The Secret Sauce for Environmental Problem Solving

It’s collaboration—but that only works when it’s voluntary, not imposed

By David Wilkie

This commentary was originally published in Scientific American and is the first of NCEAS' commentary series on successful collaboration in science.

“Enough! Cut it with the prima donna nonsense. There is no ‘I’ in TEAM!”

I can still see Mr. Stephensen railing at me and my rugby squad as we stood shivering in the rain and covered in mud, after being beaten by a school we should have trounced. “It’s teamwork, collaboration that makes us mighty, better than the sum of our parts. We can always do better when we do it together.”

That is true in rugby, but is it true in science? My earliest heroes were Gregor Mendel, Charles Darwin, Marie Curie, E.O. Wilson, Rachel Carson and Margaret Mead. All seemed to be loners, solitary strivers, mulling and solving life’s hardest problems, and doing so largely by themselves.

What would they think of the growing calls for more collaborative science? Would they see value in more donor-funded efforts to bring people together from different disciplines and with different expertise in attempts to solve the big questions of today and tomorrow?

I agree with my rugby coach that collaboration is a good thing. But only when it is founded on a critical ingredient: a coalition of the willing.

Collaboration can be stunningly successful when the parts seek out one another and self-assemble to solve a shared problem. Even when a group forms from dissimilar organizations with, at times, contrary agendas and ways of working, the willingness of group members to collaborate often helps to bridge these differences.

Unfortunately, collaborations are often born of, or attempted through, the opposite of willingness: force. Too often I have been subject to partnerships orchestrated to encourage collaboration, but luring the individual parts together, largely against their wishes, can fail spectacularly to achieve the hoped-for results.

There are models, however, that show how funding that enables collaborations of eager collaborators can produce remarkable outcomes. One such example is the working-group model pioneered by the National Center for Ecological Analysis and Synthesis (NCEAS) and which undergirds the Science for Nature and People Partnership (SNAPP), itself a collaborative initiative between NCEAS, Wildlife Conservation Society and The Nature Conservancy.

In the late 1990s an NCEAS working group self-assembled to develop a theory of marine reserves that used the best available science and combined the interests and concerns of fishers and the fishing industry with those of the conservation community. This groundbreaking collaboration not only resulted in the publication of 33 journal articles and one book, but also laid the foundation for a significant expansion of the state of California’s marine protected area network in 2007.

More recently, and through SNAPP, a novel mixture of experts from universities, conservation NGOs, insurance companies and the Army Corps of Engineers came together to better understand the role that natural coastal defenses, such as wetlands and mangrove forests, play in protecting people and property from storms, sea-level rise, and other natural hazards.

Through their teamwork, they calculated first-ever dollar values of these coastal habitats in terms of the losses they can prevent, and they are now influencing the way global insurance giants like Lloyd’s of London are doing business.

Importantly, initiatives like SNAPP provide the repeated interaction that collaborations of the willing need to coax each individual out of their comfort zone to listen and learn from each other. It is highly unlikely that the results these two collaborations generated could have been achieved by a solitary genius toiling alone in a garret.

Supporting spaces where women and men with different skill sets and experiences can decide on their own to convene and synthesize their knowledge and perspectives in a fail-safe way is both fun and illuminating. I have been lucky enough to participate in several SNAPP working groups, and it is often surprising what these teams can conjure up to solve knotty problems.

Maybe the greatest barrier to collaborations of the willing is not a lack of donor interest and support. Rather, it is siloed individuals who, through no fault of their own, are unaware of people outside of their narrow discipline with whom it would be fun and fruitful to collaborate on solving that tricky problem over which they have been struggling.

I am one of these siloed individuals. One of the greatest threats to wildlife in Africa derives from so many people lacking alternatives for food outside of hunting and eating wild animals. Solving this, my own tricky problem, requires that I work with experts in livestock, family nutrition and demand elasticity. But as an ecologist working to conserve nature, I don’t naturally have phone numbers in my contacts for professionals in poultry production or child health.

Though it was easy for me to identify the right organizations to connect with, it was no small task to find the best person within each organization—another key ingredient to forming coalitions of the willing.

Thankfully, there are people like Heather Tallis at the Nature Conservancy who understand how to bring willing people together. Through the Bridge Collaborative, she helped me connect with the right experts at one of their daylong collaboration “cocktail parties,” where hopeful problem-solvers in conservation, food production and family health can mingle and find kindred professionals.

An open mind and the right connections may sound so simple and perhaps a bit trite, but they are arguably undervalued ingredients in effective collaborations. Through efforts like the Bridge Collaborative and SNAPP, willing collaborators have critical venues to find one another and cook that magic sauce we need for environmental problem solving.

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David Wilkie is executive director for conservation measures and communities at Wildlife Conservation Society and a science advisor for the Science for Nature and People Partnership (SNAPP).

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Posted on April 11, 2019