New study: Deforested protected areas are more vulnerable to being reduced or eliminated

Protected areas are the cornerstone of global efforts to halt the biodiversity crisis and combat climate change. The conservation community has invested billions of dollars over decades to scale up their application, especially in areas of critical importance for biodiversity and ecosystem services. Economists and conservation scientists evaluate these interventions to assess their effectiveness for deforestation, carbon storage, and sometimes, for social impacts. Because of the rigorous application of econometric methods and counterfactual thinking in conservation, we are beginning to gain a more robust understanding of the effectiveness of protected areas, especially for ecological systems.

Mongabay recently synthesized the evidence regarding the effectiveness of tropical protected areas. See the infographic for links to studies:

Mongabay recently synthesized the evidence on the effectiveness of tropical protected areas. See their article with infographic for links to studies:

But what about the permanence of protected areas? Are protected areas being sustained, and if not, why? Our new study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences examines this question, focusing on protected areas in Rondônia, Brazil. This region is of particular importance, as it has suffered widespread land conversion from native tropical forest to other uses – especially agriculture – in the last several decades. We built on work by Pack et al. (2016) which found that many protected areas in Rondônia were reduced or eliminated – including ten related to hydropower dam development and four related to rural settlements. We wanted to know: why were these protected areas – and not others – reduced or eliminated? We were also interested in the impacts of these legal reductions and eliminations – what happened after the legal changes? Were there any consequences for forest cover loss?

Time series of deforestation in Rondonia, Brazil, 2000 – 2010. NASA/Goddard Space Flight Center and Earth Observatory. Images from NASA’s Earth Observatory “World of Change” Amazon Deforestation feature. 

Our main finding: protected areas that were previously more deforested were more likely to have their protections reduced or eliminated. Perhaps these protected areas were seen as a “lost cause” for conservation efforts, as they had already been stripped of their ecosystem integrity. This can create a vicious cycle – degraded protected areas lose protection, which can then lead to further ecosystem conversion, for instance, if a dam is built and the landscape is flooded. On the flip side, however, protected areas which we found to be effective at reducing deforestation were more likely to be sustained. This suggests that conservationists should promote virtuous cycles for protected areas, wherein good management supports enduring protections. The sample of effective protected areas in our sample, however, was quite small, so further work on such heterogeneous protected area systems is needed to corroborate this finding.

Protected areas in Rondonia experienced higher levels of deforestation before they were downsized or degazetted in 2010. From Tesfaw et al. 2018.

Protected areas in Rondonia experienced higher levels of deforestation (in red) before they were downsized or degazetted in 2010. From Tesfaw et al. 2018.

We see these legal rollbacks unfolding as a process of negotiation and bargaining between conservation and development interests. The costs and benefits of conservation and development are not spread evenly across the landscape and over time – and therefore have relatively different levels of power in a given place and time. We also see evidence of such bargaining in the case of offsets: the compensation of a legal reduction or elimination of protection with a simultaneous expansion of area under protection or the upgrading of protections. Such offsets – including downsize-upgrade, downsize-upsize, or other such combinations happen around the world. More research is needed to understand offsets – are they ecologically equivalent to the areas removed from protection? Do they afford sustained protections? Are they effective in the long term for social and ecological systems?

Location of PADDD - protected area downgrading, downsizing, and degazettement - events and offsets in Rondonia, Brazil. Figure from Tesfaw et al. 2018.

Location of PADDD – protected area downgrading, downsizing, and degazettement – events and offsets (upgraded protections) in Rondonia, Brazil. Figure from Tesfaw et al. 2018.

What about the impacts of these legal rollbacks for deforestation? In line with findings from Pack et al., we did not find significant impacts of reductions or eliminations of protected areas with respect to forest cover loss. This result was expected, however, as the protected areas under study were already on average more deforested; the legal change did not make a difference in changing local land clearing behavior.

Our paper also offers some interesting food for thought on information spillovers. You may have heard of deforestation spillovers – wherein protected areas displace deforestation outside their boundaries. But have you heard about information spillovers? This is the idea that a policy change – such as the legal removal of protected areas – can signal to interested parties (like development actors) that the government is shifting focus away from enforcement of environmental conservation rules. This type of information spillover could change behavior and affect the distribution of deforestation. Our paper presents the conceptual framework for this idea, but the effect of information spillover certainly merits further study.

So why does our finding – that more deforested protected areas are more vulnerable to losing protection – matter? It shows us that protected areas must be well-managed in order to be sustained and actually deliver on their promises for biodiversity, ecosystem services, and people. This finding is supported by many other studies, including Gill et al. (2017), which demonstrates the importance of adequate capacity and staff for management as critical to ensure positive ecological outcomes. In other words, protecting an area is not the end of the story. Moving blindly toward “half-earth” or other area-based targets for conservation by adding new protected areas is simply not enough. Protected areas must be well-planned and executed – taking social and environmental costs and benefits into account – and then supported with adequate, long-term funding for monitoring and management.  Without these necessary resources, we may see an acceleration of legal rollbacks to protected areas in the future.

Read our new paper here.

