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The policy impact of scientific research: looking back at 10 years of PLOS ONE

To continue with PLOS ONE’s 10th anniversary celebration, Associate Editor Sara Fuentes Perez highlights some of the articles that have gained attention from policy makers in the PLOS ONE 10 Year Anniversary: Policy Impact Collection.


Quantifying the impact of scientific research on policy and society has always been difficult. However, there are numerous reasons to support quantification. For example, funding is often provided by governments and public bodies and thus, there is a need for accountability towards taxpayers. Furthermore, research budgets are limited and in the current changing political climate science funding is expected to decrease even further (1,2).


As a large multidisciplinary journal, PLOS ONE publishes a wide variety of articles covering a large array of topics and it would be impossible to highlight all those articles which have impacted policy makers. In this collection, we do not aim to capture the whole breadth of the spectrum but instead we focus on three topical issues.


Climate change research


Scientific support for the human influence on climate change has been increasing since global warming was first discovered. The Fifth Assessment Report of the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) concluded that “It is extremely likely that human influence has been the dominant cause of the observed warming since the mid-20th century” (3). In addition, recent political changes [such as the US withdrawal from the Paris agreement (4)] and funding cuts (2) make this topic more pressing than ever.


In the first of the articles of this collection, Man and the Last Great Wilderness: Human Impact on the Deep Sea, we learn about the possible impact of climate change on the deep sea ecosystem. Following the marine sciences theme, in Prioritizing Key Resilience Indicators to Support Coral Reef Management in a Changing Climate the authors develop an evidence-based framework for climate change resilience and identify eleven key factors for sustainable coral reef management.


Climate change is expected to have significant impact on the plant diversity and endemism of Mediterranean ecosystems. Climate Change, Habitat Loss, Protected Areas and the Climate Adaptation Potential of Species in Mediterranean Ecosystems Worldwide aims to quantify this impact in the five Mediterranean biodiversity hotspots across the globe. While with an US focus, Energy Sprawl or Energy Efficiency: Climate Policy Impacts on Natural Habitat for the United States of America estimates the total new land area needed by 2030 to produce energy, under different political scenarios and their impact on habitats.


Conservation science


Biodiversity plays a key role in the provision of natural services such as ecosystem services, biological resources and social benefits. Here we highlight two articles, Global Conservation Priorities for Marine Turtles and Optimal Conservation of Migratory Species. The outcomes of both studies have been considered in the development of purse-seine fishing policy documents. At a larger scale, High and Far: Biases in the Location of Protected Areas examines the location bias of protected areas in 147 countries and how their bias towards higher elevations, steeper slopes and greater distances to roads and cities might impact their conservation success.


We finish this section with Scientific Foundations for an IUCN Red List of Ecosystems which aims to develop a unified risk assessment framework for ecosystems similar to that used in the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species.


Global health


According to the World health statistics 2017: monitoring health for the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) report by the World Health Organization (WHO), more than 50 SDG indicators have been selected to measure health outcomes, direct determinants of health or health-service provision (5). In this section, we have focused on articles that have influenced policy makers on three of these indicators: child immunization, malaria prevention and mental health.


As part of a phase IV study, Risk of Injection-Site Abscess among Infants Receiving a Preservative-Free, Two-Dose Vial Formulation of Pneumococcal Conjugate Vaccine in Kenya reports on the risks of injection site abscess following immunization with 10-valent-pneumococcal conjugate vaccine.


One of the eight Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) was to combat HIV/AIDS, malaria, and tuberculosis and interventions against HIV, TB and malaria have increased substantially since 2000 (5). However, malaria continues to affect 212 million people (malaria cases worldwide in 2015, according to the WHO). Field Evaluation of a Push-Pull System to Reduce Malaria Transmission illustrates how the simultaneous use of attractive and repellent volatiles may offer a complementary tool to existing vector-control methods.


Depression is a common disorder affecting more than 300 million people worldwide (in 2015, according to the WHO). Nevertheless, relatively little attention has been paid to date to this noncommunicable disease. This is one of the conclusions reached by the authors of the systematic review Global Epidemiology of Mental Disorders: What Are We Missing?. Although several studies have focused on the link between social relationships and depression, Social Relationships and Depression: Ten-Year Follow-Up from a Nationally Representative Study is one of the first longitudinal studies to investigate this subject. This study suggests that poor quality relationships and not necessarily social isolation might increase the risk of depression. Finally, Antidepressant Utilization and Suicide in Europe: An Ecological Multi-National Study provides an exhaustive analysis of suicide rates and antidepressant usage in 29 European countries between 1980 and 2009.


The impact of research can be quantified in many ways and the political impact is just one of them. In this collection, we provide a small selection of articles as an open invitation to explore the wider PLOS ONE content.




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