Entering the field: A return to the San Juans

Entering the field is a challenging and exciting time for social scientists, as we finally get to sink our teeth in to the landscape, talk to ‘real people’ and get to know and understand a new place. My first encounters with the San Juan mountains were 12 years ago as a ski bum in Telluride the winter before I started university. At the time I envisioned returning to the Rockies after I completed my degree to be a snowboarding instructor, but somewhere along the line my inner nerd took over and I ended up doing a PhD. To the amusement of those close to me, I’ve always managed to combine my passion for mountains with my research. So here, I find myself returning to the San Juans to understand the social and environmental changes that are taking place in the region and what the agencies and folks around here are doing about it.

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#engagedacademics changing research practice not just communicating outputs

Yes, another piece of academic navel gazing in what has been an interesting week of gazing at the question of the contribution of academics to society. Nicholas Kristof’s New York Times column framing of academics as a intellectual snobs who don’t contribute to society, catalyzed a heated backlash in the twitterverse. Academics who, in a variety of different ways, see public engagement as core to their work pointed out that his critique was outdated, narrow, masculine, elitist and just plain wrong. Much of this debate has focused on academic incentive structures or the varied ways that academics currently engage and contribute to the public sphere. But there is one perspective that hasn’t had so much airtime: changing the way academics do research to build better connections between their knowledge, policy and practice. These approaches use the research process, not just the research outputs, to understand, participate in, and catalyze change.

This debate [see this post for a roundup of responses] has largely characterized the research process in a model where researchers finding out new and exciting things and then communicate them to folks involved with policy and practice. Decades of critique in the failings of this linear model have led many academics to find alternatives (hence the work of all those #engagedacademics).  The linear model neglects the messy reality of the interface between knowledge and change (in individual behavior, public policy, or in my field, land management and conservation practice), which is far from rational or linear and it rarely emerges from an end of pipe translation of academic knowledge for “lay publics”. As Erica Chenoweth pointed out, just because academic knowledge isn’t influencing the policies in DC it doesn’t mean that it isn’t making change in the world. There are many ways and many places for academic knowledge to make the contribution that Kristof is calling for.

Raul Pacheco-Vega touched on this in a post published in early Feb, writing about the challenges of being a public policy professor and public intellectual. Like Raul, I work in the space of intractable natural resource governance (namely climate adaptation and biodiversity conservation). A growing number of academics who work in this space see their knowledge as just one of the many voices that are needed to address the kinds of problems that Kristoff laments. This changes the role of researchers and research-based knowledge from being the bearers of truth and solutions to participating in collaborative processes targeted at developing knowledge to address particular challenges or problems.

I’ve written about this type of scholarship before. Knowledge co-production sees the interactions between research, policy, and practice as dynamic and messy. These endeavors are anything but linear, as different actors come together to share their different perspectives to generate new insight that transcends any one singular perspective. Co-production is the latest buzz word in science policy scholarship, a new normative goal whereby academic research strives to be exactly the opposite of what Kristof accuses it of being. With initiatives like Future Earth running with co-production as a major pillar of their research endeavors it is clear that this approach no longer exists in the academic fringe.

In my own research, I’m currently working in a diverse team of climate, ecological, and social scientists from three different universities, practitioners and conservation planners from local NGO partners and major federal agencies. Our mandate is to produce knowledge that will be guided by and useful for the needs of land managers from the US Departments of Interior and Agriculture. Next week my colleges and I will be hosting a workshop for said managers where they will be selecting the focus of our research. This is not about producing academic papers that might be read by these managers. Rather, the research has been designed to actively engage different folks in a process that will build direct connections between our collective work and the decision-makers in the landscape we’re working in.

Co-production is not a silver bullet. These efforts struggles with all the challenges outlined in this debate. Academics, policy-makers, decision-makers, and practitioners come from different worlds, we speak different languages and see generally these problems differently. Our interactions are strained by cultural differences, power relations as well as funding and incentive structures that don’t reward the time it takes to do collaborative research. We don’t know how to do this very well, so co-production is both a research goal and a research subject in its own right. Part of this research agenda is focused on understanding how to more effectively bring research-based knowledge into policy and practice.

I have never seen my academic career as condemning me to irrelevance. Rather, I see academia as a place, albeit a highly privileged one, from which I can make a contribution to the challenges our society faces. The primary vehicle for my influence is not the papers that I write, but the processes I engage in. Changing the world will not come about by translating our gobbledegook into “plain language” so that “lay stakeholders” can go forth and implement our wisdom. By actively engaging with practitioners, landowners, decision-makers, and policy makers these collaborative research processes, not just their outputs become the contribution to a more sustainable future.