Citation: Tesfaw, A. T., Pfaff, A., Golden Kroner, R.E., Qin, S., Medeiros, R., and Mascia, M.B. 2018. Land-use and land-cover change shape the sustainability and impacts of protected areas. PNAS 201716462. doi:10.1073/pnas.1716462115


How to put your science into action: tips for graduate students and academics

From Union of Concerned Scientists,

From Union of Concerned Scientists,

As a scientist, I am frustrated. Attacks on scientific institutions, the existence of scientifically supported phenomena, and objective reality itself are rampant and seem to be gaining power. Reading about the emergence of the “Flat Earth” movement was the low point of 2017 for me in terms of taking stock on humanity’s intellectual progress. Fringe groups aside, the consideration of science in decision making, once considered commonplace, is increasingly questioned. From those who deny climate change, insist on a “balanced” teaching of evolution, or refuse to vaccinate their children, the distortion or undermining of science seems to be everywhere. Is there a silver lining to all of this? The current administration’s anti-science rhetoric and policies have fueled new movements like the March for Science, 500 Women Scientists, and others. And this frustration makes me (and maybe you?) want to do something about it.

No need to include "evidence-based," really. T-shirt from

No need to include “evidence-based,” really. T-shirt from

How can scientists, especially graduate students, have a meaningful voice in science-relevant decision making? Can we be good stewards of science – including that of our work and others’ – to make a difference? I hope so, and I believe that we must seek opportunities to infuse and integrate our work into decision making processes. However, this will not happen automatically: we must be prepared, work strategically, partner with the right institutions, and communicate effectively. Here are some concrete steps graduate students and early career researchers can take to work toward these goals.

Seek help

Making a difference is hard and you’ll need help. Throughout graduate training, find free resources to prepare you with the science-policy/communication/engagement skills that we don’t normally learn in the classroom. Here are some great resources for science-policy communication, advocacy, and opportunities to connect with mentors. Conferences also often have science-policy sessions or workshops that can provide additional training – for example, I’ve participated in workshops on social media from AGU and visual media and presentation skills from National Geographic.

The message box from COMPASS is a great resource to help craft your message. COMPASS offers workshops and training materials online and at conferences:

The message box from COMPASS is a great resource to help craft your message. COMPASS offers workshops and training materials online and at conferences:

Know the landscape

Recognize that the science and policy cultures are completely different. Scientists and policy makers ask different questions, operate on different time scales, use different jargon, and even dress differently. This great slide from Melanie Roberts (AAAS) sums it up perfectly:

sci pol

Recognize that these are real barriers that may prevent decision makers from considering, accessing, understanding, or possibly valuing scientific input. Keeping these in mind will help to “bridge the gap” throughout the engagement process if, for instance, you’re writing a press release about your research or meeting directly with a decision maker. To make sure that your message resonates, you’ll need to translate the quantitative and technical to a more qualitative and narrative-form message. Meet your audience where they are. 

Power-mapping is a tool can help prepare you before meetings with specific decision makers. This helped me and my team at the American Institute for Biological Sciences Congressional Visits Day – we pitched our “ask” (to increase funding for the National Science Foundation) to specific representatives in terms of benefits to their state and constituents. Focusing on the number of people, dollars, and jobs that NSF provides in a given district or state was key to reaching the target audience.


Seek out opportunities to collaborate outside of your academic institution and work with those who are interested in using your work to make a difference. These may include colleagues in government or non-governmental organizations. Collaboration can occur during many stages of a project, from conceptualization to data collection and analysis, to publication, and dissemination. As a researcher, it is critical to make sure that your science and its message is not diluted by those who would have a vested interest in its distortion; be wary of and avoid such collaborations (or funding sources). Despite this caveat, it can be extremely valuable to collaborate with such “boundary organizations” – institutions which both produce and translate knowledge for decision makers. For instance, colleagues in my department collaborate with scientists at Smithsonian, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and NASA who provide study design advice, technical expertise, and funding. I am collaborating with Conservation International, which has provided valuable resources including expertise, access to savvy and well-connected media staff, and connections with a network of experts who are integrated with national and international institutions. Collaborations like this can also help you achieve the next goal: publishing!

Publish (open access, if you can)

This is an obvious one, but unpublished dissertations are read only by a committee (and perhaps devoted friends and family) and then collect dust on a shelf. Publishing gives your work legitimacy and permanence and acts as a springboard for broader dissemination. Most decision makers or journalists won’t consider or cover your work unless it has been published in a credible peer-reviewed journal. Seek out opportunities and funds to publish your work in an open access format so that it can be read and used by anyone. Open access fees may be prohibitive, but some universities (like Mason) have funds to support this and journals may waive fees if requested. If you can’t publish open access, at least share the full text of your work with colleagues, on listservs, and upon request. Not only may your work be valuable as a stand-alone manuscript, but also it can be used by non-governmental organizations (who often do not have journal access) as part of literature or issue reviews.

How has open access publishing helped me? As a fellow at Oceana, I completed a literature review of seafood mislabeling and fraud worldwide and was thankful that some of the articles were open access! I was able to extract information quickly and efficiently without waiting on responses from authors for full texts of articles.

