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Outdoor recreation = conservation???

by Carina W 0 Comments
Outdoor recreation = conservation???

Former CEO of REI to head up the Department of the Interior

Do I even know who the head of the Australian Department of the Environment is? I’m kind of embarrassed to admit that don’t think I do. So, I probably should but I wouldn’t expect many of my friends to know, nor would I expect BMA (Canberra free press) to have an article about a new appointee. The Missoula Independent this week has a one-page opinion piece about Obama’s new woman at the top of DOI. I just don’t think that departmental heads make that kind of street press in Australia. Maybe in the ‘Public Servant’ the section of the Canberra Times that my parents and in-laws read but not the local street press that advertises hair salons to hipsters.

One thing I’ve noticed around here is the high level of awareness about the ins and outs of land management in the local community. Probably a reflection of the section of the community I’ve encountered but it is also a product of how ever-present land management issues are here in the West. You just don’t get such a high percentage of the population engaged in land management in a capital city.

Anyway, back Sally Jewell, the new head of Department of Interior. DOI is ‘the Department of Everything Else’, including most of the land management departments. It is charge of energy policy, regulating energy development on federal lands, permanent preservation of federal land, endangered species, mining and mineral exploration.

Jewell isn’t the first woman, so while the fact that she is a she is interesting, the most interesting thing about Sally Jewell is her background. This job usual goes to a political actor from somewhere in the West, this time Obama has backed a woman with a business background. Described by the president of the Natural Resources Defence Council as having the “mind of an engineer, heart of environmentalist and the know-how of a businesswoman.” Jewell started as engineer with Mobil, then worked in financial management before becoming the CEO of REI. Under Jewell’s leadership REI has grown to be one of the largest and most successful of the emerging green businesses in the US.

Jewell’s background in energy and outdoor recreation speaks volumes to the current focus dominating the management of public land: preservation for the enjoyment of all or exploitation for their finite mineral resources. With those on the mining side hoping that her roots in petroleum engineering will favour their endeavours and the outdoor rec crowd seeing her through a similar ‘eye of the beholder’ lens: “this time the pick is one of us.”

While you could read into Obama’s mentioning of climate change in the recent state of the union and inauguration to hope that maybe something will be done, with a continued focus on expanding energy production I’m not holding my breath.

What I find interesting about the media reporting of Jewell’s credentials is that her experience in green business makes her a conservationist. She is a self-proclaimed supporter of environmental sustainability as long as it is economically viable. Whether Obama means to do this or not, the discussion sparked around Jewell is pointing towards the reframing of environmentalism not having to cost jobs. Jewell herself apparently introduced Obama at a conference on ‘America’s Great Outdoors’ (an Obama initiative that draws explicit links between conservation and recreation) pointing to the number of jobs that the outdoor industry provides.

It just bothers me a little that conservation is now equated with climate change policy, business and outdoor recreation. This narrow frame misses so much, but then maybe this is what it takes to

‘engage the mainstream’

I don’t normally bother with the ‘is green growth an oxymoron’ debates – ofcourse it is, but do we have any other choice? Just look at how successful the Limits to Growth crowd were… The debate is boring, maybe we need to be a little more realistic and get on with working within the current political climate? I guess maybe a company like REI is doing that. It is America’s 27th largest co-op, it supports local conservation initiatives and has made progress towards reducing their footprint. But still… it is a big company that sells stuff. Our continually accumulation of stuff is part of the problem.

So we maybe we can’t have it all? We are going to have to compromise on the hardline agenda. But environmentalists have traditionally been bad at compromise.

With her history in both camps and leadership of a co-operative maybe Sally Jewell is exactly the person to guide DOI through this new era of collaborative conservation. Or maybe she is going to be viewed by both sides as a sell out. I don’t envy her, but I look forward to seeing what comes of her leadership.

Ski resorts, insect infestations and water diversions

by Carina W 0 Comments
Ski resorts, insect infestations and water diversions

Welcome to Grand County, Colorado. The mountain playground and giant water reservoir for Front Rangers (the sprawling metropolis of Denver, Fort Collins and Colorado Springs). Home to Winter Park Ski Resort, Rocky Mountain National Park, three lakes, six designated wilderness areas and just over 14 thousand people. It is also happens to be the headwaters of the Colorado River. Historian Robert C. Black called this place the ‘island in the rockies’ because the only way in is over a major mountain pass.

I’m not entirely sure what I did right to land this case study. But here I am, trying to understand how the communities in this valley experience and respond to landscape change.

