Marine protected areas (MPAs) are often implemented to conserve or restore species, fisheries, habitats, ecosystems, and ecological functions and services; buffer against the ecological effects of climate change; and alleviate poverty in coastal communities. Scientific research provides valuable insights into the social and ecological impacts of MPAs, as well as the factors that shape these impacts, providing useful guidance or “rules of thumb” for science-based MPA policy. Both ecological and social factors foster effective MPAs, including substantial coverage of representative habitats and oceanographic conditions; diverse size and spacing; protection of habitat bottlenecks; participatory decision-making arrangements; bounded and contextually appropriate resource use rights; active and accountable monitoring and enforcement systems; and accessible conflict resolution mechanisms. For MPAs to realize their full potential as a tool for ocean governance, further advances in policy-relevant MPA science are required. These research frontiers include MPA impacts on nontarget and wide-ranging species and habitats; impacts beyond MPA boundaries, on ecosystem services, and on resource-dependent human populations, as well as potential scale mismatches of ecosystem service flows. Explicitly treating MPAs as “policy experiments” and employing the tools of impact evaluation holds particular promise as a way for policy-relevant science to inform and advance science-based MPA policy.