Burning our bridges? Network analysis reveals trends in freshwater expertise

By Lauren Kuehne

January 8, 2020

As scientists, when we think about conservation problems, it’s often in terms of missing information – “knowledge gaps”, anyone? But the role of expertise – implying not only growth but also continuity in development and application of knowledge – is invariably less emphasized. This may be in part simply due to the tradition of science where knowledge and concepts are built incrementally – think Thomas Kuhn’s notion of normal science. However, it also can stem from more prosaic problems of maintaining research focus in the overburdened, underfunded world of environmental science.

In a new paper just out in BioScience, the Freshwater Ecology Conservation Lab examined expertise in a conservation area close to our hearts, which is assessment of freshwater ecosystems. This new paper follows up on a review published in 2016, in which we examined the way that ecological integrity of freshwater ecosystems have been assessed since passage of the 1972 Clean Water Act. In that review, we found that although methods have been becoming more standardized, there was a disheartening disconnect between assessment and management or policy-making.

Network graphs - then and now
Computational power to analyze networks has changed since the first “sociograms” were developed by psychiatrist J. L. Moreno in 1934 (right), to creating partial maps of the internet circa 2005 (left), but the basic concept of evaluating the strength and direction of relationships between individuals or organizations remains the same.

This finding spurred us to follow up by examining the position and role of expertise in freshwater assessment through time. We sought to answer the question: Which entities and individuals contribute most to this body of knowledge, and how are they collaborating with each other across organizational and ecosystem boundaries? Our goal was to assess the state of expertise – or “human capital” – related to freshwater assessment, expertise that is needed for everything from development of methods to participation in legislative and administrative reforms related to the Clean Water Act.

We used network analysis – a technique first formalized in the 1930s and used frequently in the social sciences – to analyze relationships between authors of grey and peer-reviewed publications related to freshwater assessment. Authors were categorized by their organizational affiliations – i.e., academic, federal government, NGO, etc – allowing us to analyze the frequency of collaborations both within and between organizational types. In network analysis, these are known as bonding (within) and bridging (between) ties, and are good indicators of strong relationships, regular paths of communication, and ability/propensity to collaborate. We also looked at cross-ecosystem exchange by examining ties between research groups working in different types of freshwater systems.

What we found was surprising. By the numbers, academic authors outweigh other groups, but when we looked at centralities – meaning the frequency that authors were connected to and formed a bridge between others – it was authors affiliated with federal agencies that were involved in the largest number of bonding and bridging ties. Authors affiliated with state government, NGOs, and consulting companies also held comparable importance in the network, depending on the type of centrality; for example, despite relatively low numbers, state agency affiliated authors were as prominent in the core network as those associated with universities. And although agencies like the US EPA might be expected in the core network, agencies that were less expected to be playing a role in such assessments, such as the National Park Service and Bureau of Land Management, were also well represented.

Network Graph - freshwater assessment
Network graph of individuals with expertise in assessment of fresh waters since passage of the 1972 Clean Water Act. The network is diverse, but highly fragmented, and with little evidence of increasing connectivity over time, making it vulnerable to loss of key individuals or organizations.

Diversity of the entities contributing to and sustaining expertise and knowledge exchange should be celebrated, but it must also be considered in light of the fact the network as a whole was highly fragmented, with little evidence of becoming less fragmented over time. This means that the network is only tenuously connected, and therefore highly vulnerable to loss of key individuals or groups, which can easily occur due to extended losses in funding or government shutdowns.

Given the war on science and scientists associated with the federal government during the last three years, it seems like a bad punchline to publish research that says those same scientists are the current mainstay of freshwater assessment knowledge and expertise. And although our analysis focused on freshwater assessment, research in other areas of ecology and conservation supports a similarly central role of government agencies in sustaining and building collaboration networks. Conservation science needs information, but we also need expertise and continuity; our goal with this paper was to establish where this expertise currently resides, and where it may need to be fostered and protected in the future. We hope that this study will spur important conversations about the value of knowledge networks in the years to come.

This article was originally published by the Freshwater Ecology Conservation Lab.