The eastern border of the county is the Continental Divide and to the west, the main highway passes through Byers Canyon – that cuts of the ‘New West’ from the ‘Old West’: recreation, amenity migrants and retirees from ranching, mining and forestry. There are four major towns here, Winter Park/Fraser, a reasonably typical ski resort/mountain town, Granby, the service town, Grand Lake, gateway to Rocky Mountain National Park, and Kremmling, an old ranching/forestry town which kind of still feels like the Old West. The village of Tabernash is my new temporary home. It has a post office, a flower shop, Snooty Coyote Liquor, an upmarket restaurant and an eclectic set of old buildings, log cabins and second homes.

The permanent population of Tabernash is small – around 400 people – although you wouldn’t know that from the number of houses around. I’ve heard a range of different figures but between 60-70% of the houses in the county are second homes. Winter Park takes the cake, with only 17% of the houses having permanent occupants.

Grand County is the’’high amenity’ recreation and tourism case study in our project. It is a large county, covering some 1,869 square miles, however we’re focused on the eastern side, where tourism – ski and snowmobilie tourism in winter and hiking, biking and off-road vehicle trails, fishing, rafting and golf in summer – dominates the economy. Like many other counties in the West, around 70% of Grand County is in public land – Forest Service, Bureau  of Land Management and National Park. And, like much of the West, these public lands that previously supported extractive industries – mining, ranching and forestry – are now playgrounds for the county’s tourist economy. These features make Grand a ‘archetypal case study’ – sharing many similarities with other recreation communities in the Interior West.

But there are two other factors that brought us to Grand. Beetles and Water.

First, the beetles. About ten years ago, Grand County was the ‘epicentre’ of a mountain pine beetle epidemic. The beetle is a native to this landscape, so while there have been beetle outbreaks in the past, many say that climate change and the drought have made this most recent outbreak worse. The beetles lay their eggs under the bark of the tree and in this process inject the tree with a blue fungus to protect the eggs. Problem is, the fungus also kills the trees. Their numbers use to be controlled by strings of really cold days/weeks that they could not survive – and if there is one thing I’ve learnt from Grand County residents – those cold spells are less and less common. Without this natural population control, the population boomed and has killed millions of acres of trees across the Northern Rockies from Colorado up to British Columbia.

Insect infestations fall into the category of complex problems that cannot be addressed by individuals alone. Collaborations like the Colorado Bark Beetle Cooperative emerged to bring together land management agencies, local governments, the ski resorts, chambers of commerce together across Northern Colorado to address the problem. Landscape change transcends the boundaries of public and private land, conservation or production. We might care if it is a national park or a national forest, the beetles don’t know the difference. Whether it is beetles, fires, floods or droughts, managing the landscapes of the future will require this kind of collective effort so we’re interested in finding out whether or not the beetle outbreak built some capacity in the local communities to deal any future challenges they face.

Nobody questions the fact that water shortages are the challenge of the future for Colorado.

The water that flows through the Fraser and Colorado rivers are the life of this county. Every tourist activity here is tied to that water, ranching can not exist without it, and neither can the Front Range. Land and water rights are  separated in Colorado water, enabling forward thinking towns from the plains to buy up the water rights to what was then an isolated mountain community with a very low population. Following three major diversion projects, first of which was put in in 1904, there has been a 73% reduction in the average annual flows through the basin. 73% and a proposal has just gone through to up that to 82%.

Unsurprisingly, the people of Grand County are not very happy.

Like the beetles, a cross-jurisdictional collaboration has emerged to negotiate a path through the difficult issues of managing water between the communities living on the east and western slope of the continental divide. The Colorado River Cooperative Agreement is too complex for the bottom of an already long post so I’ll leave it for now. The critical point for the story is that there is very little the West slope communities can do about the water diversions so the communities on both sides of the divide are going to have to learn to share Colorado’s water resources. And if the models, predictions and droughts over the past 10 years are anything to go by, there will be less and less to go around.

So, it is because of the ski resorts, insect infestations and water diversions that I ended up in one of the most beautiful counties in Colorado.

Whiskey is for drinking, water is for fighting

by Carina W 0 Comments
Whiskey is for drinking, water is for fighting

With 80% of the water in Colorado falling West of the Continental divide where less than 20% of the population live, water is the source of longstanding tensions between the East and West slope communities. This tension is very real for the residents of Grand County, as around 70% of the water that flows through the upper headwaters of the Colorado and Fraser Rivers are pipped across the Divide to the ever growing Front Range communities. Since the water rights are not held within the County, there is no legal basis to oppose these water diversions under Colorado water law. This leaves Grand County Commissioners and local government with few options other than to work with the Front Range water managers to negotiate the best possible outcome even if they can’t get the water back.