Open Access Explained! From PhD Comics: 


Publication of your research in a scientific journal is not enough to change the world. Decision makers do not have the time or the journal subscriptions to access your work, nor the ability to translate findings in a way that resonates personally. You must translate your work to make it useful; translation can come in several forms. Before your paper is published, prepare communication and outreach materials, like a press release or briefing that can be shared with journalists and decision makers. You can work with your university public relations/communications office to refine this and leverage the skills and networks of collaborators to disseminate it. When translating your message, use the “flipped triangle” model: start with the headline and follow with the “why should I care” message. Fill in the details later.

Translate your science for public consumption by flipping the message. From

Translate your science for public consumption by flipping the message. From

If you want your work to be used in decision making, or simply consumed by a non-scientific audience, you can’t just do outreach to your peers via scientific conferences and publications. For instance, if your goal is to influence a particular policy decision, you’ll need to target your communication efforts to key stakeholders, including decision makers and those who have access to decision makers. If you can, allocate time and funding to do this in your research plan and budget.

Take advantage of policy windows

Is your research relevant to a policy or process that is currently being developed or deliberated – like the listing of a species or the establishment of a new protected area? You can position your work strategically to try to influence these decisions. You may want to leverage partnerships you’ve formed or find new ones to identify policy windows and contacts with whom you can share your work.

One way to do this is to pitch your work in a press release during a particular political event that serves as the “hook.” For instance, my work on regulatory rollbacks to protected areas influenced the tagline that the reductions to the Bears Ears and Grand-Staircase Escalante National Monuments were the largest in U.S. history (technically, Bears Ears alone was the single largest downsize). I’ve also timed the publication of my research to align with key events; my article on boundary changes in Yosemite National Park was published on the 100th anniversary of the National Park Service. This provided a hook that enabled us to get media coverage in Vice, Mongabay, and other outlets. Not all publications and presentations will necessarily line up perfectly with policy windows; this is one of the main barriers to the integration of science and decision making. However, if you are lucky to have such opportunities, seize them.

On whether scientists should scientists engage in policy

There is a spectrum of opinions on the question of whether scientists should bother engaging in policy and decision making; opinions vary by field. Conservation biology for instance, was founded as a mission-oriented discipline – we do our science in order to prevent extinctions and preserve life on earth. This has shaped my opinion that scientists must engageeither in our communities, in the public sphere, and/or with decision makers. We are experts that can provide valuable, high-quality information that can influence important decisions and make a difference in the world. It is understandable that not everyone is interested in all aspects of science-policy engagement, such as direct advocacy. It can be nerve wracking and uncomfortable to meet with decision makers and ask for something. However, I believe that all scientists can play a role along a spectrum, from pure knowledge providers to direct advocates on specific issues. A remaining question, however: are there incentives in academia to encourage science-policy and communications work? Usually, tenure and promotion models do not often reward time spent on these activities, which is unfortunate. This is one reason why I am personally seeking careers outside of academia with the goal of integrating scientific knowledge into decision making.

The March for Science galvanized scientists around the world to speak up for truth. Image from CNN

The March for Science galvanized scientists around the world to speak up for truth. Image from CNN

On speaking truth to power

Scientists are stereotyped as nerdy and shy – uncomfortable with speaking truth to power directly. Translating and communicating your research to new and possibly unfriendly audiences may be difficult, but nothing worthwhile is ever easy. If you stick to the science and draw conclusions that follow from your results, you will be fine. Be clear, direct, and the best steward of your science: if you don’t do it, who will?

2017 Travel Adventures Map

2017 was filled with many adventures! I traveled to conduct field work, present at conferences, and facilitate workshops in Peru, Ecuador, Colombia and Boston, USA. Along the way, I visited protected areas, spotted amazing wildlife, took side trips during long layovers, and more. Explore the interactive map by clicking on the pins to view photos and stories from each site. View the legend by clicking the icon on the top-left-hand corner or, better yet, view as full screen.Have a happy holiday season!

Half Earth: How do we get there?

In his 2016 book Half Earth, Dr. E. O. Wilson presents the global community with a challenge: set aside half of the Earth for nature. He articulates why this must be done – the ever-growing human population and its consumption have degraded natural ecosystems and created a crisis for Earth’s biodiversity. By working toward a goal of 50% protection, he argues, the conservation community can focus on a tangible number that can be tracked and communicated clearly. The Half Earth book presents protected areas – state-designated lands and waters – as the key to achieving this goal. It also briefly notes the important role of other area-based conservation strategies, including conservation easements and efforts by private individuals.

But many questions arise: Which half of the Earth? Which level of biodiversity do we prioritize to protect (genetic, species, ecosystem, or functional)? How do we include the high seas in this equation, which are outside of national jurisdictions? Do we focus first on biodiversity hotspots to save the most species? Mustn’t we also represent all of earth’s ecoregions, ensuring that the diversity of life forms are secure – including species-poor deserts and ice fields? And once protected areas are established, is that the end of the story? Are protected areas sustainable indefinitely? Does protection itself assure the persistence of biodiversity? And is it possible to achieve the Half Earth goal equitably for people?

