This article is part of an ongoing series of interviews with prominent ecologists, which you can find here.
With the environmental movement having expanded so quickly over recent decades, it makes sense that many large corporations have started to incorporate sustainability and the environment into their business plans. But what are these business actions actually achieving? And who bridges the gap between the corporate world and the field of ecology?
At the recent Norwegian Ecological Society Conference, Tanja Petersen and I sat down with Doctor Prue Addison from the University of Oxford. Prue works with multinational corporations to aid them in integrating biodiversity considerations into their business operations. We asked her about the difference between business and academia, how she’s managed to transition between the two, and advice for others looking to make the same leap.
Prue Addison, who spoke at the recent Norwegian Ecological Society Conference, is attempting to bring conservation science to ‘the dark side’ – the world of business (Image Credit: Synchronicity Earth, CC BY 2.0)
Tanja Petersen (TP): A lot of your work involves helping businesses incorporate biodiversity into their business plans. How did you get into that?
Prue Addison (PA): There was an opportunity for me to apply for a fellowship specifically to work with businesses on biodiversity. I’m currently at the University of Oxford on a Knowledge Exchange fellowship, but before that I’d only ever worked with government agencies and NGOs, based in Australian academic institutions. So I saw working with businesses as a bit of a challenge, and thought I’d give it a go.
I’m a conservation scientist, and in our field, large corporations are viewed as the “dark side”. One approach is to not engage and shout from the sidelines about how bad these businesses are. The other is to try and reach out. I figured I’d try the latter approach, and work with them.
Sam Perrin (SP): You mentioned that business is seen as the dark side. Have you become more optimistic since working with businesses?
PA: Yeah. I think I have. There’s a big mix of motivations for why businesses talk about biodiversity. Some of it is purely reputation-based and they just want a competitive edge over other companies. But there are companies which are genuinely doing interesting and good things, and appear to be making a real effort to understand what their impacts are, and mitigate these impacts by taking positive actions for biodviersity.
SP: Take us through the concept of greenwashing.
PA: Many businesses nowadays have corporate social responsibility or sustainability reports, which are designed to go alongside their financial reports. But say 10 years ago, they were mainly greenwashing, just a collection of environmental and social ideas that businesses claimed that they represented. They look nice and shiny from the outside, but when you look under the hood there’s not much there. It’s a front that they’re putting on, and they’re not actually doing anything genuinely beneficial for the environment or society.
For example, Nestle. Some people think that it’s a really bad company, but it’s made a lot of environmental commitments, a lot of efforts around crop genetics and diversity, and they have started to account for natural capital in their supply chains. But it has done some really really bad things in the past as well. So you look at their sustainability report, it looks great and focuses on the positive things they’ve been doing, but it hides the scandals they’re involved in.
TP: You’ve worked on both sides of the fence, academia and business. What’s your best advice to young scientists on communicating science to a non-science audience?
PA: I like to network, I like to talk to people. I make it my business to go out and network. I show up to meetings, to workshops, to conferences, I get invited where I can. First of all, I listen. I talk to people and listen to the language that they use. With businesses, I spent a lot of time in the first year of my internship talking to people and asking “what are your challenges, why are you talking about biodiversity, what do you want to see change?”. And they would mention all these very specific business terms to me, and I would be furiously writing them down. Then I started to repeat that language back to them. And I find that very effective, because now I go to conferences and throw in some terms that they typically used: risk, dependency, impacts, business case, externalities. I’m still learning new terms as I go, but I’ve found mirroring their language back to them is very effective. I fit my research into their terminology, so our conservation science and ecology then seems less foreign to them.
SP: So latching onto buzzwords, finding out definitions, learning the language?
PA: Yes, definitely. Read whatever documents they’ve got that are publicly available. Websites, annual reports, that sort of thing. There are often a lot of reports done by NGOs partnering with businesses on sustainability issues. Read the reports that the NGOs produced. It’s a very different world in terms of the language that is used, and you’ve got to get your head around it, so do your homework.
SP: You mentioned you go to workshops and lots of other hands on stuff. How does that clash with the need to publish we so often feel in science?
PA: I’m really lucky, as my fellowship is called a Knowledge Exchange Fellowship, so I’m meant to be focussing on communicating and building relationships with external partners. I get funding to do that, so I can go to a conference somewhere in the world if I think it’s relevant to get the message out about the work that I’m doing.
But for a lot of people, it’s a choice to make. You either do applied work which may take longer to get published or pure research that can be published. I argue that you can publish all the applied work. I work with businesses, NGOs, and with governments. But I always try and make sure that there are capabilities for me to publish the outputs of our collaborations. But I also collaborate a lot with other scientists. I think that’s been my saving grace over the last few years, that other people lead papers, and I contribute as a co-author. So my paper count is still up. Not as a lead author anymore, but there are some now that I’m getting on as last author, which in conservation science is also quite important as it represents a supervisor role.
But there’s a massive problem that in academic institutions you are still only encouraged to publish, and there is only career progression based on those metrics, not “how many workshops did you show up at, and how many partnerships have you formed?”. It’s starting to happen in the UK for example, we’ve got the Research Excellence Framework, and they have measurements for achieving research impact. They’re going to have measurements around knowledge exchange, which hopefully will then figure back into career progression metrics, but at the moment they don’t exist.
I’m actually leaving academia in a few months time because of that. I will work for an NGO, still as a conservation scientist, still with industry, but on the other side of the academic fence. It’s disappointing, because if I could keep doing the work that I have been doing in a University I would have. But the system just does not work that way.
TP: Are there other obvious differences between the two sides of the fence?
PA: In universities there is this great flexibility. You can choose what you work on. Whereas, my experience has been that that level of flexibility doesn’t exist to the same extent outside of universities. In other places it’s all about achieving your annual goals, there are deadlines, real deadlines outside of academia that you have to actually stick to. Outside in the business world it’s about getting things done. It’s not about sitting and pondering things and waiting for the perfect amount of data before you publish something. The amount of time that we spend working on individual papers to get them to perfection is insane. That’s just not how people work outside in the real world.
SP: Andrew MacDougall was talking a lot about the economic factor of working outside of academia, the fact that businesses often have an economic bottom line. As a conservation scientist, was there an initial aversion to that?
PA: I’m a realist. Economies are what drive pretty much anything at the moment. I’m not one of those environmentalists who believes that we should shut down economic growth for the sake of the environment. But I do believe there’s a way for sustainable growth where environmental considerations are factored in. But it’s about trade-offs. It’s about dealing with multiple competing objectives, between people, the economy, and the environment. And the environment isn’t always going to win. Lots of businesses are moving towards a model of triple bottom line, which is factoring economic, social and environmental objectives into businesses. It sounds like it should all be balanced, but of course it doesn’t always happen.