Before getting into the new agreement, first some background on Colorado water law. Apparently there are more water lawyers in Colorado than the rest of the US states combined – whether this is urban myth or truth it makes some sense to me as I’ve been trying to grapple with this complex system of water rights, transmountain and transbasin diversions. Water in Colorado is governed by the law of prior appropriation: water rights belong to whoever first diverted the water and put it to a beneficial use. Senior water rights belong to those who came first, and the Colorado Constitution declares that the right to appropriate unappropriated water “shall never be denied”. This means that water rights and land rights are separate, creating the opportunity for water rights to be owned by people who don’t live where the water falls. And because the majority of the people of Colorado happen to not live where the water falls, taking water between basins (transbasin diversions) or across the Continental Divide (transmountain diversions) has been a feature of Colorado history since the mid 1800s.

Construction of the Grand River Ditch began in the 1880s since then there have been three major diversion tunnels constructed in Grand County: the Moffat Tunnel, the Colorado-Big Thompson and the Windy Gap project. When these schemes were put into place Grand County had a very small population so beyond agricultural producers there was a lot of water to be put to ‘beneficial’ use. Beyond the first in first served appropriation, Denver water purchasing substantial water rights from ranching families in the Upper Fraser Valley in the first half of the 20th century. So provided the water diversions don’t infringe on downstream users rights, this water legally belongs to water managers on the Front Range. Without these transmountain diversions, growth of agriculture and urban centers of Denver, Colorado Springs and Fort Collins would not have been possible. However these projects and water diversions have created longstanding conflict (which in the US tends to lead to litigation) between West slope communities and Front Range water managers. After attempts to resolve these conflicts were met with more litigation it became clear that a new approach was needed.

Enter the Colorado River Cooperative Agreement, intended to end decades of litigation and fighting over Colorado’s most precious resource. After five years of negotiation, the agreement was finalised in May 2012 and has been heralded as a ‘landmark deal’ in the history of Colorado water management. There are 43 parties involved in the agreement that promises to sure up water supply for Front Range communities while providing much needed funding for stream restoration projects on the West slope. There are provisions in the agreement that require Denver Water to undertake conservation measures, to ensure supply of water for the West slope communities, and boundaries have been set around the future water development projects in Denver. Most importantly, under the agreement, Summit and Grand counties commit not to oppose planned enlargements of critical water reservoirs and diversion tunnels. Seems that this is one of the key features of the agreement, because the majority of the provisions don’t come online until Denver Water has approval for these enlargements. So now that there is significant funding for mitigation tied to Denver Water getting these permit to enlarge the Moffat and Gross reservoirs, West slope communities now have an interest in the permitting going ahead. But… if these enlargements go ahead, water diversions from Grand County will go from 73% of pre-diversion flows to around 80%. That is a lot of water to be taking out of the headwaters of any river, let a lone one as over allocated as the Colorado.

When I asked if this is a good deal for the West slope communities, I was told that they are better of with this deal than without. Denver Water didn’t have to come to the table and apparently they have gone above and beyond what they were legally required to do in terms of the amount of water and money they put on the table. I heard lots of people in academic circles talk about water being an issue for Colorado to deal with as a whole – but the people I interviewed in Grand County didn’t see it this way. From their perspective they have been “defeated”. “It is our water and they are taking it to water their lawns.” But when water demand outstrips supply, and the water rights and the voting population are on the Front Range it is hard to see any alternative. More conflict and lengthy litigation is not going to make it rain more, so coming to some kind of collective arrangement seems to be the only way to go.

Is advocacy really still a 4 letter word? Reflections on ICCB2013

by Carina W 0 Comments
Is advocacy really still a 4 letter word? Reflections on ICCB2013

In 2010 I went to my first International Congress of Conservation Biology (ICCB) in Edmonton Alberta, the bi-annual meeting hosted by the Society for Conservation Biology (SCB). At this stage of my PhD I was exploring how the values embedded in conservation science shape conservation practice. Armed with this perspective I set out in part to observe how conservation biologists navigate this hazy relationship between science and values. Growing up with geologist parents and spending much of my childhood playing in the Australian bush, I am a passionate advocate of the conservation agenda. But as a social scientist, I’ve always be a little intrigued by how scientists’ values shape the delivery of their message when they promote biodiversity conservation.