An ecoregion-based approach to tracking progress toward Half Earth. From Resolve.

An ecoregion-based approach to tracking progress toward Half Earth. From Resolve.

To address these questions and hope to achieve the Half Earth goal, we need an interdisciplinary approach. We can start with biological sciences to map the distribution of species and ecosystems, for instance. Although we do not have nearly close to a census of all species on earth, nor a full understanding of genetic or functional diversity, published maps of species and ecosystems are likely sufficient to guide conservation efforts given the urgency of the biodiversity crisis. Next, we should consider the spatial distribution and status of protected areas – and other area-based conservation interventions – to track conservation progress. Accounting for the spatial and regulatory histories of protected areas and other conservation interventions is critical. By tracking past boundary changes, regulatory roll-backs, and upgrades to protected areas, we can more adequately understand the influence of political history, contextualize the economic demands and pressures on the area, and make more informed and sustainable decisions. The body of literature on protected area downgrading (regulatory weakening), downsizing, (reductions), and degazettement (elimination) or PADDD can help.

Learn more about past and proposed legal changes to protected areas:

Notably, protected areas are not the only way forward. We must track and evaluate other conservation interventions, like indigenous lands, payments for ecosystem services, and market-based mechanisms. Syntheses of the effectiveness of all conservation interventions (via evidence maps, for instance) will be helpful to understand how far we have come and allow us to set future priorities.

World Database of Key Biodiversity Areas.

World Database of Key Biodiversity Areas.

Setting priority regions for conservation can be done in a variety of ways – based on biodiversity hotspots, gaps in protection (of species or ecoregions), or connecting existing protected areas by restoring corridors. Prioritization can be global, regional, national, or local; work at one level can also inform the others. An example of a spatial prioritization effort is the advent of Key Biodiversity Areas – regions representing a high diversity of species. The KBA framework also accounts for species endemism and vulnerability, as well as the “manageability” of territorial units, hence considering the current boundaries of protected areas. Notably, this does not consider the history of boundary changes nor loss of protected areas via downgrading, downsizing, and degazettement (PADDD), so it may ignore important lands that were previously protected but dropped from the estate due to industrial or local-scale pressures. Although KBAs represent a useful and science-based framework to guide conservation directions, national and local governments – as well as private individuals – will likely draw on a variety of approaches to determine priorities for protection. These will include convenience (determining which lands and waters, if protected, will lead to the least conflict with local people or industry) and self-interest (considering financial incentives from eco-certification or REDD+ and carbon markets).

Map of protected areas (green), indigenous territories (orange), and deforestation (yellow and purple) in Amazonia. Source: RAISG.

Map of protected areas (green), indigenous territories (orange), and deforestation (yellow and purple) in Amazonia. Source: RAISG.

As human pressures on the planet continue to accelerate and less arable land is available, for instance, the pressure for natural resources on the last wild places will continue to increase. The future of the siting of conservation interventions will likely be subject to negotiations and political bargaining. Striking a balance between the goal of half earth with the needs of local communities – for water, food, land, and energy – will take constant effort at all levels, from local management to international policy. Local communities can and should be empowered as stewards of the land to ensure that work toward half earth does not unjustly exclude or marginalize them. Without this critical piece, efforts to protect lands upon which people depend directly may backfire and become a source of resentment. Insights from anthropology can inform this dynamic. In the terrestrial sphere, in certain places, we may be reaching a point of saturation for strictly protected areas which exclude all human activities. In these cases, only by engaging with local communities – including indigenous and non-indigenous groups – can we hope to achieve large-scale conservation that is fostered and sustained for generations. Management of protected areas must also be prioritized to the utmost. In the marine realm, for instance, recent work shows that the most important determining factors of success in marine protected areas are adequate staff and capacity for management.

It is clear that “people power” to manage, monitor, evaluate, and steward protected lands and waters is now and will continue to be fundamental to achieving the goal of Half Earth. Continued investment in the social sciences in conservation and collaborations between natural and social scientists – economists, geographers, anthropologists, and even ethics scholars – can ensure that this goal is supported by a strong evidence base and can therefore be sustained.

Happy #HalfEarth Day! October 22nd, 2017 marks six months since the first-ever Earth Optimism event on Earth Day 2017. Earth Optimism emphasizes the importance of positivity in messaging and a focus on conservation solutions; only with this approach can the conservation community hope to engage and excite decision makers and the public to support and value conservation efforts. 

EO Wilson

On Half Earth Day, I was honored to share the stage with Dr. E. O. Wilson at an event at the Smithsonian Castle, discussing protected areas and the way forward for Half Earth.

My Public Comment on “Review of Certain National Monuments Established Since 1996”

Wind Whistle Rock in Bears Ears National Monument. Photo by Tim D. Peterson, from: Wind Whistle Rock in Bears Ears National Monument. Photo by Tim D. Peterson, from:

The Department of the Interior is currently conducting a review of 27 National Monuments. This review may lead to recommendations to alter their status, size, or eliminate them entirely. In fact, the review of Bears Ears National Monument has already led Secretary Zinke to recommend a reduction in its size.

