From scientific research to operational needs on wetlands in France

In 1995, France adopted its first national action plan for wetlands. One of its key actions was the National research program on the wetlands (PNRZH) which supported research projects and thus contributed to the emergence of scientific teams dedicated to wetlands. Since 2001, two national action plans have been implemented; though they did not directly support scientific research, the scientific research on wetlands has not stopped since that time. Scientific knowledge is produced in a more fragmented manner, and at the present time, such knowledge is necessary to reduce the growing wetland impairment.

The French National Agency for Water and Aquatic Environments (ONEMA) and the National Museum of Natural History (MNHN) have done a synthesis to identify how the scientific research can benefit the technical audiences involved in wetland conservation. Indeed, concrete actions to preserve wetlands often require robust, scientifically validated tools and methods. It should be noted that running waters, lakes, deep marine areas and coral reefs are not included in the scope of this synthesis. The method to achieve this synthesis is rather original, the result of discussions between scientists and a technical audience during workshops.

A panorama of the scientific research and its operational outputs

The scientific part of the synthesis contains (1) an inventory of research projects completed between 2001-2011 and (2) an analysis of the methods and tools developed that can be used by the technical audience involved in wetland preservation.

Fully 449 research projects have been identified, almost half of which are theses. Research projects are largely anchored in natural sciences (93% of the research projects) compared to the human and social sciences (7% of research projects), and 9% of the projects are interdisciplinary (i.e., a combination of natural sciences with human and social sciences).

Study of the ‘habitat’ function was very frequent, followed by ‘biogeochemical’ and ‘hydrological’ functions. Services (i.e., benefits and damages for society due to wetlands) were not frequently studied, but among them, animal resources are the most studied services.

Most research projects focused on coastal wetlands (57% of research projects), followed by riverine (15%) and artificial wetlands (14%). It has been noted that many research projects have been performed on fishponds. Inland wetlands, gravel pits and dune slacks… are rarely studied.

Text data analysis on research project summaries revealed ‘what scientists talk about’ and thus their major research topics. The main areas of research were the flows of carbon, inorganic and organic elements, hydrological and sedimentary dynamics, mechanisms and consequences of biological invasions and species proliferations, plant and animal communities, animal population genetics, bivalve exploitation in coastal areas, health and parasitology, understanding of processes through remote sensing, perceptions, ecosystem services and governance and finally analysis of action strategies.

Eighty research projects proposed to develop operational methods and tools, but more than a third of those methods and tools had not been detected at the end of research projects (i.e., either not developed or information not available), underlining the gap between operational opportunities offered by scientists and their effective development. More than another third are either not scientifically validated (i.e., no publication in a peer-reviewed journal) or they cannot be used by the technical audience because they are too expensive. Finally, few tools and methods are scientifically validated or accessible to a general technical audience without significant monetary cost.

Operational needs of the technical audience involved in wetland preservation

The technical part of the synthesis is based on a survey of the technical audience involved in wetland management. Survey results make it possible to identify methods and tools the technical audience needs.

Among the technical audience who replied to the survey, 42% participate in research projects. More than three quarter (80%) would like to work with scientists to study management concerns on the territory where they plan wetland preservation.

The survey helped to identify operational needs which may be ‘generic’ (i.e., which concern all types of wetlands) or more specific (table 1). Note that inconsistencies have been observed between the technical audiences which ‘represent wetlands users and managers’ and ‘planners’.


Table 1 : Operational needs of the technical audience involved in wetland preservation.


‘Generic’ operational needs,
i.e., they concern all wetland types
‘Specific’ operational needs
·   Assess hydrological functions, especially the relationship with groundwater

·   Monitor habitat conservation status

·   Quantify services

·   Assess results of management actions

·   Assess the impact of management actions on values and services

·   Simple and standardized protocols and indicators at the national scale

·   Methods and tools to initiate dialogue with varying actors, to initiate relevant preservation projects

Wet grasslands: assess the impact of agricultural practices on ecosystem functioning, assess fodder quality for livestock.
Ponds: achieve ecological diagnostics.
Bogs: diagnostic tools of their hydrological functioning.
Forests: assess the impact of forest management on their functioning.
Isolated channels: assess connectivity with running waters, especially after restoration and for fish communities.
Fishponds: guide fish management while preserving biodiversity.
Riparian forests: diagnosis for a ‘good’ maintenance (combine wood production and functions).
Reedbeds: assess the conservation status and their evolution over time.


Towards an operational interface between scientific knowledge and technical action

At the end of this synthesis, operational transfers are offered to better develop the methods and tools that may correspond to the needs of the technical audience.

Thematic research areas are proposed to develop scientific programs that are closer to the operational needs of the technical audience. For instance, it is proposed to support research projects with an operational purpose on blind channels, forests, ponds, wet grasslands, riverine forest and reedbeds. It is also proposed to include ‘orphaned’ wetlands in scientific programming (e.g., gravel pits, aquaculture ponds, dune slacks, salt marshes) or to support research projects with an operational purpose focused on fodder resources in wetlands. During the synthesis, it also appeared that the lack of knowledge on the distribution of wetlands in France is actually a major obstacle to defining relevant thematic research areas.

Finally, some conditions to implement research projects are proposed to better articulate scientific programming with the operational needs of the technical audience, while transcending the operational dimension (e.g., while considering the scientific constraints, future operational needs). It is suggested to continue supporting existing interfaces between scientists and the technical audiences (e.g., ‘pôles-relais zones humides’), to promote new interfaces to improve the development of research projects with an operational purpose and to transfer effectively the methods and tools developed. Given the gap between methods proposed by scientists at the time when a research project is submitted and those really developed, another promising condition is to support project ‘hinges’, at the interface between scientists and the technical audience, dedicated to the development of methods and tools and their dissemination (e.g., through trainings).


This work has been published in four reports (only available in French).

Fascicule 1 : Méthodes

Fascicule 2 : Contributions scientifiques à l’action

Fascicule 3 : Applications et besoins de recherche pour l’action

Fascicule 4 : Compendium des synthèses, de l’offre scientifique à la demande de terrain


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Guillaume Gayet