I was joined at the Edmonton meeting by four students from the conservation biology and landscape ecology group at the Fenner School. We all started together our PhDs at around the same time, had offices on the same floor and were working in conservation. Being somebody who studies conservation through words rather than numbers, I was always a little different from them. We would joke about ‘real science’ and ‘real scientists’ but really our research looks at the same ecological processes, I just use different tools. All of our work was in some way related to current conservation policy in Australia: during the time of our PhD’s three policy agendas of relevance to our topics advanced in the Australian policy cycle. We all contributed to the policy process in some way, yet I would never have viewed our work as ‘advocacy’.

Conservationists and their campaigns have a somewhat checkered ethical past. The first national parks in America were guarded by the military to keep the people out; translating this fortress protected area model around the globe had disastrous implications in local communities living near charismatic wildlife; global warming is interpreted in some places as an imperialist agenda to prevent the developing world reach first world living standards. But conservation is coming of age – or at least I hope it is – in its embrace of the social sciences. It is now well into the next stage of its intellectual development, advocating for conservation that is good for people and nature.  Conservation biology conferences have always intrigued me because of the paradox this presents in my identity: I believe in what they are advocating for, I’m just not sure if I always agree on how they promote their science and their message.

The Edmonton meeting had a stream of presentations on science and advocacy and science and policy. Some good, some bad, but on the whole there were very few references to the extensive body of work in science and technology studies, or science studies. This was a notable absence to me, given that some of this work, I would argue presents a pretty helpful picture of how science affects policy, politics and practice. There were policy sciences folks and sociologists but really the science policy conversation was dominated by, I hate say it, old white men, telling stories about the time the planets aligned and they magically influenced policy. Alongside these stories was the worn out debate about whether conservation biologists should be ‘advocating’ for their science; or whether, by stepping into policy debates they were undermining their credibility as scientists.

The intersection of science and these more value-laden questions about how we should live in the world is a preoccupation of conservation biology and of science studies. Given that historically we have viewed science as ‘objective’, ‘impartial’ and ‘removed from politics’ these are important debates to have, but it is time to move on. While conservation biologists are still drudging up conversations about whether we can or should be advocates, science studies has moved into generating a far more nuanced interpretations of the multiple and mysterious ways that science influences policy and practice. Yet despite being able to make a significant contribution to the progress of the conservation agenda, these mature interpretations were largely absent from the Edmonton (and subsequent) ICCB.

Ah yes, back to the Edmonton meeting. Australian landscape ecologists have a very different take on the relationship between conservation science and policy. We’re a smaller group of scientists, policy makers and practitioners, we don’t use litigation to progress our conservation agenda, and we haven’t got the monolithic Federal bureaucratic agencies like the Forest Service, the National Park and the Bureau of Land management looking after 1/3 of our continent. As people who ‘do’ conservation biology rather that ‘study’ conservation biology these sociological differences new to my friends who were, like me, at a North American ICCB meeting for the first time. Our discussions over beer one night highlight the problem with the primarily framing the relationship between science, policy and practice through the lens of advocacy.

“Where is the science?” one of my friends said, “It is either modeling or talk of advocacy and policy, very few studies of the characteristics of the landscapes.” She uses her scientific understanding of reserve networks to help policy makers determine which bits of a remnant reserve network should be sold and which turned into national parks. Another asked, “Do I really have to be an advocate for my science?” For him, he is just really fascinated by the system he studies and doesn’t want to have to think about campaigning against global biodiversity decline. Another felt that he would “lose my credibility if I speak out in policy, my science is objective.” We debated the nature of objectivity and whether in conservation this was really possible, and whether just ‘doing good science’ was enough to make change in the world. But during that conversation it was clear that we were all using our science in the service of what I would lump as #makingtheworldabetterplace.

We represent the spectrum of ways that scientists and science interacts with policy. Rodger Pielke Jr has distilled this into four roles/models for scientists/science in policy and politics: the pure scientist – my friend who didn’t want to be engaged in campaigns about biodiversity decline; the science arbiter – my friend concerned about objectivity, the honest broker – my friend who wants to use her understanding of how the landscapes function as a way to speak policy the issue advocate – this is where most of the focus of SCB is. I still haven’t quite figured out where I fit into this model: I study how science influences policy and practice. so I guess my agenda is improving those relationships, which would make me an issue advocate in some ways and an honest broker in others. The point that Pielke makes is that scientists have choices in how they engage with policy and that there is more than one way to skin a cat.