The public comment period is open until July 10th. Comments can be submitted online by clicking “Comment Now.”

Here is my comment.


National Monuments and other protected lands are part of our national heritage. The proud tradition of preserving these ecological and culturally important lands has made the United States a model nation for conservation around the world. From Giant Sequoia to Bears Ears, National Monuments not only preserve crucial ecological services, but also provide tangible economic and cultural benefits to neighboring communities. By setting aside National Monuments, the U.S. has used the precautionary principle appropriately to preserve our most precious and irreplaceable resources: biodiversity, healthy watersheds, gorgeous landscapes, and culturally significant treasures. National Monuments also serve as a boon for local economies, drawing tourists and generating revenues. By offering abundant opportunities for recreation, Americans and international tourists alike can refresh their minds and bodies in nature.

Modifying National Monuments to temper regulations, reduce their acreage, or eliminate them would jeopardize these benefits. Such changes could put these ecologically and culturally valuable lands at risk of development, disturbance or loss of wildlife, degradation of ecosystem services, and erosion of local tourism revenues. Boundary changes to protected lands in the United States and around the world have been studied as part of an effort to understand the legal changes that Downgrade (temper regulations), Downsize (reduce), and Degazette (eliminate) protected areas. Such legal changes are known as PADDD (Protected Area Downgrading, Downsizing, and Degazettement) events (Mascia and Pailler 2011). Research to date has shown that PADDD events are primarily driven by industrial scale-extraction and development (Mascia et al. 2014) and can lead to accelerated deforestation (Forrest et al. 2015).

Peer-reviewed research has demonstrated that reducing the size of protected areas can have tangible and long-lasting ecological consequences. A study analyzing the downsizing history of Yosemite National Park (Golden Kroner et al. 2016) demonstrates that forests which were removed from the National Park and transferred to private landowners (in 1905 and 1906) are now more highly fragmented by roads today than forests which remain protected – either within Yosemite National Park or as Wilderness Areas nearby. Forest fragmentation is a well-understood threat to global biodiversity, contributing, among other impacts, to population isolation, edge effects, and reduced diversity and abundance of sensitive species. Research on Yosemite National Park shows the legacy effect that the reduction of a protected area can have for ecological consequences. Notably, this work also demonstrates the benefits of federal-level protected areas and their potential to effectively preserve large tracts of land and watersheds for generations.

Given the importance of and benefits provided by National Monuments, coupled with the potential consequences of change, I urge the Department of Interior to preserve the 27 National Monuments that are under review and avoid tempering their regulations, reducing them in size, or eliminating them.

• Golden Kroner, Rachel E., Roopa Krithivasan, and Michael B. Mascia. 2016. Effects of Protected Area Downsizing on Habitat Fragmentation in Yosemite National Park (USA), 1864 – 2014. Ecology and Society 21(3).
• Forrest, Jessica L., Michael B. Mascia, Sharon Pailler, et al. 2015. Tropical Deforestation and Carbon Emissions from Protected Area Downgrading, Downsizing, and Degazettement (PADDD). Conservation Letters 8(3): 153–161.
• Mascia, Michael B., and Sharon Pailler. 2011. Protected Area Downgrading, Downsizing, and Degazettement (PADDD) and Its Conservation Implications. Conservation Letters 4(1): 9–20.
• Mascia, Michael B., Sharon Pailler, Roopa Krithivasan, et al. 2014. Protected Area Downgrading, Downsizing, and Degazettement (PADDD) in Africa, Asia, and Latin America and the Caribbean, 1900–2010. Biological Conservation 169: 355–361.


Grad students: share your science!



In the current political climate, it can sometimes be disheartening to be a scientist or a scientist in training. The process of science and scientifically derived facts are too often devalued or denied, despite decades of painstaking, objective work produced by a community of scholars. Countering this “climate of denial” will take steady work by scientists and all those who value truth, reason, and societal progress. How can we get started to address this when the challenge seems so daunting? One productive approach: beginning early in one’s scientific career, scientists in training should get very comfortable with communicating their research! And not just in the traditional sense – as in peer-reviewed papers or conference presentations. We have to communicate our work In engaging ways for diverse audiences. Reaching outside of this echo chamber will be key to demonstrating the value of our science to society. This is especially true in fields like conservation, but also applies to nearly every area of research (e.g. health, engineering, political science, and more!).

Don't be like this guy. From

Don’t be like this guy. From

Here are a few  non-traditional outlets that graduate students can use to communicate their research and make their science matter. And remember to explain so that your grandmother can understand.

SciComm 101: What can you do yourself? 

Share science on social media

Starting a twitter account is a great place to start to share your science (and the work of others), access the latest research, and exchange ideas. In my experience, social media brings everyone – from undergraduates to emeritus professors – to the same level because the currency of exchange is clear ideas.

