The Democratization of Science

Breaking down barriers to building ecological sustainability and social justice


Recognizing that ecological sustainability and social justice are interconnected challenges that we face today, Anne Salomon and Ken Lertzman, ecologists in the School of Resource and Environmental Management, took a bold step when they launched a field school on the Resilience of Social-Ecological Systems in the remote Great Bear Rainforest on the Central Coast of BC.

Traditional management and conservation approaches that foster ecological sustainability often fail despite best intentions and even sound science because they may neglect or inadequately account for the social-cultural context of the project, ignore or discount traditional or local knowledge, or disregard human rights and the equitable use of resources. If society removes these barriers and adapts an approach that considers both social justice and ecological sustainability, we should be able to better support communities in regaining authority over their lands and resources and in building resilience. One way to do this is through the democratization of science and practice.

What is the democratization of conservation science and practice? Professors Salomon and Lertzman describe it as “the process of ensuring that all knowledge holders have the right and opportunity to participate in scientific endeavours, voice their conservation objectives and for their knowledge, values and information sharing protocols to be equally considered.”

They tested how this process might work in the resilience field school. This graduate course involved the co-production of knowledge and collaborative teaching as a way to enhance the resilience of social-ecological systems. The initiative involved a novel partnership between internationally renowned scientists, Central Coast First Nations (Heiltsuk, Wuikinuxv, Nuxalk and Kitasso/Xais’Xais), federal and local natural resource managers, students, and the Hakai Institute, a private research institute. The aim of the course was to teach and advance resilience theory and practice by applying it to real-world management challenges identified as priorities by Indigenous community partners. The student projects tackled issues such as the conservation of grizzly bear and salmon, balancing ecological sustainability with social justice in coastal fisheries, the role of ancient clam gardens as one of many traditional management and stewardship practices, and the evolving relationship between Pacific herring and Indigenous peoples over time.

The resilience field school experiment caught the attention of the journal Ecology and Society where it was highlighted this spring in a special feature that included an editorial that shares perspectives on democratizing conservation and general insights from the field school and its partnerships. It also contains five research articles describing student and Indigenous knowledge-holder-led projects and a synthesis paper advocating for increased engagement between academic and Indigenous community partners in ecological research.

Thanks to the bold move of Anne Salomon and Ken Lertzman, future generations of researchers, managers, policy makers, and social innovators, have experienced how the democratization of conservation science and practice can remove barriers to ecological sustainability and social justice. Their research, now published, paves the way for others to support resilience in social-ecological systems.

Photo credits: Anne Salomon