Ann Keller’s thesis on these roles of science/scientists focuses how on the interests, personalities and nature of their research shapes the different roles scientists play in policy, politics and practice. Her other useful insight breaks down the stages of how science and policy interact; showing that science plays different kinds of roles and uses different kinds of knowledge along the way. The knowledge we use when we are first exploring and understanding a new phenomenon is very different to how knowledge is used in a court room, which is different again from the way we use knowledge to manage landscapes which is different again from how science helps us to restore degraded landscapes.

In my own PhD, the people I worked with used science a number of ways, however they only occasionally spoke of science influencing policy, politics or practice in ways that matches the ‘rational’ linear model. The linear model depicts objective science passed onto passive implementors, which is applied as the scientists intended it too, to achieve the kinds of outcomes they expect. The practitioners staring in my PhD used science to create an agenda and inspiration for action, to communicate messages about how our understandings of landscape functions have changed; to provide confidence in a course of action; to monitor the outcomes of action; to provide evidence in litigation and many more. Advocacy was just one part of getting conservation outcomes and I often feel like this more nuanced perspective is lacking in the way that the debates at ICCBs shape the conversation about ‘science’ and ‘advocacy’.


As my train rolled out of Baltimore, my head feeling somewhat hazy after the conference dinner, I was reflecting on my four days of interactions with 1500 conservation practitioners from around the world. Okay, so I didn’t directly interact with all of them, more like meeting osmosis, picking up on the energy and inspiration from getting a bunch of people passionate about conservation in the same place. The theme of the meeting was  integrating across stakeholders and disciplines, something that I’ve always thought SCB should be doing more of so it was great to see this as the theme.

In Auckland two years ago there was a lot less talk of advocacy and a lot more about how to apply conservation knowledge in various aspects of practice – something I largely attribute to the dominance of Australians, New Zealanders and practitioners at the conference. We just have a slightly different take on how this works, a perspective that has a lot to offer SCB (but that is a post for another day). Balitomore was probably half way in between Auckland and Edmonton. I went to some great sessions about applying conservation knowledge in practice (I even heard people use science studies jargon) and there was a diversity of social science, policy and planning sessions – some with standing room only – and the pleanaries were about fostering a more ethnically diverse SCB, media training and a talk on citizen science.

The plenary that inspired the title of this post “Why is advocacy such a four letter word for scientists?” was mixed. We were inspired by Tyrone Hayes, who, through telling his story, asked the provocative question of “when does science become environmental justice?”. Hayes researches the implications of atrizine, a common agricultural chemical, on the reproductive organisms of frogs. To cut a long – and very interesting story short – this chemical changes the gender of frogs and causes significant increases in cancer among people exposed. The most exposed populations in the US happen to be Latino agricultural workers without visas, rights or access to medical insurance. He published scientific papers about this, and before he even became an ‘advocate’ the chemical companies were out to discredit him. Through this process he realised that it wasn’t enough to just ‘let the science speak for itself’. He summed his message up through the following Einstein quote:

“Those who have the privilege to know, have the responsibility to act.” 

I was moved by his presentation. It was a classic case of a science arbiter switching roles to become an issue advocate. After Hayes we heard from Dominick DeSalla, Stuart Pimm and Francesca Grifo who put forward various perspectives on science and advocacy. DeSalla told us to frame our questions around policy questions, Pimm said that SCB is functioning on a false definition of advocacy and Grifo told us not to give up, that our science can make a difference, we just have to be clear about when it is “science” and when it is our “opinions”. Basically they told us to do good science, maybe change a few things around the edges, work really hard and then disseminate that knowledge in diverse channels. DeSalla’s direction to frame research questions around policy problems aside, their perspectives were still largely dominated by a perspective that David Cash and his colleagues have identified as a “loading dock” where scientists leave their knowledge for others to come and pick up, absolving their responsibility for participating in the implementation of that knowledge.

Conservation biologists are desperate to improve the uptake of their knowledge, they are on a mission to change the trajectory of biodiversity decline. Some of this mission is shared, sometimes it raises major ethical questions about the implications for the communities living where they work, sometimes it directly opposes powerful interests, and sometimes willing communities are doing incredible things to protect and restore their backyard. Conservation science influences practice in a multitude of ways, but rarely in the ‘rational way’ scientists think. One glance at the growing list of threatened and endangered species suggests that it doesn’t happen often enough. This is the famous “implementation crisis”, where decades of good science has had limited impact on biodiversity decline. Many of the science studies folks have spent a lot of time studying and thinking about what happens when science intersects with policy, politics and practice. This thinking sometimes graces the pages of the SCB’s journal, Conservation Biology, but not enough. These folks experts in the field of understanding how to improve the uptake of knowledge in action. Maybe it is time for SCB to embrace more of their theories and perspectives, who knows we might learn something new?