Why scholars use Twitter. From Nature:

Why scholars use Twitter. From Nature:

Translate your research for non-specialist audiences

The combination of paywalls,and researchers’ hyperspecialization means that the vast majority of scientific papers are only read by a few specialists in the field. To make sure that your science is accessed by literally anyone else, you have to translate it! Translation in this case means making your research – especially the findings, conclusions, and societal implications – very easy to understand. The challenge with translation is balancing accuracy with clarity. You don’t need all of that jargon and those acronyms to explain your work clearly. Translation of research findings can take many forms, including blog posts, videos, an outreach event with a local school or senior center, or even a children’s book. Your outlet will depend on your goals – are you interested in educating the public? Targeting decision makers? Starting a conversation across disciplinary lines? The translation approach can be tailored accordingly.

Yes, robots.

Yes, robots.

Next level SciComm: what can you do with the help of others?

Involve non-traditional stakeholders in your research

As you develop your research questions and methods, partner with practitioners or knowledge users like non-governmental or governmental organizations. This relationship can be mutually beneficial; the partner can help provide a research direction while your analyses can provide information that the partner can use directly. In addition, such a partner may also help to share research findings within their community of practice.

Write and disseminate a press release

When you have a publication in the final stages of review and revision, work with your university public relations office to develop a press release. Their expertise will help you to hone the language and also pitch it to their journalist contacts. They may also help you to prepare for an interview.

Talk to journalists

If journalists contact you for an interview – great! Respond as soon as possible and respect their deadlines. You may ask for the questions beforehand, which they may or may not have time to provide. Prepare by writing down a few talking points, considering these questions about your research: What is new? Why do the findings matter? What should be done about it? Note that these are very applied questions; journalists will almost never ask about your methods or p-values but instead will focus on what the results mean and why people should care. During the interview, answer questions clearly and accurately. If the journalist asks a misleading question or tries to put words in your mouth (“Would you say that….the planet is dying and we are doomed?”), refocus the conversation by starting with a fresh sentence relevant to your work (“Our research shows that the application of [whatever] can be very harmful to [your target species]. By reducing our use of [whatever], we can ensure that [your target species] remains abundant and continues to provide important [food sources/recreation opportunities/tourism value/genetic diversity/etc]”).

Sometimes your ideas can be twisted. State your ideas as accurately and clearly as possible.

Sometimes your ideas can be twisted. State your ideas as accurately and clearly as possible.

Make #SciComm the norm

In the traditional graduate school curriculum, students do not receive training in any of these outreach and communication approaches. My advice is to try these approaches one at a time and remember that practice makes perfect. Although this may take you out of your comfort zone, it is so critical to share your science and demonstrate its value to society.

Happy Earth Month!


Save the data, save the world

datarescueDC brought together 200 librarians, scientists, coders, and concerned citizens to archive at risk EPA data and websites.

Data Rescue DC brought together 200 librarians, scientists, coders, and concerned citizens to archive at-risk EPA data and websites.

In the first four weeks of the Trump administration, headlines have been dominated by the most dramatic events: travel bans, border wall plans, coziness with Russia, claims of “fake news,” and record-breaking protests. While many Americans have been in a constant state of whiplash, a group of activists has focused proactively on addressing another possible threat: the security of federal data infrastructure. To address this, researchers at the UPenn program in the Environmental Humanities started Data Refuge – an initiative to archive at-risk federal data. This effort has quickly grown into a nation-wide network of librarians, scientists, programmers, and other concerned citizens. Many events have sprung up – including the Data Rescue DC event this President’s Day weekend at Georgetown University. Events provide participants with tools and collaborative space to archive government websites and effectively “bag and tag” data for repository into the Data Refuge archive. To date, events have focused on archiving the most critical websites and data at risk: environment and climate-relevant information from agencies like EPA and NOAA.

get all the data

Maybe we can’t get ALL the data, but we can start with data that we think is most at risk.

The Data Rescue DC event occurred within an urgent context; the appointment of a climate change denier to lead the EPA, the silencing of civil servants on certain topics, and attempts to restrict data collection on racial disparities in affordable housing, among other news, served as backdrop.  For me, participation in Data Rescue DC felt like the most important near-term contribution that I could make as a scientist. Federal data writ large is absolutely critical – not only for climate science research, but also for countless local applications. As part of a panel on Saturday, Denise Ross of New America reminded participants about the importance of accurate housing data following Hurricane Katrina to inform response efforts and literally save lives. Reviewing and backing up countless EPA websites reminded me that the EPA collects and maintains decades of data on toxic wastes, pesticides, radiation, and lots of other critical information. These data were collected over many years using American taxpayer dollars. Federal data also has the advantage of being consistently collected and without biases inherent in private-sector data; for instance, Ms. Ross shared that Google Street View could not be used to assess certain low income neighborhoods in New Orleans as the camera-equipped cars had failed to include them.

So how does one save the data to save the world?  At the event, participants divided into groups: seeders and sorters, researchers and harvesters, checkers and baggers, describers, and storytellers. Each group contributed to a piece of the data archiving process. I seeded and sorted for the day, clicking through and archiving EPA websites methodically and marking appropriate pages as uncrawlable (like databases or interactive maps). Researchers and harvesters dug deeper into the sites marked as uncrawlable and worked to capture these data. Checkers and baggers provided layers of quality control for the harvested data while describers wrote comprehensive metadata. Storytellers visited each group to capture participants’ stories and experiences – through tweets, videos, blogs, and other media. Organizers were attuned to the sensitive nature of the event; participants who wished to remain anonymous wore white name tags. Signs posted around the room reminded us not to share pictures of people on social media without permission.

