Marine biologists question gaps between science, research and action
Accessing and reading scientific articles is no easy task. A lot of us are even more acutely aware of the fact now that many of us are reading scientific papers for the first time in an attempt to make sense of the coronavirus pandemic.
An article on The New York Times in June by noted science writer Carl Zimmer sounded a note of caution against the scientific paper, saying "be advised, the scientific paper is a peculiar literary genre that can take some getting used to."
This observation by Carl Zimmer holds true, pandemic or no pandemic.
The gap between the language of scientific papers and that which is familiar to the general audience remains a huge crevice. And yet another new scientific article by Dhaka University's assistant professor Alifa Bintha Haque, now pursuing her PhD at Nature-based Solutions Initiative (NbSI) under University of Oxford, Ruth H Leeney, from Protect Africa's Sawfishes and Dhaka University's Aparna Riti Biswas took a deep dive on this matter, focusing on the gaps in research and eventual conservation action especially in the case of Critically Endangered sawfishes.
In the paper, titled "Publish, then perish?" and published on Wednesday, the trio focused on this particular marine species and tried to map the actions taken to save it in the years since research in this area began.
"Sawfishes are highly threatened globally, and current data on their conservation status in the Indian Ocean are limited. A baseline study conducted in 2011–2012 revealed that at least two species of sawfish were still present in Bangladeshi waters and highlighted several important steps that could be taken to prevent populations from further decline," the paper said.
Read more: The giants of the sea: all but gone
Five years after the first research on these prehistoric species in the waters of Bangladesh, Alifa started work on this issue in 2016. She first uncovered whether any sawfishes remained in our waters and conducted research around this throughout the coast collecting data for future work. On the sidelines, the authors also tried to understand why none of the recommendations made by previous author Md Anwar Hossain and others saw the light of day.
In his 2011 study Hossain had highlighted "opportunities for immediate conservation action", including effective implementation of national fishing and wildlife trade laws, education efforts amongst fishing communities and development of an initiative to release caught sawfishes.
However, there was barely any communication of the recommendations these authors made, to the relevant authorities in Bangladesh or to any conservation organisations or communities in key areas. Scientific research of this sort, with conservation implications, is not for the enjoyment of other scientists, but for paving the way for tangible, real-world actions -- something that is largely missing from the Bangladeshi landscape.
Failing to communicate Hossain's findings to relevant authorities -- law enforcement agencies, Bangladesh Forest Department and other authorities responsible for conservation -- meant the loss of crucial years. As a result, none of the recommended actions were taken and, as of February 2020, no targeted conservation activities aimed at reducing mortality rates and improving the conservation status of sawfishes had been started, said Jahidul Kabir, director, Sheikh Kamal Wildlife Centre, Bangladesh Forest Department, in a personal communication this February.
This demonstrates a serious research-implementation gap for a highly threatened species.
This gap is a failure to translate the recommendations into actions that will conserve the species and habitats, despite growing scientific literature that documents species and habitats in need of targeted action.
"If staff in protected areas or in relevant government institutions are not developing and implementing programmes to protect species of concern, it may be because they lack resources, expertise, or personnel, but it may also be simply because they are not aware of the need for such programmes," the research paper adds.
The problem is even more specific in Bangladesh. Much like the paper in question, most scientific articles are written in English and is thus inaccessible to a largely Bangla-speaking population.
A WAY TO BRIDGE THE GAP
No one is asking for scientific articles to be eradicated but the jargon-heavy document can be made more accessible through popular newspaper articles, posters, one-on-one conversations with relevant parties (in this case fisherfolk and sawfish traders) and other forms of communication -- for example songs, plays, socially appropriated campaigns that can help the knowledge trickle down. That is what the authors tried to accomplish through this paper, written in more accessible language.
The authors identified actions immediately needed for sawfish conservation and also identified possible stakeholders and collaborations required to achieve these results in Bangladesh.
"A campaign to dispel the belief that sawfish meat can cure cancer and raise awareness of the protected status of sawfishes, understanding why fisherfolk are unable to engage in conservation actions and a programme initiating live release of all sawfish caught are some of the ways in which we can reach the masses," opines Alifa Bintha Haque.
The scientists' job does not end with the publishing of the document. They also plan on involving traders and local regulatory bodies, which includes the Bangladesh Forest Department, Department of Fisheries, Bangladesh Coast Guard and District Commissioner's office. They will be provided with posters highlighting the legally protected status of sawfishes and also given easy guides to implement the conservation actions.
The authors also focus on the need to simplify scientific articles for the benefit of those working on the field.
Research is necessary, or else we risk entering this post-apocalyptic world armed without much baseline information, but information alone is not enough. All of the work being done by scientists can make a meaningful contribution to conservation, but only if it is effectively communicated to those who can implement on-the-ground actions that will tangibly affect the trajectory of a species or habitat.
If you are interested to read the full paper please find it here: https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/full/10.1002/aqc.3403, or contact Alifa Haque: [email protected] for more information.