Governance, Resilience, and Planetary Power Grabs

by Carina W 0 Comments
Governance, Resilience, and Planetary Power Grabs

Having just spent a week with a bunch of nerds eating cheese, drinking wine and navel gazing about resilience, seems like I should justify this pleasure by reflecting on the academic side of the conference.  In a busy week there is a lot to reflect on, but I’d like to focus in on the some of the discussion about governance and knowledge co-production and the connection (or lack thereof) between the two.

Many of the governance sessions I went to emphasized role of institutional dimensions to understanding and managing social-ecological systems. While not a particularly novel statement, people were starting to really think about what that means. Some sessions were great, some were terrible, but that is the way of conferences. I was less inspired by those who parroted the “collaboration will save the day” narrative, but was impressed by those who were discussing the need to provide empirical evidence for claims about the connections between modes of governance and environmental outcomes. There were the usual platitudes from this community about the need for governance to be cross-scale, multi-tenure, multi-actor etc – in plenaries – some of this was addressed in the parallel sessions, some of it was not…

Melissa Leach and Johan Rockstrom’s plenary (the only one that was really worth getting out of bed for) inspired a great debate on the use and efficacy of the planetary boundaries concept for governance. An excellent summary of this plenary has already been provided by Joern Fisher here, so I won’t bother with  another rundown. Other than to make two comments.

First, I was impressed and inspired by Melissa Leach’s presentation and felt that she was evidence to the fact that the conference organizers should have found more female plenary speakers (one out of eleven is beyond appalling). Second, I was a little astounded by Rockstrom’s comment that calling planetary boundaries a discourse is dangerous. This to me suggested that he hadn’t really been listening to the whole point of Leach’s talk about the ways in which science, when communicated in policy and practice, forms particular narratives and stories which framed, interpret and reinforce particular attributions and and policy prescriptions.

The next resilience conference would do well to have a focus on critical realism and ways to support dialogue between diverse knowledges in the plenary. There was a lot of great discussion on this in the sessions, but seems that the philosophy of science needs to take center stage at interdisciplinary conferences like this.

The debate about the social and institutional implications of the planetary boundaries continued in a continued in a session titled “Whose Planet? Whose Boundaries?” Much of this debate centered around the question as to whether or not planetary boundaries thinking is being used to justify planetary power grabs as people search for a mechanism for global governance. Victor Galaz pointed out that there is actually a great diversity of approaches being discussed within the debates about modes of governance to enable society to stay within the planetary boundaries. The unfortunate reality is that while what he says is true, these debates tend to become polarized in the public discourse and create an environment where the Tony Abbotts of the world start to frame the debate as taking away rights and liberties of individual governments. Galaz acknowledged the conclusion of his talk by invoking Churchill to say never before have so few discussed something so important, urging form more people, perspectives to participate in this debate.

The challenge, as many of the speakers identified, revolves around developing  pathways that enable us to move towards a more nuanced debate that supports dialogue between a plurality of different perspectives. Interestingly, one of the last comments in this session on planetary boundaries attributed problems with the  concept to its development by scientists largely isolated from the policy communities that are now struggling with what it means in context. This poses the question of how to undertake research in a more open place that will support legitimate knowledge production through the input of various different perspectives. Here began a short conversation about the role of science and scientists in transformational change – a discussion which I would have like to see more of at this conference, patricianly focused on the ethics of what it means to advocate for science-based transformational change.

Here we come to the discussion so knowledge co-production (which I have discussed on this blog here, here, here, here, and here). The best parallel session I attended was titled “ the modalities and politics of knowledge integration and knowledge co-production.” In this session, the presenters had been encouraged to reflect on the meaning and empirical implications of knowledge co-production/co-construction, and to focus on the various scales of integration as different political contexts of knowledge co-production. The session kicked off with an excellent presentation from Marcela Brugnach, who discussed the ways in which goals of managing for the multiple objectives central to resilience thinking requires a focus on the capacities, knowledge and experiences of people seeking to manage ecosystems in an integrated way. Like many of the other speakers in this session, she urged us to see that the relationships among actors are as important as the substance of knowledge. Other speakers discussed their experiences and thoughts on an array of different tools and approaches that seek to find commonality across these ways of knowing to support alternative ways of engaging across different epistemologies.