In addition to technical data sets, I also discovered some fun things on the EPA website.

At Data Rescue DC, more than 200 participants sorted and seeded 4776 URLs, harvested 20 GB of data, bagged 15 datasets, and described 40 datasets. This contributed about 40% of the datasets that are currently in the Data Refuge archive! Data Rescue DC and similar efforts begin to address the issue of at-risk federal data infrastructure by archiving data. But of course, this is not enough. It may be impossible to archive all of the data that are at risk. And more challenging: there is no guarantee that these data will continue to be collected in the future. Quiet activism like data archiving in concert with continued vocal political pressure to support data collection efforts (e.g. maintain or increase agency funding) will be instrumental. As suggested by Bethany Wiggin of UPenn (one of Data Refuge’s founders), data users can play a role from the bottom up by talking about data that we use and amplifying its importance. This can help “humanize” these data and emphasize their value to society.

I hope that public access to federal data remains open. In the meantime, activists will continue archiving – just in case.

Interested in getting involved to rescue data? Learn more on the UPenn Program in the Environmental Humanities page here

New study: Effects of protected area downsizing on habitat fragmentation in Yosemite National Park

yosemite image

The centennial of the National Park Service’s provides an opportunity to reflect on the history of parks and prepare for the next 100 years.                                                                                                                                                               Image:

My colleagues and I just published a new study in Ecology and Society highlighting 150 years of history of Yosemite National Park. We documented seven legal changes that altered the boundaries of the park – both reductions and additions. We found that Yosemite lost 30% of its original area from when it was established in 1890. We also found that some lands which were removed from the park were subsequently re-protected as wilderness due to the passage of the 1964 Wilderness Act. Forests which were downsized from Yosemite and remain unprotected are more highly fragmented by roads today. Higher road density indicates that the ecosystems are more degraded. Roads may also inhibit migration as species attempt to adapt to climate change.

Coverage of this story can be found on Human Nature, Mongabay, and VICE.  

This piece is part of a broader research effort on protected area downgrading, downsizing, and degazettement (PADDD) which focuses on legal changes to protected areas around the world.  Learn more at and follow @PADDDtracker on twitter.

Republican vs. Democratic Platforms on the Environment

Here is a point by point comparison of the Republican and Democratic parties’ platforms on environmental issues for 2016.* Read the rest of the platforms here: Republican Democratic




Cornerstone of platform: “we remain committed to expanding trade opportunities and opening new markets for agriculture.”

“…ranching on public lands must be fostered, developed, and encouraged.”


“we believe that in order to be effective in keeping our air and water clean and combating climate change, we must enlist farmers as partners in promoting conservation and stewardship.”
“Climate change is far from this nation’s most pressing national security issue.”

Climate change

Cornerstone of platform: “Climate change is an urgent threat and a defining challenge of our time.”

“The best science tells us that without ambitious, immediate action across our economy to cut carbon pollution and other greenhouse gases, all of these impacts will be far worse in the future.”

“We oppose any carbon tax.”

Carbon tax

“Democrats believe that carbon dioxide, methane, and other greenhouse gases should be priced to reflect their negative externalities, and to accelerate the transition to a clean energy economy and help meet our climate goals.”
“We will do away with it altogether.”

Clean Power Plan

“Democrats are committed to defending, implementing, and extending smart pollution and efficiency standards, including the Clean Power Plan, fuel 28 economy standards for automobiles and heavy-duty vehicles, building codes and appliance standards.”
No explicit mention

Corporate Accountability

“All corporations owe it to their shareholders to fully analyze and disclose the risks they face, including climate risk. Democrats also respectfully request the Department of Justice to investigate allegations of corporate fraud on the part of fossil fuel companies accused of misleading shareholders and the public on the scientific reality of climate change.”
“The United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change is a political mechanism, not an unbiased scientific institution. Its unreliability is reflected in its intolerance toward scientists and others who dissent from its orthodoxy.”

Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC)

No explicit mention
“We demand an immediate halt to U.S. funding for the U.N.’s Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) in accordance with the 1994 Foreign Relations Authorization Act.”

United Nations Framework for the Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC)

No explicit mention
“We reject the agendas of both the Kyoto Protocol and the Paris Agreement, which represent only the personal commitments of their signatories; no such agreement can be binding upon the United States until it is submitted to and ratified by the Senate.”

Paris agreement

“Democrats share a deep commitment to … meeting the pledge President Obama put forward in the landmark Paris Agreement, which aims to keep global temperature increases to “well below” two degrees Celsius and to pursue efforts to limit global temperature increases to 1.5 degrees Celsius.”
“We propose to shift responsibility for environmental regulation from the federal bureaucracy to the states and to transform the EPA into an independent bipartisan commission, similar to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, with structural safeguards against politicized science.”


