Highlighted Selections from:

Methods for Collaboratively Identifying Research Priorities and Emerging Issues in Science and Policy

DOI: 10.1111/j.2041-210X.2010.00083.x

Sutherland, William J et al. “Methods for Collaboratively Identifying Research Priorities and Emerging Issues in Science and Policy.” Methods in Ecology and Evolution 2.3 (2011): 238–247. Web.


  1. There is a widely recognized gap between the data generated by researchers and the information required by policy makers. In an effort to bridge the gap between conservation policy and science, we have convened in several countries multiple groups of policy makers, practitioners and researchers to identify priority information needs that can be met by new research in the social and natural sciences.
  2. The exercises we have coordinated included identication of priority policy-relevant research questions in specific geographies (UK, USA, Canada); questions relating to global conservation; questions relating to global agriculture; policy opportunities in the United Kingdom; and emerging global conservation issues or ‘horizon scanning’.
  3. We outline the exercises and describe our methods, which are based on principles of inclusivity, openness and democracy. Methods to maximize inclusiveness and rigour in such exercises include solicitation of questions and priorities from an extensive community, online collation of material, repeated voting and engagement with policy networks to foster uptake and application of the results.
  4. These methods are transferable to a wide range of policy or research areas within and beyond the conservation sciences.

-- Highlighted apr 18, 2014

p.239: The persistent gap between the information generated by natural and social scientists and the information desired by conservation policy makers has prompted calls and requirements by funders for science to be incorporated more comprehensively within policy processes (Lawton 2007; Sutherland et al. 2004). -- Highlighted apr 18, 2014

p.239: Researchers may wish to inform policy decisions through their research, but often lack knowledge of policy makers’ immediate information needs and longer-term priorities. One potential solution is to promote collaborations between policy makers and researchers to identify by consensus a set of priorities for scientific inquiry. -- Highlighted apr 18, 2014

p.239: For exercises in which questions were identied, we established the following criteria for questions: (i) answerable through a realistic research design, (ii) that have a factual answer that does not depend on value judgments, (iii) that address important gaps in knowledge, (iv) of a spatial and temporal scope that reasonably could be addressed by a research team, (v) not formulated as a general topic area, (vi) not answerable with it all depends, (vii) except if questioning a precise statement (‘does the earth go round the sun?’) should not be answerable by yes or no (i.e. not ‘is X better for biodiversity than Y’), (viii) if related to impact and interventions, contains a subject, an intervention, and a measurable outcome. An ideal question suggests the design of research that is required to answer it or can be envisioned as translating the question (Pullin, Knight, & Watkinson 2009) into directly testable research hypotheses. -- Highlighted apr 18, 2014

One hundred priority global conservation questions

p.242: The global questions exercise was designed to identify questions that, if answered, would have a high probability of increasing the success of global conservation actions (Sutherland et al. 2009). Workshop participants solicited questions widely, using diverse methods (including email announcements, workshops and personal communication). -- Highlighted apr 18, 2014

p.242: They were encouraged to engage multiple colleagues in selection of questions and were invited to rephrase questions or contribute additional questions to fill any noticeable gaps. The organizer compiled participants’ votes and – prior to the workshop – circulated to all participants the resulting list of priority questions, the score (summed votes for retention) for each, and any suggestions for rephrasing. Of the 2291 original questions, 1655 received at least one such ‘priority’ vote from the workshop participants. Many participants retained more than 100 questions. -- Highlighted apr 18, 2014

p.242: This 2-day workshop focused on winnowing these 1655 questions into a core set of 100 questions. During the first day of the workshop, expert subgroups addressed each of the 15 themes, with 3–4 subgroups meeting in concurrent breakout sessions to winnow and rene questions. This process reduced the list of 1655 questions to 258. During the second day, three concurrent subgroups each addressed 3–5 pooled themes, winnowing the remaining set of questions further, until each subgroup identified its 30 primary priority and 10 secondary priority questions. At the end of the second day, the organizer guided a plenary discussion to address overlaps, gaps, awkward phrasing and other concerns with the 90 highest priority questions. Decisions on whether to remove or merge thematically overlapping questions were made by majority vote. Eight questions were removed, leaving 82 questions. Participants then voted for 10 questions from among the 30 second-priority questions; the 18 questions with the greatest number of votes were added to the existing 82 for a total of 100 questions. One participant edited the questions for each theme. The organizer then inserted the 100 questions into a draft manuscript and circulated it to all participants to edit, resulting in eventual publication of a peer-reviewed manuscript. -- Highlighted apr 18, 2014


p.243: A number of guiding principles have emerged and been applied during the facilitation of the above exercises. The principles can be categorized with respect to (i) defining the project, (ii) organizing the participants, (iii) soliciting and managing questions or issues and (iv) disseminating results. -- Highlighted apr 18, 2014

p.244: A clear vision enables definition of a feasible scope for the exercise. For example, the UK questions were constrained to ecological topics, whereas the global questions were constrained to conservation of biological diversity. Opportunities included in the final version of the UK policy priorities exercise were required to be new and to have an apparent contemporary application to policy. -- Highlighted apr 18, 2014

p.244: Any exercise requires distinct attention to diversity and inclusivity. For USA questions, we sought collective expertise in policy formulation, application of science to policy and funding of scientific research at different levels of government and different types of public and private organizations. For this exercise, we specifically invited participants as individuals, not as representatives of their organizations. We aimed for a mix of social and natural scientists, and for collective expertise in different biomes. Special efforts were made in Canadian questions to engage experts on Aboriginal issues because Aboriginal peoples are strongly dependent on the environment for subsistence and livelihood, and because their territorial and traditional lands are often the most vulnerable to climate change. -- Highlighted apr 18, 2014

p.246: Several of the exercises have attracted considerable interest among researchers and the media. The UK questions article was the most downloaded paper ever from any British Ecological Society journal and the third most downloaded paper from any of Blackwell’s 850 journals in 2006. It attracted substantial publicity (for example a full page in the Guardian, one of the four mainstream UK newspapers). The Global questions article was the most downloaded paper in Conservation Biology in 2009. -- Highlighted apr 18, 2014

p.246: It is premature to assess the effectiveness of these exercises in terms of specic research and policy and it is notoriously difficult to assess the real impact of papers (Lane 2010), especially as the conversion from science to specic policy initiatives may be slow (Cash et al. 2003). It is necessary to consider the different types of research impact and the relationship between them. ‘Conceptual impact’ is indirect, influencing the way policy makers think (Weiss 1977), and a necessary precursor to ‘instrumental impact’, the direct and longer-term policy changes arising from research. Research that is successfully transferred to decision makers informs the debate on policy alternatives with a view to concrete action (Albaek 1995). It can help policy makers discuss ‘what’s known to be true’ and filter out policy options that have a low likelihood of success (Rigby 2005). As a consequence, the visible manifestation of research in policy can be limited while the contribution of science to policy is potentially more important, but less concrete, than commonly thought (Albaek 1995). -- Highlighted apr 18, 2014