I was particularly impressed by Maria Tengo’s work outlining the ways that folks at the Stockholm Resilience Centre have been using a dialogue based approach to connect knowledge systems in a legitimate, equitable, and salient way. Their ‘multiple evidence based approach’ views different types of knowledge as contributing to developing a more holistic picture of a problem. Using this approach, they see co-production as involving three phases: co-defining a problem; mobilizing different knowledge and sources of evidence to create a rich picture of the problem; and joint analysis and validation of different knowledge systems. Tengo proposed that we need to move away from the idea that knowledge needs to be integrated towards an approach that mobilizes the knowledge of different actors within decision-making.

It is here that I come to my final reflections on the conference, and the subject matter of my own presentation (which you can view here). My current fixation in this debate is a seeming gap in the connection between discussions on the co-production of knowledge and new modes of decision-making. The conference highlighted an array of different approaches in both these domains, but the conversation of how to connect said co-produced knowledge to novel decision-making processes remained largely absent. Current conversations on co-production emerged to overcome the issues that currently plague connections between knowledge, policy, and practice. Yet while we only focus the lens on reconfiguring how we produce knowledge we are missing part of the picture: how that knowledge is mobilized in decision-making.

Until we understand science and governance in relation to one another debates about the socio-political consequences of discourses like ‘planetary boundaries’ will always be an afterthought once the scientists have gone about doing their thing and pushing the frontiers of knowledge. By considering the socio-political consequences of such a concept from the outset perhaps the framing would have been different, the narrative more inclusive of diverse perspectives and may avoid becoming marred in the current debates about the planetary power grabs.

#FutureEconomy Future Networks?

by Carina W 0 Comments
#FutureEconomy Future Networks?

Five days, thirty young scientists, seven senior scientists, fine food, ample wine, and wide-ranging conversations. In the last week of May, 2014 the International Social Science Council and International Council for Science hosted the second ‘young scientists networking conference’ at Villa Vigoni, Italy. The main goal was to use a week of discussions around the broad theme of ecosystems and human wellbeing in the green economy to catalyse a network of young scientists from diverse disciplines and locations. As we return to the reality of data analysis, writing and project management, we have been pondering what it takes to harness five days of intellectual energy and three-course meals into a lasting network.

Discussions at #futureeconomy coalesced around two themes: the future of the planet and the future of research. Concern for the future of the planet brought us all together. We believe in the need for transformational change in social, political, and economic systems to build genuine connections between human wellbeing and biodiversity conservation. While we approach these topics through different lenses we share a commitment to using our research to make the world a better place.

Despite a fairly traditional format, this was NOT a traditional conference. We had economists, chemists, ecologists, anthropologists and many more in the same room, hearing the same talks, having the same conversations. Rather than a discipline or academic society, we focused around a common set of problems that transcended geography and disciplinary boundaries. We explored the relationships between our research and the contribution each made to understanding and facilitating transformational change.

Transformational change requires transdisciplinary research. Diverse perspectives create a more holistic picture of both complex problems and their interconnected solutions. Thus discussion inevitably turns to the future of research: the challenges and opportunities of trans- and interdisciplinary research, knowledge co-production, and of balancing scientific rigor with real world relevance.

The 30 young scientists at #futureeconomy are among the leaders in a new generation of science that prioritizes integrated research and real world impact. Talk of interdisciplinary environmental research is now decades old, yet our generation is the first to walk the walk – and that walk is a tough one. During this conference, we were able to learn from each other how to walk a little more confidently. Working together to visualize pathways to navigate interdisciplinary research careers was the true value of this conference.

Interdisciplinarity is a skill – like any skill, it takes practice.

Our network has great potential, but the odds are stacked against us. We are separated by disciplines and geography, working in insecure academic positions on other peoples’ projects. Few of us have a funding base we can draw on to support new research collaborations or travel to meetings and conferences. Without job security it is hard to envisage a long term research agenda being spurred by #futureeconomy because we don’t know if the work could continue in our next port of employment. Participation in networks fit poorly within traditional metrics of success – numbers of publications, citations, and grants. Given the pressures we face as young scientists, it can be hard to justify the time it takes to keep something like this alive.

Hard, but not impossible.

Networks of young scientists are exciting to be part of. They provide a venue to learn about novel research, opportunities, places, and challenges, and provide a space for cross-fertilization of ideas. They stimulate research collaborations that may (we hope) contribute to transformational change. Social media platforms, web 2.0 and Skype can sustain a virtual network with only small inputs of time and energy. Networks allow us to cross scales to identify local solutions to global problems and global solutions to local problems. Comparative analysis across research topics, methods, and geographies provides a more holistic understanding of the challenges and opportunities presented by the anthropocene. Many of us already transgress disciplinary boundaries, it isn’t that much of a step to use technology to help us transgress geographic boundaries.

