Tackling the big conservation questions with Dr Josh Tewksbury

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Tackling the big conservation questions with Dr Josh Tewksbury

Dr Josh Tewksbury is Director of the WWF Luc Hoffmann Institute. The Luc Hoffmann Institute was created by WWF, one of the world’s largest and most experienced global conservation organizations, to respond to the most important questions facing conservation and sustainable development.


How would you describe the Luc Hoffmann Institute to someone who’s never heard of it?

The Luc Hoffmann Institute is a boundary organization focused on conducting the research and synthesizing and communicating the evidence that will advance conservation and sustainable development. Our goal is to provide the science that will allow conservation to move faster, resulting in bigger wins for people and the planet. We have adopted an agile work-model, with a small core staff that works with academic communities, think tanks, and the global WWF community to identify key research and synthesis needs, and we then convene working groups and support next generation conservation science fellows, focused around critical conservation and sustainable development issues. Because we’re sat within WWF International, our work focuses on figuring out where WWF’s global programmes could work bigger, faster, and better if they had better science or research, and then collecting and providing that research capacity. To do this well, we have to first understand which are the biggest questions facing our global staff of 6,000 conservationists and their partners. Then we pull together teams made up of academics, think tank leaders, and thought leaders from all disciplines to help provide the answers, and we place Luc Hoffmann Fellows – emerging leaders in conservation science from around the world – in the center of these processes.

What types of big questions do you tackle at the institute?

The sorts of sticky questions we tackle are things like “what is the most effective way to reduce the environmental impact of rapidly growing urban areas“, “what makes a marine protected area effective”, “how can protected area networks better protect biodiversity in the face of rapidly changing pressures”, and “what is the best way to integrate food, energy, water and biodiversity needs so that decision-makers can build sustainable solutions to integrated land use problems?” We’re set up around creating change, and a lot of the time this means using our Luc Hoffmann Fellows Programme. The programme helps us to bring in post-doctoral fellows who we provide with mentors, and embed them within our global programmes. They get some time to figure out how WWF works, and to better understand what research might be most effective within the area they are focused on. Then we help them to come up with a team of folks to answer the tough questions that will help our global conservation programs, and we convene this group, called a conservation research team, to focus on these issues. This process results in knowledge products focused on particular stakeholders and peer reviewed publications. Because our focus is global, our Luc Hoffmann Fellows program helps to build conservation science capacity from around the world, and we try to get fellows that come from regions of the world where this capacity will make the biggest difference, and where biodiversity threats are the highest.

How can people apply to be a Luc Hoffmann Fellow or to work at the Luc Hoffmann Institute?

Each call for a Luc Hoffmann Fellow will be for a specific area of work. We will have at least two calls coming out soon, one focused on urbanization and sustainability, and another focused on food, energy and water work in the Greater Mekong area. We also have a position open now for a core staff member – our Place-based Conservation Effectiveness Workstream Lead. We’re going to help people who will benefit from opportunities to really do some good in the world, in countries which need that help right now.

Is it easy to move between academia and civil society?

I still give lots of academic talks, and the one of the most rewarding parts of this work is talking to near-graduating PhDs and Post-Docs trying to figure out what its like to work outside of an academic institution, and what skill sets you need to do that. Because most academics have not worked extensively in civil society, there are few academics to help them through that process. And because of that, most of the advice they get from their academic supervisors is probably wrong. Let’s face it, those supervisors didn’t take a track that allows them to know about civil society or NGOs. This means they are unlikely to have the experience of what it’s like to get into these other career spaces. I often try to break down some key differences between an academic and civil society communities. For example, when you’re an academic you’re in a community of people who all share a common language of science or research, but everyone has a different goal. Your research is your own. However, in the NGO world it’s almost exactly the opposite – you work with folks who don’t share a common language, they come from a wide range of backgrounds, but they all share the same goal. This means that in the NGO world, what matters is what you bring to the table on any given day, how you can help solve a particular, thorny, multi-dimensional problem, and the credentials you bring are not that important by comparison.

What advice would you give someone wishing to follow in your footsteps?

My footsteps are weird. I guess I’m part of a small set of people who got relatively senior in the academic space, tried to become as relevant as possible within that space, and got frustrated by the constraints of academic institutions and shifted to the NGO side to try to create change there. Many of the chief scientists in the major NGOs have done this; the Nature Conservancy (TNC) and Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) have some great people who have also followed that route. But we need more folks doing this. We absolutely need more connections between the academic and civil society communities, so that both communities can become better at what they do. These communities need each other, but they often don’t work together closely enough. I would absolutely encourage other senior folks in academics to think about how they can make the biggest difference in the world, and to consider all sorts of career shifts or career breaks that bring them closer to implementing communities. In my field, the difference between conservation biology, as taught in academic institutions, and how conservation actually gets done, is huge, but the opportunities to make a difference by working hand in hand with policy and practice communities that are creating change in the world is really unprecedented. It’s also key for us to find more ways for established academics and NGOs to work together, so that more academic mentors can show early-career professionals what a career in a civil-society organization might be like, and what skills they need to get there. So if you are in graduate school or working as a post-doc, thinking about a move into a think-tank or an NGO, there are a few things you can do to polish that resume and get yourself prepared to move into an NGO. First, it’s all about teams and its often about goals and objective that take many different disciplines and backgrounds to meet. So you don’t come in to lead a research team, you come in to solve a problem as a team. This means employers really want to know that you can really play in the diversity sandbox. When you get out of your comfort zone, you need to know how to adapt, and how to quickly apply your skills to a wide range of issues, working within a group of people who might think very differently than you. Academic don’t always fit that mould, so you have to show folks that you can compete difficult, team oriented, multi-disciplinary projects, and that you understand what working with partners and stakeholders looks like. This links to the other skill which is really important, and that’s project management. Having the ability to take a difficult project with many different facets, and manage it from beginning to end to deliver products on time is a huge advantage. This is especially true within the NGO community because our donors care about hitting deadlines. A final thing I’d say is you’re never going to get a job in conservation without a professional network, and it’s much, much more important in the NGO community. If you don’t know someone in the NGO community, then your chances of getting a job are really low. You have to walk a mile in their shoes.

What drew you to work in conservation?

I started out in Ecology and Conservation Biology, and I grew up enjoying being on large farms in many part of North America. I stumbled into grad-school where I was lucky enough to continue my passion into an academic position. I really wanted to make a difference; I wanted to be proud of my contribution to helping people to live in a more sustainable way. That desire became harder to keep my eye on as I worked up the academic ladder, and the things which knocked me off track were the questions themselves. We really do prize the ability to ask the most interesting, fun and challenging questions – even if they’re not the most important questions that we need to be asking. I ended up on a 10 year odyssey exploring questions such as “why are chillies hot?” This was great fun, and it is easy enough to develop a career around odd questions like this, but I began to question whether that kind of question really rises to the top of the list of “things we need to know” as a society, and I wanted to put my time into more pressing issues. Better to be a small part of a big question, than a big part of a small question. If you only have one life, you have to ask yourself: “what are you going to do with it?” For me, I realised that I wanted to have more practical impact to solve the big sustainability issues we have today. We need to be working in teams, answering the tough sustainability questions. Because the world doesn’t have a lot of time for us to come up with good answers to the big questions we are facing today. So I thought let’s get on with it!

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