Public Release: 

Crossing the Valley of Death: Moving science into practice and policy

University of Arizona

Society can't afford to take 20 or 30 or 50 years to put new scientific insights about the environment into practice, say two scientists from The University of Arizona in Tucson.

To shorten the time between the creation of new knowledge and the widespread acceptance of that knowledge by citizens and policymakers -- the so-called "Valley of Death -- environmental scientists need to take lessons from research on marketing and research how innovations are disseminated.

"Most scientists who work in this general area don't realize it takes a while to put their findings into practice," said Charles F. Hutchinson, director of UA's Office of Arid Lands Studies and a professor of arid lands resource sciences. "There's no mechanism that reliably passes research on so that it can be put into practice. One of the things we try to do is make the research community think about this problem."

His coauthor Stuart E. Marsh will present their paper, "Desertification Research: Bridging the Gap Between Scientific Research and Practical Applications," on Friday, Feb. 17, at 3:45 p.m. local time at the American Association for the Advancement of Science annual meeting in St. Louis. Marsh is a UA professor of arid lands resource sciences and of geography and regional development and the director of UA's Arizona Remote Sensing Center. His presentation will be in Rm. 220 of the America's Center, 701 Convention Plaza, St. Louis.

As an example of how long it takes for new environmental science to become accepted by the general public, Marsh will discuss science's not-so-new understanding of ecosystem change, concepts called threshold or state-and-transition models.

While scientists have come to accept the new models, which were proposed more than 30 years ago, policy makers, the general public and even some natural resource managers still operate under the assumptions of the succession model that was first proposed in 1916.

The succession model proposed that ecosystems in a particular region progress toward a specific vegetation type, known as a climax community. Examples of a climax community would be a birch-beech-maple forest in the northeastern United States or a grassland in portions of southeastern Arizona. Perturbations such as fire, grazing or climate variability might push the ecosystem off-course for a time, but once the system was left alone, it would right itself and move back toward that climax community. The metaphor of a "balance of nature" describes this model.

In contrast, the newer state-and-transition model suggests once an ecosystem is perturbed sufficiently, it moves to a new "state" and stays there. The ecosystem does not revert to its previous condition. This model better explains how former grasslands may change to shrublands when subjected to intense grazing under certain climate regimes or why some heavily logged areas may convert to a moor rather than return to forest.

The model natural resource managers are using determines what management activities they undertake. Using outdated science is ineffective and can cause, rather than avert, serious problems.

Hutchinson said, "With the succession model, policy could be, 'just stop what you're doing and everything will be fine.' But the state-and-transition model says if you push the system too hard, it may be too late."

Marsh said, "Those who make policy need to understand the fragileness of the environment. We can't afford to wait 50 years to put new scientific understandings into practice."

Speeding the dissemination of knowledge from the scientific community to the general public requires specific action. Scientists need to learn what those actions are so they can help spread new knowledge widely, the researchers said.

Cooperative extension efforts such as those at UA's College of Agriculture and Life Sciences are one way to put new scientific knowledge to work on the ground. One key is to have early adopters, people who are eager to try out new technologies, involved in developing those technologies. Reaching those individuals will both help hone the technology for its ultimate application and spread the news of new technologies throughout the community of intended users.

Marsh said that his office had done just that as it developed its RangeView Website. "We identified early adopters from the natural resource management community. They came to our workshop and helped us design the system. Early adopters are a crucial element in the dissemination of new knowledge and in the iterative development of new decision support tools."


Stuart Marsh


Chuck Hutchinson


University of Arizona

Related Web sites:
UA Office of Arid Lands Studies


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