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Learning science from practice

by Prof. Dr. Paul Opdam, Professor Landscape in Spatial Planning,Department of Land Use Planning &, Alterra Landscape Center, Wageningen University Center, po box 47, 6700 AA Wageningen, The Netherlands, email:

For about a decade researchers in landscape ecology have been discussing the issue of insufficient impact of our science in raising societal awareness and decision making. For example, it was shown that available knowledge was not used in local landscape planning and in managing conservation sites, and it was suggested that many tools may not be appropriate to tackle the questions that managers and planners have, particularly because these tools can only deal with small parts of a spatial problem. Journals are packed with papers proposing more and more sophisticated decision support tools and assessment models, often without any specification of the decision process which is supposed to be supported. Cash et al (2003) proposed that the effectiveness of knowledge transfer to practice is determined by three characteristics of knowledge: credibility, saliency and legitimacy. It seems that scientists tend to invest most of their time in improving the credibility (accuracy) of their models, in stead of in the saliency (what can be done with it in a particular context of problem solving?) and legitimacy (does the knowledge recognize the interests and values of potential users?).

Several papers proposed building bridges between landscape ecology and landscape planning, as well as between landscape ecology and sustainable development (see the list of selected literature below). In these papers a common theme is the need to integrating knowledge, both within landscape ecology to converge different lines of research and between landscape ecology and other scientific disciplines, for example social and economic sciences.

Although getting better in integration is necessary for problem solving, it is not enough. Ecological knowledge was reported to be too rigid and prescriptive for problem solving, urging landscape ecologists to explore how the characteristics of their knowledge tools match the needs in the problem solving process. This calls for learning in interaction with practice. Several terms have been proposed to characterize ways of interaction between scientists and practitioners, such as mode II science and transdisciplinary methods. There is a growing understanding that if scientists not only calibrate their tools on scientific evidence but also tune their methods to problem solving in practical cases, scientific knowledge can have a much greater impact. In other words, application should become part of the scientific domain, and models should be tested in practical application to attain higher levels of user value. Nassauer and Opdam (2008) proposed that design could be both a scientific activity and a coproduction by scientists and practitioners of problem solving. Such social learning of mixed science-practice groups can improve skills of practitioners to handle scientific knowledge and tools, and at the same time improve skills of scientists to provide the right knowledge in the right context. Such coproduction of knowledge (i.e. a transdiscplinary approach) becomes even a necessity in cases where collaborative decision making about landscape change have the characteristics of an unstructured (“wicked”) problem, in which involved parties deviate in their view on the problem, in the values they claim, and in the solutions that they see as possible and desirable. Such problems cannot be solved by science alone. This calls for rethinking the science-practice relationship, as well as inventing scientific approaches that can handle such situations.

IALE is highly interested on your experience with the science-practice interface, and with attempts to bridge the gap between landscape ecology and application. Which ways do you see to improve the significance of landscape ecology in society? We welcome your contributions on the IALE blog. We look forward to your contributions!

Selected literature "Learning science from practice":  

  • Cash DW, Clark WC, Alcock F, Dickson MN, Eckly N, Guston DH, Jäger J, Mitchel RB (2003) Knowledge systems for sustainable development. PNAS 100:8086-8091 
  • Fry G, Tress B, Tress G (2007) Integrative landscape research: facts and challenges. In: Wu J, Hobbs R (eds) Key topics in landscape ecology. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge UK, pp 246-268
    Funtowicz SO, Ravetz JR (1993) Science for the post-normal age. Futures 25:739-755
  • Gardner RH, Jopp F, Cary GJ, Verburg PH (2008) World congress highlights need for action. Landscape Ecology 23:1-2
    Yli-Pelkonen V, Niemelä J (2006) Use of ecological information in urban planning: Experiences from the Helsinki metropolitan area, Finland Urban Ecosystems 9:211-226
  • Knight AT, Cowling RM, Campbell BM (2006) An operational model for implementing conservation action. Conservation Biology 20:408-419
    Leitão AB, Ahern J (2002). Applying landscape ecological concepts and metrics in sustainable landscape planning. Landscape and Urban Planning 59:65-93 
  • Mussachio L (2009) The scientific basis for the design of landscape sustainability: a conceptual framework for translational landscape research and practice for designed landscapes and the six Es of landscape sustainability. Landscape Ecology 24:993-1013 
  • Nassauer J, Opdam P (2008) Design in science: extending the landscape ecology paradigm. Landscape ecology 23:633-644 
  • Naveh Z (2007) Landscape ecology and sustainability. Landscape Ecology 22:1437-1440
  • Nowotny H, Scott P, Gibbons M (2001) Re-thinking Science. Knowledge and the public in an age of uncertainty. Blackwell, Malden MA, USA
    Opdam P, Foppen R, Vos CC (2002) Bridging the gap between ecology and spatial planning in landscape ecology. Landscape Ecology 16:767-779
  • Opdam P (2007). Deconstructing and reassembling the landscape system. Landscape Ecology 22:1445-1446
  • Potschin M, Haines-Young R (2006) “Rio+10”, sustainability science and Landscape Ecology. Landscape and Urban Planning 75:162-174
    Prendergast JR, Quinn RM, Lawton JH (1999) The gaps between theory and practice in selecting nature reserves. Conservation Biology 13:484-492
  • Pullin AS, Knight TM, Stone DA, Charman K (2004) Do conservation managers use scientific evidence to support their decision-making. Biological Conservation 119:245-252
  • Termorshuizen JW, Opdam P, Van den Brink A (2007) Incorporating ecological sustainability in landscape planning. Landscape and Urban Planning 79:374-384
  • Termorshuizen J, Opdam P (2009) Landscape services as a bridge between landscape ecology and sustainable development. Landscape Ecology 24:1037-1052
  • Theobald DM, Hobbs NT, Bearly T, Zack JA, Shenk T, Riebsame WE (2000) Incorporating biological information in local land use decision making: designing a system for conservation planning. Landscape Ecology 15:35-45
  • Wu JG (2006) Landscape ecology, cross-disciplinarity, and sustainability science. Landscape Ecology 21:1-4
    Wu J (2010) Urban sustainability: an inevitable goal of landscape research. Landscape Ecology 25:1-4

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