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  • Spanning the Science-Practice Divide: Why Restoration Scientists Need to be More Involved with Practice
  • Sara Jo M. Dickens (bio) and Katharine N. Suding (bio)

Restoration ecology is at a critical juncture. As environmental management policy increasingly embraces restoration, the field of restoration ecology must span the science-practice divide, or risk becoming obsolete. Parties on both sides of the divide agree that science needs to be incorporated into restoration practice and that current approaches are “simply not sufficient” (Hobbs 2007, Weiher 2007, Palmer 2009). There is a resounding call for reforms that better address current limitations facing ecological restoration and a higher priority placed on the scientific understanding of ecosystem restoration. The “science-practice gap” is frequently cited as a major factor limiting both the science and practice of restoration, and there are few individuals or institutions working directly to change this dynamic (Giardina et al. 2007, Weiher 2007, Palmer 2009, Cabin et al. 2010). This gap persists despite agreement about the need for rigorous, publication-quality studies to identify relevant restoration methods (Giardina 2007).

Restoration ecology has faced critiques from both sides of the science-practice divide. Science argues that restoration ecology is largely ad-hoc, site specific, and lacking a conceptual framework (Hobbs and Norton 1996, Allen et al. 1997). Practitioners question how much science is necessary for the successful practice of restoration and are frequently frustrated that research is not applied at appropriate scales for practitioner application (Cabin 2007, Halle 2007). These critiques present very different perspectives of how restoration ecology should proceed: the former calling for broader across-site theory and research and the latter emphasizing site-specific practicality over scientific goals. Together, these perspectives have slowed the development of a third perspective: application of restoration ecology research to inform practice and the utility of practice to inform the science.

It is at this science-practice boundary that research can best evaluate whether the science of restoration ecology effectively informs successful management efforts and determine how to increase the efficiency of information transfer. We begin with a broad overview of critiques from both sides of the science-practice debate. We then detail lessons we have learned from a project where we (as restoration scientists) worked alongside practitioners in an attempt to better inform restoration practice. We conclude with ways that a boundary-spanning approach might be most effective in addressing this divide.

From the Science Side

Basic ecological research that includes speculations on implications for restoration is largely responsible for the increase in restoration-related research in the last decade. For instance, 64 review papers focused on restoration in 2009 and 2010 (ISI Web of Science, keyword “restoration,” subject area “ecology” and document type “review”). Many focused on extending basic conceptual frameworks to restoration or elaborating on conceptual advances, but rely on future research to translate these ideas into practice (e.g., Suding and Hobbs 2009, Hoeksema et al. 2010, Kardol and Wardle 2010). Works such as these are largely responsible for the growing link between ecology theory and restoration ecology, but are several steps removed from directly informing ecosystem restoration. Others advocated particular approaches and guiding principles related to restoration (Hobbs et al. 2009, Chazdon et al. 2011), less than a quarter directly reviewed restoration techniques and outcomes to provide recommendations for successful restoration practice (Rodrigues et al. 2009, Matthews et al. 2009). Very few in this last group were quantitative and even fewer took a multi-site or multi-system approach.

There are also many logistical issues associated with research in restored systems: the large scale at which restoration occurs, replication of treatments is limited, reference sites and controls to compare treatments against are often lacking, and funding for projects is hard to come by (Allen et al. 1997). Trends in funding and publication of applied science suggest an opinion that such applied work is of lower value, which can discourage driven researchers (Gibbons et al. 2008, Arlettaz et al. 2010). A fundamental [End Page 134] change in how this type of research is valued by publishing and funding communities is necessary to make collaborations between science and practitioners more accessible.

There will always be a need for basic research stimulated by the...


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