 So what comes next?

Eight research proposals were developed at Villa Vigoni, but when (if?) we complete those projects we’ll need something else. Networks need to have a purpose and they need to find ways to stay connected and meet in person to keep the energy alive. By staying connected we will be able to track each others’ career paths and share our experiences navigating a changing research landscape as we work to understand our changing planet. Perhaps in the future we could grow our network in new directions. We talked a lot about knowledge co-production and including ‘decision-makers’ in our research. Yet those policy-makers, practitioners, NGOs, and communities were missing from this meeting. Perhaps the next step for the network – or regional or thematic nodes within the network – is to find funding to support a week of science-policy dialogue for emerging young leaders across research, policy, and practice.

Now that would be exciting.

This post was co-authored with Leah Samberg, another University of Montana postdoc who does interdisciplinary research on social-ecological systems with a focus on biodiversity in agricultural systems.

How NOT to hand in your PhD

by Carina W 0 Comments
How NOT to hand in your PhD

So… It finally happened, I submitted my PhD last week. Feels surreal, amazing, and totally normal all at the same time. But I thought I’d just share the hilarity of the day for posterities sake. I really wish somebody had been following me around that day with a camera, because it would have made for some awesome time-laps photography.

I was back in Canberra for one week to attend the Society for Human Ecology’s 14th International Conference and to submit my thesis. Unsurprisingly, the thesis was not as ready as I had planned (due to circumstances largely outside of my control…), so I spent the week frantically dealing with the final proofreading, reference list and formatting debacles. With this and the conference it was a week of very little sleep…

I wake on Friday morning at about 5.30am after dreaming about blocked printers and binding failures, stressed about the final formatting. I get to campus and can’t seem to print from my friend’s computer (having left in December I no longer have my own desk at the ANU). After being not so politely told by the IT guy in my department that he doesn’t have time to help me I frantically run to the library to see if I can print there. Things don’t go super smoothly and a few tears and some very friendly library staff later the first copy comes out of the printer… covered in black marks and looking decidedly shabby. I abort the library mission and decide to head to office works.

Sprinting across campus I get half way to my car before realising that I probably left my USB at the library. I pause – conveniently next to a bunch of construction workers who probably enjoyed the site of a frantic looking woman in a short skirt emptying the contents of her bag on to the footpath. The USB isn’t there but in a moment of clarity I see my laptop and realise it doesn’t matter. The sprint continues. I get back to my car to find an $83 parking ticket (which I probably deserve, I’ve been parking there illegally on and off for the last four years…), but today? Of all days!

Onto office works and I tell my sob story to the kind man who says he can print my thesis but to get the colour pages into it he will have to do the whole thing in colour at a cost of $300 per copy (I need four). He takes pitty on me and presses print, promising to only charge me for black and white. I sit twiddling my thumbs for 30mins only to discover that he has printed it single sided… The margins are set for double sided so the printing begins again, only this time it ends up black and white. Another 30mins passes. Half way out the door marvelling at the phone-book sized manuscripts in my arm I notice that the page order of one is all messed up. I go back to the kind man and we figure out and rectify the problem. Another 20mins passes.

I leave office works wondering if it really matters that there are no colour pages. By this stage I’ve lost all capacity to make rational decisions and stupidly think that with 2 hours to go I can get the colour pages in. An unnamed hero prints them at work, I pick them up, take them to office works and get the necessary holes punched in the side. I frantically call a friend to met her in her office to do the page switch. We now have about 30mins before submission time. I explain what needs to be done and get on to sorting out the pages. At some point I look up, horrified to see my friend in a tangle, undoing the coils of the spiral… “shit! not like that!”. Miscommunication on my part, and turns out that she actually saved the day – we definitely didn’t have enough time to unbind and then rebind four copies of my thesis. We resort to scissors and glue. I’m so exhausted by this stage I figure it doesn’t actually matter.

The examiners wont care. Will they???

Crisis averted 10mins before submission time, we head over to the little office and I sign my life away and collect my congratulatory mug (thanks ANU – is that all my magnum opus is worth?). Over celebratory drinks my supervisor tells me that submission day crises are part of the right of passage. While I agree to a certain extent, I’d say that the major lesson from this day is:

DON’T PRINT, BIND and SUBMIT your PhD on the same day.