Translational ecology spans a boundary between ecological research and deliberate practical application, inspired by translational medicine and motivated by growing needs for science-informed management, policy, and planning decisions to address mounting environmental challenges. Ecological scientists want to contribute to policy and management decisions, and natural-resource managers and policymakers want to make sound decisions using the best available scientific findings. However, researchers and decision-makers comprise different cultures, and dialogues between them often result in misunderstanding and miscommunication. For well over a century, individual ecologists and research groups have engaged successfully with decision-makers, and many important decisions and policies can be credited to these dialogues. However, despite good intentions, many attempts have fallen far short of needs and expectations. Efforts are typically ad hoc, and lack of experience, skills, or training on the part of ecologists contributes to lack of success. Accumulation of ecological knowledge continues to be disconnected from the direct needs, priorities, and applications of diverse stakeholders.
Ecologists committed to relevant and impactful research – i.e., ecologists seeking to be effective translational ecologists – can benefit from exchanging their experience, successes, and failures with each other in a coordinated framework. Furthermore, they can adopt successful practices and draw from applications in parallel translational fields, particularly climate-adaptation science. In the past decade, explicit incorporation and application of social-science theory and practices into climate adaptation have led to a series of successful outcomes. Coordinated partnerships among natural scientists, social scientists, and stakeholders have become common practice in climate adaptation, and translational ecology can learn from and build on these successes. Based on discussions involving a diverse group of ecologists, decision-makers, social scientists, and climate-adaptation practitioners, we offer a framework for translational ecology, including guiding principles and case studies of effective practices. We also identify cultural and institutional barriers, and offer solutions for surmounting them. Needs for translational ecology will only grow in coming years, and ecology as a whole needs to develop greater capacity for meeting these needs, including training and workforce development.