Perspective: Closing the knowledge gap between academics and MPA managers

MPA News

By Chris Cvitanovic

[Editor's note: Chris Cvitanovic is a marine and social scientist for the Climate Adaptation Flagship of CSIRO, Australia's national science agency.]

Like a lot of people reading this, the sea has always been a big part of my life. Despite growing up nearly 200 km from the coast in Australia, I was fortunate to spend most summers and weekends down at the beach, and I'll never forget the first time I donned a wetsuit at the age of 15 and went diving. It was then that I knew I wanted to make a difference, and to help protect the goods and services the ocean provides. When I was old enough, I packed my car and migrated 2500 km north to study marine biology at James Cook University, and, after graduation, to work for a time as a research assistant.

It was the exposure to some of the world's most respected coral reef ecologists that I valued most. I heard their tales of fieldwork gone wrong, had first-hand access to knowledge not written down in any manuscript or book, and understood what they considered the major issues hindering the successful management of marine resources. Time and time again I heard these people whom I respected identify bureaucracy and red tape as the major impediment to marine conservation. Indeed, decision-makers were often portrayed to me quite negatively as lacking any awareness of "how the real world works."

In 2007 I joined the Australian Government Department of Environment. I still remember my former colleagues in academia joking that I had sold my soul to join the dark side. I spent the following five years working on a range of marine policies and programs, including two years managing the Australian Government's MPA Research and Monitoring Program. This role gave me the opportunity to experience the bureaucracy and red tape first-hand and to confirm the stories I had heard before. But what I learned was unexpected: MPA decision-makers and scientists are not that different at all.

First, both groups care deeply about what they do: in most cases, working on MPAs is not just a job but a passion. Second, both groups recognize the value of science for informing management decisions, striving to find new ways to incorporate new research into the decision-making process. Third, both groups are extremely busy. While the way decision-makers and scientists go about their day-to-day lives differs substantially, both groups have heavy workloads and tight timeframes, meaning that priorities are set and non-compulsory activities are often lost. In most cases, extra-curricular communication and knowledge-transfer activities are among the first to be lost.

Studying the priorities and knowledge of managers and academics

I decided I wanted to explore these observations in greater depth. I teamed up with colleagues from the Western Australian Department of Environment and the Australian National University. We set out to assess what managers and academics perceive as the priorities for future research on MPAs in coral reef ecosystems, and in doing so we looked for possible mismatches in priorities that could signal a barrier to knowledge transfer.

As part of a study that was published this year in the Journal of Environmental Management, we asked 14 MPA managers and 16 MPA-oriented academics from across 11 institutions to outline what they perceived as the most critical research needs for improving coral reef management. We then asked the participants to rank each question in terms of perceived urgency, importance, and feasibility.

Our results:

  • The mismatch between MPA managers and academics was small, with no significant difference in terms of respective research interests or the type of research questions they posed.

  • Minor differences were observed in relation to the priorities of each group, with managers prioritizing spatial management and monitoring as research themes, while academics identified climate change, resilience, spatial management, fishing, and connectivity as the most important topics.

  • Ranking of the posed questions by the two groups was similar, although managers were less confident of the achievability of the posed research questions.

  • Managers often indicated that they did not have sufficient knowledge to assess whether or not the posed question represented an actual information gap, suggesting that managers were largely unaware of the existing breadth of scientific information that could be used to inform the decision-making process.

Closing the knowledge gap

The last bullet there - i.e., that academics are more up-to-date than managers on the latest scientific research - is perhaps not surprising but provides a clear opportunity for improvement. That is, if MPA management is to be as knowledge-based as possible, the information gap between academics and managers should be closed and knowledge transfer maximized.

We identified the co-production of knowledge as one method for increasing knowledge transfer. Under this approach, research teams would consist of both decision-makers and scientists to ensure that the information requirements of both groups are discussed and jointly understood before executing a study. Importantly, interpretation and dissemination of the new information would be developed to meet the needs of both groups. We also explored the importance of intermediaries, such as knowledge brokers or boundary-spanning organizations, as a method for improving knowledge transfer, drawing on lessons learned from the medical sciences who have already adopted this approach. Finally, we advocated for knowledge transfer to be viewed as a multi-directional process, where both groups are accountable for ensuring that research needs and findings are articulated, freely available, and understandable to all stakeholders.

Achieving such improved information flow, while simple in concept, must be done in a cost- and time-effective way. This will require each group to move beyond traditional approaches to information sharing. The time for this is ripe with growing options for communication associated with social media. Finally, and to draw a quote directly from my paper, "Moving forward as a collaborative unit will inevitably improve the management of coral reef resources, ensuring the long-term persistence of coral reefs and the livelihoods of the millions of people worldwide that depend upon them."

Note: The study "Critical research needs for managing coral reef marine protected areas: Perspectives of academics and managers" by Cvitanovic et al. was published in 2013 in the Journal of Environmental Management:

For more information:
Chris Cvitanovic
, Climate Adaptation Flagship, CSIRO, Black Mountain, ACT, Australia. Email: Christopher.cvitanovic [at]