What should conservation genomics researchers do about The Gap?

People may forget what you exactly said on your paper, but they won’t forget how your paper makes them feel. I don’t know whose adage that is I was modifying exactly, that perfectly sums my experience with a paper by Shafer et al (2015) about the conservation genomics gap. Coming from the conservation biology world with no knowledge on genomics whatsoever, that paper really makes me think about my PhD that was supposed to be on “conservation genomics” right after I enrolled. As discussed also in this blog five years ago, it is a criticism about how genomic information is still far from being regularly applied to real conservation problems. 

Coming from a somewhat practical world, it disturbs me: Can I still be regarded as a full-fledged conservation biologist if I focus my work on the genomics side of things knowing that I am not doing practical works? What to do about The Gap? Should we even do anything about it at the moment, considering that genomics is still full of uncertainties?

Such questions definitely disturb someone who wishes to build something around the field of conservation genomics and a lot of other people with similar sentiment. I thus found my way to a commentary towards Shafer et al (2015) paper that was published in the same journal a year later by Garner et al (2016). They argued that genomics provide useful information for conservation: identify distinct lineages signalling adaptation, detect introgression of farm populations in wild populations, conducting parentage analysis, and monitoring for disease. They also provided some short summaries of several papers in their supplementary to help strengthen their point.

Did that paper answer my concerns? Partly. My first impression after reading the list of papers in the supplementary is that the list contains papers that are largely from North America and Australia. As they also said in the commentary, mostly are from salmonids research which they said “are of great conservation concern due to their ecological, commercial, and cultural importance in many Northern Pacific Rim river systems”. As low as sequencing cost might be, let’s be honest: it is still too expensive for countries with a lot of species of conservation concern and less preferred when a regular application is not as clear as the commercially important taxa.

Money is an essential part of research, obviously. Looking back to Shafer et al (2015), one of the issue about conservation genomics is, quoting from the paper, 

Developing a genomic tool or framework that can be implemented by practitioners requires a level of rigor and repetition that is not conducive in the ‘publish-or- perish’ climate. Thus, we must rethink how the academic and conservation community funds conservation genomics research. In particular, we envision a research-policy framework analogous to translational medicine, or colloquially ‘bench to bedside’, that enables basic research to have an applied impact [74]. Here the funding is partly driven by designated conservation questions and application and uptake are the measured currency, not (just) publications.

Shafer et al (2015)

So, money. If you want to know how you can get more money, we can start from two starting points: looking at who has it the most and what kind of motivation that makes people want to throw money at us.

Attempts to close the gap

The Shafer et al (2015) paper gave a hint from the title they cited regarding this: “The Meaning of Translational Research and Why It Matters”. If you hate paywalled articles, look at a similar issue on Translational Ecology Special Issue that is free and basically say the same thing: more dialogues between science users. (This weird word is coming from an English subtitle of one of my favourite anime, Dr. Stone, which is a real case of translational research going on in real life that you should watch if you are an anime-enthusiast like me)

In what they call “translational ecology”, the science users are researchers (ecologists), stakeholders, and decision makers, who are all working together in developing ideas and products that can be used in practical real-word problems by and for all participating parties. This idea is not very new, started from medicinal research, and has happened on several conservation projects, such as the ones that are based on species distribution modelling, in which they used the term “participatory modelling process”.

The realm of translational ecology from Enquist et al (2017)

Therefore, working on interdisciplinary dialogue looks promising to close the gap. A work by Taylor et al (2017) is a good example of the first steps towards translational research in genomics. After they surveyed 148 conservation practitioners in New Zealand, they found that practitioners’ are aware that they do not know enough genetics to properly integrate it to management keen to receive more information. Such dialogues have been happening between the people who work on Tasmanian devils, as indicated by a paper by Hogg et al (2015) that elaborates the “Devils Tools & Tech” framework that encourage simultaneous communication between management side and research side of conservation based on the group’s own experience. The group is now involved in making “a national library of genomic data to support decision-making for biodiversity conservation” as I quote from the Threatened Species Initiative project page.

The Tools & Tech schematic (right) where communications between managers and researchers happen at every step of the project from initial questions to data analysis compared to the conventional publish-first-then-act commonly happening (left)

Another way is collaborating with primary industry as suggested by Galla et al (2016) as they explores such options based on the co-authors’ experiences. Their main idea is to “forge novel relationships with scientists that have shared genomic goals albeit in a different discipline such as primary industry”. I think this really makes sense considering the shared goals of keeping individuals abundant in both conservation and commercial use of biodiversity, including mitigating the effect of climate change. As both science done by conservation biology and primary industry are also applied, it is sensible also to work together in how best communicate their science to the practitioners.

Schematic on how working with primary industry research can boost conservation and management policy from Galla et al (2016)

Communication and collaboration is (still) the answer

I find it wonderful how most problems’ solutions are actually more dialogues between a diverse array of people. Quoting Galla et al (2016), “we encourage conservation geneticists and primary industry scientists to attend genomic and networking workshops to meet people with aligned vision for genomic research, albeit in another discipline”. I agree that making a dialogue with practitioners is an important experience being a conservation scientist. I understand what are the problems my colleagues from the zoo and rehabilitation centres are most interested in, such as avoiding inbreeding, resolving taxonomy, and looking for local adaptation. They also keen to ask me questions about genetics (which I embarrassingly cannot answer sometimes) and become increasingly aware that the genetic components are important, especially if translocation and ex situ population management is the goal. 

More dialogues is also the heart of many other relevant issues around genomics such as access and benefit sharing. Inviting more kind people to write in journals to increase awareness of others’ perspectives as suggested also by Galla et al (2016) might be a promising approach if only that brings incentives to the non-academic sectors. The inclusion of non-academic reports when telling about the impact of genomics in conservation is also mentioned in Garner et al (2016) commentary and was replied further by the group from Shafer et al (2015) paper that “to truly bridge the conservation genomics gap, alternative ways to measure impact [8] and fund conservation science [2] need to be considered.” Without that, collaborations will be hard because maintaining collaborations do not reward both practitioners and scientists. 

I experienced the difficulties myself. It is hard to get funding for genomic research from conservation donors as genomics is still regarded as not giving actual impact on the field and too applied for grants that pursue novelties in basic science. The funding barrier is strong with such cross-sectional research. Also, maintaining the dialogue with my practitioner colleagues is not easy between our work activities, especially when it cannot be counted as “working hours” in where you work. Spending working hours to do things that are not listed as your job might not be rewarding for all profession.

How do I feel now about “conservation genomics”? Well, I still love working on genomic data, and I still care about conservation of threatened species. After embarking in such a journey across the literature, and doing what some works suggested researchers to do, I become even more certain that genomics research is needed exactly because the very reason it may not be practically useful: little is known about our biodiversity in the genomic level. By working harder in uncovering the uncertainties around genomics of threatened species, I am motivated by the possibility of my research helping shorten the bridge that must be built even for just a little.

During a crisis, the wise build bridges and the foolish build dams

African proverb

About Sabhrina Aninta

I am a biodiversity informatician working on natural history specimens and various types of biodiversity data to assist conservation of Southeast Asian biodiversity, and conservation geneticist in training working with whole genome sequences of endemic ungulates of Wallacea.
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