In recent years, there has been a shift from top-down prescriptive management of ecological resources toward policy making and planning processes that require ongoing active engagement and collaboration between stakeholders, scientists, and decision makers. Participatory modeling is the process of incorporating stakeholders, often including the public, and decision makers into an otherwise purely analytic modeling process to support decisions involving complex ecological questions. It is recognized as an important means by which nonscientists are engaged in the scientific process and is becoming an important part of ecological planning, restoration, and management. Previously science was conducted outside of the policy-making process allowing scientists to develop ecological models derived from analysis and observation of the natural world, thereby contributing an objective opinion to the policy-making process without accounting for the values, knowledge, or priorities of the human system that affects and is affected by ecological systems. The shift toward more open and integrated planning processes has required the adaptation of the scientific modeling process to incorporate community knowledge, perspective, and values.

Participatory modeling is particularly compatible with the rising focus on ecosystem-based management, integrated water resources management, and adaptive management all of which incorporate systems theory and aim to protect and improve ecological resources while considering economic and social concerns in the community. These approaches have been adopted by, among others, the Water Framework Directive of the European Commission, the Malawi Principles in the Convention on Biological Diversity (UNEP), and the National Center for Environmental Decision-Making Research (NCEDR) in the United States. The latter recommends that the processes of analysis and deliberation be integrated in such a way that systematic analysis is combined with community values critical to decision making. Participatory modeling provides a platform for integrating scientific knowledge with local knowledge and when executed well provides an objective, value-neutral place for a diverse group of stakeholders to contribute information regarding an ecosystem of interest. Recognition that effective ecological management requires input from both scientific and social processes is key to developing effective partnerships between scientists and stakeholders who live and work within an ecosystem.

Participatory modeling (also known as 'mediated modeling', 'shared vision modeling', or 'group model building') draws on the theory of post-normal science, which dictates that in problems characteristic of highly complex systems, when facts are uncertain, values in dispute, stakes high, and decisions urgent, there is no one correct, value-neutral solution. Many ecological problems are characterized by these challenges. Under such circumstances, standard scientific activities are inadequate and must be reinforced with local knowledge and iterative participatory interactions in order to derive solutions which are well understood, politically feasible, and scientifically sound. Stakeholder participation in ecological research and management has been justified for multiple reasons. Participatory modeling supports democratic principles, is educational, integrates social and natural processes, can legitimate a local decision-making process, and can lead participants to be instrumental in pushing forward an agreed agenda. The extent to which the public or representative stakeholder group can effectively participate in ecological research and management is determined by the methods employed in engaging stakeholders, inclusion of diverse groups, group size, incorporation of local knowledge and expertise, and the time available for the process to develop. The development of unique, practical, and affordable solutions to ecological problems is often best accomplished by engaging stakeholders and decision makers in the research process.

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