Measuring Our Influence as Conservation Scientists

I am a conservation scientist.  Like any other scientist, I develop and test hypotheses, trying to figure out how the world works.  Once I learn something, I publish my results in academic journals where other scientists can evaluate and build upon what I’ve learned.  Because I’m a conservation scientist, however, I also need make sure the people who directly impact prairie conservation (ranchers, land managers, policy makers, etc.) get my information and use it to improve the way grasslands are managed and restored.  If I fail to influence the actions of others in positive ways, I fail as a conservation scientist.

It doesn’t matter how much we learn about employing prescribed fire effectively if we’re not able to help others use the lessons we learn.

In science, keen observational skills and creativity often spark innovations, but rigorous collection of data is required to see whether a great idea actually makes sense or not.  While I’ve had some good ideas, I’ve also come up with plenty of grassland management and restoration strategies that turned out to be duds.  In each case, I learned a little more about prairie ecology and our land stewardship improved as a result.

I’m proud of the work I’ve done over the years to develop new and better ways of restoring and managing prairies.  I know those strategies are effective because I’ve spent a tremendous amount of time testing them, through both observation and rigorous data collection.  My computer is full of spreadsheets and graphs showing how prairie species and communities respond to various treatments.

I’m also proud of the work I’ve done to share what we’ve learned with others, but until recently, I’ve done very little to evaluate the effectiveness of that work.  I’m not alone – most of my colleagues in the world of conservation science do a great job of measuring the natural world and its responses to human activities, but do very little to evaluate whether their work is actually influencing conservation.  It’s fairly ridiculous when you think about it.  We would never think of devoting ourselves to a new invasive species control technique without testing its effectiveness, but for some reason we’re satisfied to rely on blind optimism that our outreach strategies are changing the world.

Come on, folks!  We’re scientists!  We love data, and we’re good at developing and testing ideas.  Why do we apply that passion and aptitude to only part of our work?  Why aren’t we testing whether our ideas are reaching the intended audience and influencing on-the-ground conservation work?  How can we adjust and improve our outreach strategies if we don’t have any data to work from?

To be fair, measuring outreach impacts requires a very different kind of scientific approach than most of us are comfortable with.  Instead of counting plants or observing behavior of birds, bees or bison, we have to assess the attitudes, motivations, and actions of people. Many of us took our career paths because we prefer the company of birds, bees and bison to people, but that doesn’t give us leave to just ignore people altogether – especially when the success or failure of our work hinges upon their actions.

Fortunately, we don’t have to work alone.  There are lots of scientists who are already good at studying people, and many of them are happy to work with us.  I’ve had very enthusiastic responses from those I’ve asked advice from, and their input has been very helpful.

We should probably take some of the energy we spend studying animals and put it towards studying the way people respond to our outreach efforts.

Whether you’re a scientist who actively shares your results with your target audience, or someone who relies on others to translate and transmit that information, there are some basic questions we should all be trying to address.  This is far from a comprehensive list, but it’s a start.

Defining Audience and Message

What lessons and messages from my work are most important?

Who is the audience for those?

What messengers/media will best reach the audiences?

What are the current attitudes/actions of my audience?  What are the main drivers of those those attitudes and actions?

Who are the credible voices my audience looks to for guidance?

How can I reach those credible voices?

Evaluating Success

Are my messages reaching my target audience?

How many people in that audience am I reaching?

Are my messages changing attitudes and/or actions?

At what scale, and to what degree am I making a difference?

Which messages, messengers, and media are most effective for reaching each of my audiences?

Many of us host field days, at which we can share what we’re learning with others.  How many of us are assessing the effectiveness of those field days and other outreach strategies?

I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about audiences and messages, and it’s really helped me focus both my research and outreach more effectively.  Recently, I’ve also started trying to answer some of the questions in the above “Evaluating Success” category.  I’m making some progress, but I need to do much more.

I can tell you how many presentations I’ve given over the last two years (40) and how many people were in those audiences (3,447).  I’ve also been keeping track of calls and emails asking for advice on prairie restoration and management.  Unfortunately, while I have a lot of numbers, I can’t easily translate them into acres of improved management or enhanced habitat quality.

I have, however, made at least some progress toward measuring conservation impact on the ground.  Much of that success came from survey work by one of our first Hubbard Fellows, Eliza Perry.  Eliza conducted interviews with some land managers and private lands biologists who had attended field days at our Platte River Prairies.  Among her many findings were that almost all respondents said what they learned from us had influenced their work, and they conservatively estimated that over 330,000 acres of land had been restored or managed differently because of that influence.  Beyond that, Eliza was able to identify key factors that led to our success and suggest ways to improve our effectiveness.

In addition, Eliza surveyed readers of The Prairie Ecologist Blog and I conducted a follow-up survey three years later.  Those surveys helped quantify the demographics of readers (e.g., about 2/3 of respondents have direct influence on prairie management).  The surveys also measured the degree of influence the blog has on readers’ understanding of prairies and approach to managing or restoring prairies (when applicable).  We even got a rough estimate of the number of acres on which management had been influenced by the blog (over 300,000).

Being able to quantify outreach impact, even when the numbers are fuzzy and incomplete, has been really helpful.  It helps me justify my job, for one thing, and assures both me and my supervisor that the time I spend writing, giving presentations, and consulting with others has value.  Most importantly, it helps me assess what is and isn’t working and adjust accordingly.