No explicit mention
all-of-the-above energy strategy”

“We support the enactment of policies to increase domestic energy production, including production on public lands, to counter market manipulation by OPEC and other nationally owned oil companies.”


“We believe America must be running entirely on clean energy by mid-century. We will take bold steps to slash carbon pollution and protect clean air at home, lead the fight against climate change around the world, ensure no Americans are left out or left behind as we accelerate the transition to a clean energy economy”
“We encourage the cost-effective development of renewable energy sources — wind, solar, biomass, biofuel, geothermal, and tidal energy — by private capital.”

Renewable Energy

“We will streamline federal permitting to accelerate the construction of new transmission lines to get low-cost renewable energy to market, and incentivize wind, solar, and other renewable energy over the development of new natural gas power plants.”
“we will end the Administration’s disregard of the Nuclear Waste Policy Act with respect to the long-term storage of nuclear waste”

“We support lifting restrictions to allow responsible development of nuclear energy, including research into alternative processes like thorium nuclear energy”

Nuclear energy

No explicit mention
“We respect the states’ proven ability to regulate the use of hydraulic fracturing, methane emissions, and horizontal drilling..”


“Democrats are committed to closing the Halliburton loophole that stripped the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) of its ability to regulate hydraulic fracturing, and ensuring tough safeguards are in place, including Safe Drinking Water Act provisions, to protect local water supplies. We believe hydraulic fracturing should not take place where states and local communities oppose it.”
“We support expediting the permitting process for mineral production on public lands.”


“We will also oppose threats to the public health of these communities from harmful and dangerous extraction practices, like mountaintop removal mining operations.”
“coal is an abundant, clean, affordable, reliable domestic energy resource”


No explicit mention
“We intend to finish that pipeline and others as part of our commitment to North American energy security.”

Keystone XL

“We support President Obama’s decision to reject the Keystone XL pipeline.”
No explicit mention

Pebble Mine

“we support efforts by the EPA under the Clean Water Act to establish proactively science-based restrictions on discharges of dredged or fill material associated with a potential Pebble mine and urge that such restrictions must apply to potential mines at other metallic sulfide deposits in those drainages.”
“support the opening of public lands and the outer continental shelf to exploration and responsible production”

Arctic and Atlantic offshore drilling

“We oppose drilling in the Arctic and off the Atlantic coast”
“That is why we support the opening of public lands and the outer continental shelf to exploration and responsible production, even if these resources will not be immediately developed. ”

“We support the enactment of policies to increase domestic energy production, including production on public lands”

Fossil fuel production on public lands

“We will phase down extraction of fossil fuels from our public lands, 30 starting with the most polluting sources, while making our public lands and waters engines of the clean energy economy and creating jobs across the country. Democrats will work to expand the amount of renewable energy production on federal lands and waters, from wind in Wyoming to solar in Nevada.”
“Congress shall immediately pass universal legislation providing for a timely and orderly mechanism requiring the federal government to convey certain federally controlled public lands to states.”

Public Lands

“we need policies and investments that will keep America’s public lands public
“We believe in promoting active, sustainable management of our forests and that states can best manage our forests to improve forest health and keep communities safe.”

Forest Service Lands

No explicit mention
“We support amending the Antiquities Act of 1906 to establish Congress’ right to approve the designation of national monuments and to further require the approval of the state where a national monument is designated or a national park is proposed.”

Antiquities Act

No explicit mention
“…the ESA has stunted economic development, halted the construction of projects, burdened landowners, and has been used to pursue policy goals inconsistent with the ESA — all with little to no success in the actual recovery of species. For example, we oppose the listing of the lesser prairie chicken and the potential listing of the sage grouse.”

Endangered Species Act

“Democrats oppose efforts to undermine the effectiveness of the Endangered Species Act to protect threatened and endangered species.”
“We will enforce the original intent of the Clean Water Act, not it’s distortion by EPA regulations.”

Clean Water Act

No explicit mention
“We will…modernize the permitting process under the National Environmental Policy Act so it can no longer invite frivolous lawsuits, thwart sorely needed projects, kill jobs, and strangle growth.”


No explicit mention
“We will likewise forbid the EPA to regulate carbon dioxide, something never envisioned when Congress passed the Clean Air Act. We will restore to Congress the authority to set the National Ambient Air Quality Standards…”

Clean Air Act

No explicit mention
No explicit mention

Lead poisoning

“Democrats believe we must make it a national priority to eradicate lead poisoning, which disproportionately impacts low-income children and children of color and can lead to lifelong health and educational challenges.”
No explicit mention

Environmental Justice

“…as we saw in Flint, Michigan, low-income communities and communities of color are disproportionately home to environmental justice “hot spots,” where air pollution, water pollution, and toxic hazards like lead increase health and economic hardship. The impacts of climate change will also disproportionately affect low-income and minority communities, tribal nations, and Alaska 29 Native villages—all of which suffer the worst losses during extreme weather and have the fewest resources to prepare. Simply put, this is environmental racism.”

*This post does not constitute an endorsement of either party.