Ethnography of Adaptation

Ethnography has long been a tool of science studies. Ethnographers observe and document culture in various contexts, studying everything from urban hip hop, to Japanese tattoo artists, Inuit seal hunting practices, to Australian peanut farmers. All our cultures and social contexts are up for grabs. Including science. This year at the pacificexchange.net I will be blogging an ethnography of adaptation, reporting on the highs, lows, frustrations, innovations of a collaborative project tasked with understanding the adaptation options for land management in the Southwest Colorado. Documenting how the project unfolds will, hopefully, generate insights for future adaptation research.  Continue reading

Prescribing Adaptiveness? Getting adaptive governance into state agencies

Why is it so difficult for agencies of the state – the US Forest Service, Park Service, Bureau of Land Management – or in Australia – our Natural Resource Management Bodies, emergency management services and national parks – to implement adaptive governance in practice? Adaptive governance, in theory, is all about collaboration, social learning, flexible and decentralized decision-making. Adaptive governance requires iterative decision-making with a long term perspective and a capacity to learn from failure. These ideas have been around for sometime but agencies of the state seem to really struggle to put them into practice, despite supporting the rhetoric and often strong desire to do so. This question is the focus of a recent editorial my PhD supervisor, Steve Dovers, and I published in Global Environmental Change.  Continue reading

A new social contract for science: Future Earth and research action arenas

For once, a global research endeavor that is not an acronym. Future Earth, launched at the Rio +20 conference, promises to provide a new social contract for science, policy and practice. This international collaboration will support integrated research to address the pressing concerns of society. This, according to one of its proponents, is a new kind of science: one that actively engages in collaborations with folks who implement change in the world. This melding of minds can be thought of as ‘research action arena’, populated by scientists, policy makers, politicians, practitioners, activist, farmers (of all colors, shades and stripes)… In fact, probably anyone can be part of a research action arena, you just have to have the capacity and reason to participate. They aren’t easy places to hang out, as everybody generally has very different ideas. In my limited experience, good working relationships and a shared commitment go a long way to making useful ‘things’ happen when people enter the arena.

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Upscaling conservation to the landscape scale

Questions about the appropriate spatial scale to manage landscapes have long challenged conservation scientists and practitioners. Conservation biologist tell us that we need to manage landscapes at ever larger spatial scales, while social scientists are quick to highlight the importance of grounding conservation actions in a local place.  This tension makes the aspiration to “do conservation at a landscape scale by working with local people” somewhat problematic. Having spent the last four years of my life thinking about the disconnect between these two propositions, I was recently asked to explain why upscaling a successful conservation project is no small task. This post summarizes the take home message from my PhD: upscaling is the wrong way to think about landscape conservation, it is, unsurprisingly, far more complex that replicating a small project at a larger scale.

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Governing Adaptively Part III: Co-productive Capacities

This is the final post in a series where I’ve mused on the connections between knowledge and action are required for adaptive governance. In a world of constant change in social, ecological and political systems, governance which is able to respond to these changes – and hence be adaptive – is held up as an ideal in the management of natural resources. To govern adaptively requires tight relationships between knowledge and action: as our understanding of the system changes, so too should our governance and management. These relationships between knowledge and action can be understood through the lens of co-production, a metaphor that describes the relationships between knowledge-making (science), and decision-making (governance). In recent times co-production has become a normative goal of science and policy as we tried to find new ways to bring scientific knowledge into the realms of decision making in action. If co-production is the goal, then it helps to think about what kind of capacities individuals or groups of actors need to build the strong relationships between science and governance. In this post, I will outline some ideas about the capacities that will help organizations or collaborations to govern adaptively.  Continue reading

From PhD to Blog to a Book?

Like many diligent PhD students, while I was beavering away at the tome I had aspirations of turning my thesis into a book. Now that I’m in postdoc land, struggling to get those last few thesis papers out I wonder when the hell I’m actually going to get time to produce a book? And how do I earn a livable wage while I’m working on said masterpiece? Late the other night, a few glasses of red down, I came up with a brain wave. This was in part inspired by my current dedication to #AcWriMo (Academic Writing Month). AcWriMo is a time when nerds unite, to share the challenge and inspirations of academic writing. By publicly declaring your goals, triumphs and challenges, November is a time when we use the inspiration of social media to collectively tackle our writing challenges. Among other things, I committed to posting one blog post per week, and it occurred to me that I could use this format to write my PhD into a book, one blog post at a time.  Continue reading

Obama makes a move on Adaptation

While the Australian Government is currently denying the links between bushfires and climate change (sigh…), President Obama has just released an executive order titled “Preparing the United States for the Impacts of Climate Change”. It outlines policy objectives, processes to “modernise” Federal programs, directives to Federal agencies who manage land and water, and coordination to support and integrated Federal, State, regional, local and tribal governments, private and non-profit sector efforts. What I find most interesting about this document is the noticeable absence of the word ‘adaptation’, while the document is littered with the words “climate preparedness” and “resilience”. Having previously contemplated whether adaptation is the wrong word, this caught my eye. But then, what is climate preparedness or resilience and are they any better?  Continue reading