While it’s still not fully within my comfort zone, I’m trying hard to make sure I’m measuring the effectiveness of our outreach efforts, just as I do our prairie management and restoration work.  I would love to hear from people who are trying to do the same thing, especially if you’ve found effective evaluation strategies.  As more of us focus on measuring the success of our outreach work, we’ll be able to learn from each other and establish some common metrics.  Hopefully, we’ll also become more effective at translating what we’re learning into large scale and meaningful conservation impact!


About Chris Helzer

Chris Helzer is the Director of Science for The Nature Conservancy in Nebraska. His main role is to evaluate and capture lessons from the Conservancy’s land management and restoration work and then share those lessons with other landowners – both private and public. In addition, Chris works to raise awareness about the importance of prairies and their conservation through his writing, photography, and presentations to various groups. Chris is also the author of "The Ecology and Management of Prairies in the Central United States", published by the University of Iowa Press. He lives in Aurora, Nebraska with his wife Kim and their children.
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13 Responses to Measuring Our Influence as Conservation Scientists

  1. Though I am a hobbiest and not a formal scientist when it comes to prairie management, I do greatly appreciate the research you do on effective management. When it comes to outreach, as an environmental educator, I feel I have a few ideas for you to chew on: I like the way you have kept count of the number of folks who attend you field day and read your blog, then followed through to see how many acres they are managing. We need large scale, landscape sized restoration efforts, but one of my goals is to provide resources for backyard, side yard, school yard, golf course and commercial lot restoration. So, not just how many land managers have benefited from your work, but how many converts, how many fresh acres were converted to prairie. I am starting a prairie seed nursery this spring, with a small green house to start those seeds in little six packs of prairie forb plugs, so I can provide local genotype plant species to the backyard gardener and flats for the school landscape. Jack Pizzo of Pizzo and Associates has done more than most to get Chicagoland corporate sites to use native landscaping, while also working with local parks to better manage their prairies… all of this to say, another measure of your potential impact might be how many new acres are also better managed because of your efforts?

  2. adam says:

    Thanks for continuing to push us along and hold our feet to the (yeah… I’m about to do it…) fire.

    Highlights the need for all to be coordinated: hard and soft scientists alike. Without the whole team, we fall short.

  3. I’d like to see a summary essay on what you have learned in your studies, put together in a pamphlet or dare I say a book? Assembled as an edit of years of scientific research in prairie management written in lay language like your blog. Or direct me to the best readable source for this. Thank you.

    • Chris Helzer says:

      Well, I do have a book, published back in 2010. I’ve learned quite a bit since then, but the basic ideas in the book are still relevant and accurate. You can find the book on Amazon or elsewhere. The Ecology and Management of Prairies in the Central United States. You’re right that it would be helpful to put together some other forms of synthesis that are more up to date. I’ll put some thought into that.

  4. Ethan Walker says:

    As a Rangeland Management Specialist for USDA we rely on new data from scientists like you to keep producers informed of the newest most relevant research. I am always searching Google Scholar for new research in regards to rangeland and habitat improvement. As a public servant it is my duty to help rely research like yours to the public. I defiantly think there is a disconnect between the researchers and the public (under no fault of anyone). I do think however that if researchers are wanting feedback of the scope of their research audience reaching out to agency and extension personal would be valuable. For our agency it would be relatively easy to correlate information given to the producer to practices implemented on the ground (63ac. of monarch habitat installed ____ research was given as guidance).

  5. Rob Fleming says:

    Your blog has had an important help to me, a landowner in Iowa who is attempting to restore his 100+ acres of potential prairie and oak savanna. In October I donated a conservation easement on the property (three miles from the city limits of Des Moines, in a rapidly-suburbanizing area) to Iowa Natural Heritage Foundation.

    Specifically, your advice on grazing as a management tool has been crucial. A neighbor grazes his small cow/calf herd on our restored prairie, and the two of us are experimenting with different methodologies you have written about.

    I’ve been a couple of the GRN get-togethers, including the relatively recent one in Aurora and surrounds. Wonderfully informative. Hope to make this year’s.

    In brief, there are those of us out there really benefiting from your outreach. Thank you. Another useful blog for me is ‘Tom’s Blog’ telling the story of the Pleasant Valley Conservancy in WI.


    Rob Fleming
    Danamere Farms, Inc.
    Carlisle, Iowa

  6. S Mary Baird says:

    We, Catholic Sisters, have recently hired an Ecological Relationships Director for the acreage on which have lived since 1922. He is also a hard scientist with a heart for the human ecosystem, like you. Please know that you are making an impact.Thank you, Chris, for all your work.

  7. James McGee says:

    Where I live, we do not only devote ourselves to ineffective invasive species control techniques, they are mandated. I wrote something up for the Grassland Restoration Network’s blog on controlling buckthorn but no one has commented. The techniques I discuss work just as well for a number of other woody species that prairie managers need to control. The one notable exception is white mulberry. The only thing I have found to work on white mulberry is repeatedly cutting respouts which takes up to three years to work. Herbicide may speed the process but not much. It is difficult when you have a method that is faster, less work, and actually does the job but no one is interested in it.

  8. Patrick says:

    I think the two most important factors to consider are time and money, and how much of both are the targets of your audience willing to spend. For me, it took 30 years from the first engagement with prairie reconstruction (as a school age kid) to buying and beginning to restore my prairie remnant. You need to convince your evaluators that a short time frame, just as it is for prairie management, is not sufficient to measure lasting impact on people’s behaviors.

  9. Have you found any good resources for measuring outreach impacts? I like your list of questions, but it would be great to have some guidance on how to answer them in a credible way. As I transition from a career in science to communications, I see the value in applying research methods to outreach evaluation.


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