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Social Science Research and Evaluation Scientific Advisory Group

By The Social Science Research and Evaluation Scientific Advisory Group
min read

At a waterfront dinner in Detroit, Mich., after a full day at the Visitor Studies Association (VSA) conference, a group of zoo and aquarium researchers and evaluators brainstormed how to collectively advance and elevate their work.

They, along with many others in their field, already talked frequently online and shared resources via the Zoo and Aquarium Focused Interest Group’s (ZAFIG) Facebook Group. The connections and discussions generated via the online platform were lively, helpful, and even fun, which is not always the case in such a professional space. While discussing what next steps could and should occur to expand these conversations in a more formal way, particularly within the Association of Zoos and Aquariums, the idea of a Scientific Advisory Group (SAG) emerged.

Soon after, the group contacted members of AZA’s Research and Technology Committee (RTC) to get insights on a more formalized group in the social science research and evaluation realm; the idea was met with great enthusiasm from RTC and AZA leadership.

The then-current ZAFIG Advisory Committee for the VSA completed a request to form a SAG within AZA and submitted and presented the proposal to the RTC at the AZA Annual Conference in September 2019. The RTC held a vote overwhelmingly in favor of the proposal and the Social Science Research and Evaluation (SSRE) SAG was born.

Nadya Bennett, formerly of Columbus Zoo and Aquarium in Powell, Ohio, and Amy Niedbalski of Saint Louis Zoo in St. Louis, Mo., were appointed as interim chairs.

“AZA’s Research and Technology Committee was thrilled to be approached with the proposal for the Social Science Research and Evaluation Scientific Advisory Group,” said Katie Leighty, chair of the RTC and animal care director at Disney’s Animal Kingdom in Orlando, Fla. “This group is filling an important need within the research community, as well as the AZA community as a whole.”

A group of zoo guests watch a polar bear enrichment session

RTC member and well-known social scientist, Dr. John Fraser, was quick to support the formation of the SAG.

“Fifteen years ago, we could count the social scientists doing research and evaluation in-house at zoos and aquariums on two hands. We’d get together frequently, or simply email one another the results of our studies,” said Fraser. “Today, we’re witnessing a rapid increase in capacity, and the change happening in zoos and aquariums is amazing.

“No longer perceived as entertainment parks that can drive dollars to field conservation, the social scientists working in-house on evaluation and research are shifting how we measure our impacts on the affluent communities whose consumption is the root cause of habitat destruction and species loss. The SSRE SAG promises to help shift the latent potential of zoos and aquariums so we can actually create a conservation culture in the communities where we are based.”

The SAG has already been busy. In February 2020, the SSRE SAG launched its online community on the AZA network which, as of August 2020, has approximately 250 members and 50 discussion threads. They hosted a virtual midyear meeting in April, with more than 50 attendees. In May, in an effort to be inclusive and to achieve broad reach into the field, all of the applicants for the new Steering Committee were accepted, which makes the group 27 members strong. June, July and August were spent breaking out into smaller sub-committees to craft language for the three-year action plan, which was finalized at the 2020 AZA Conference.

The SAG’s leadership positions were formalized with Amy Niedbalski of Saint Louis Zoo in Saint Louis, Mo., acting as chair; Kathayoon Khalil of Oregon Zoo in Portland, Ore., elected as vice chair; and Marley Steele-Inama of Denver Zoo in Denver, Colo., filling the role of secretary.

The group has worked closely with the conveners of the AZA Social Science Research Agenda—an effort already underway when the SSRE SAG was established—to define how the new agenda will fit into the SSRE SAG’s action plan. With a diverse representation of social science researchers and evaluators, the group is ready to help champion the Social Science Research Agenda and support these efforts moving forward.

A group of children watch a penguin walking

Other than the formal establishment of the structure of the SAG, the three-year action plan currently revolves around the following areas:

  • Supporting the AZA community regarding ethical practices in research and evaluation,
  • Supporting coordinated and collaborative approaches and the advancement of social science research and evaluation practice,
  • Developing and promoting of professional development opportunities for the field, and 
  • Encouraging communication and conversation in all of these areas.

“Not surprisingly, a likely initial step for the group will be to conduct a needs assessment via an online survey to help focus the efforts of the Steering Committee among AZA institutions, particularly in the areas of collaborative projects, ethical research practices, and professional development opportunities,” said Niedbalski,. “We are so excited to work with the RTC and across the field to move this work forward in a unified and impactful manner.”

“The SSRE SAG will be a great asset for the AZA community, bringing together and actively sharing both expertise and experience. Their work will increase program impact and effectiveness and strengthen members’ connections with people and communities,” said Shelly Grow, vice president of conservation and science at AZA. “From the get-go, the SAG’s leaders identified a need, volunteered to fill it while inviting others to join them, and focused on creating a structure that would foster success in meeting their mission. I’m thankful for their willingness to create this SAG and eager to see their work unfold.”

To get involved, please look for that upcoming survey, and follow the Social Science Research and Evaluation community in the AZA Network and the ZAFIG page on Facebook.


The mission of the SSRE SAG is to work with AZA and its members to promote and support social science-based research and evaluation in advancing understanding of zoo and aquarium audiences and developing strategies to meet organizational and field-wide impacts.

Photos Credit: © Chicago Zoological Society

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