z will do so with 95% probability. To be clear, scientists are best qualified to interpret implications of their research under different policies, but doing so is not advocacy if they evaluate policy rather than stipulate it (Fig. 1). This fine distinction is worth making.

Refocusing the Dialogue

We suggest it is time to shift the question from whether conservation professionals should be advocates to how the expertise of scientists and professional societies can be given greater weight in ongoing discussions regarding policies and management actions that affect biological diversity. One might ask, how can one be most effective in informing public discourse on management practices, land-use decisions, and policy developments that affect biological diversity. This question differs subtly but importantly from asking how one can be most effective in enacting preferred conservation policies, albeit those that are supported by science.

The notion that a scientist is either an advocate or does nothing at all to shape policy is a false dichotomy that has muddied the debate about science and advocacy. We agree that doing nothing to help shape environmental policy is irresponsible (Nelson & Vucetich 2009). We do not believe, however, that our choices are either advocate or do nothing. We categorically are not suggesting that we do not care deeply about biological diversity. We do. But we believe conservation professionals can be more effective in conservation of biological diversity by being more relevant to society writ large and being providers of the best available science that is policy relevant but not policy prescriptive.

We challenge SCB members to consider what our professional society can do and what individual scientists can do to be more relevant at the science–policy interface. How can we reach out to a larger group of interested parties, regardless of position on an issue, with results of our research and its implications for conservation of biological diversity? How can we increase the use of science by those making policy and management decisions affecting biological diversity? The extent to which we are successful in those endeavors will determine our effectiveness in achieving SCB's goal of advancing the science and practice of conserving Earth's biological diversity.