Direction not Destination

Sunday, 10 May 2009

US-IALE 2009: CHANS Workshop

Coupled Human and Natural Systems (CHANS) research is all about relationships – that seemed to be one of the main conclusions of the Challenges and Opportunities in Research on Complexity of Coupled Human and Natural Systems workshop at the US-IALE meeting in Snowbird, UT. The processes of identifying relationships between system elements and fostering them between researchers are key to realizing successful CHANS research. The workshop followed-up on a symposium in which principle investigators from several NSF-funded CNH projects presented their work, and was an opportunity to ask questions that went unasked during that symposium. The workshop was also the kick-off event for the CHANS-Net website.

In my notes below I have not identified individual workshop participants, both because I may have mis-interpreted their actual opinions or thoughts, but also because in some cases I can’t identify from my notes who said what. The workshop started with a panel discussion (the panel composed of the symposium speakers) followed by break-out groups to continue the discussion.

The first question from the audience asked how the panel approaches the dichotomy between abstract and contextualised research. Just as many dichotomies are false, it seems this one is also not always appropriate. For example, one response was that just because we can explain some characteristic about a specific place does not mean we didn’t use any theory whilst arriving at that explanation. Talking to local people can generate interesting, if contextualised, questions and one panel member highlighted the usefulness of ‘stakeholder steering groups’ (composed of local decision-makers and actors) to identify diverse opinions and direct research in ways that may not have happened otherwise. Another suggestion was that communication tools (such as role-playing, hypothetical scenarios, model output, etc.) are useful as a starting point for discussion, even if the theory underlying those tools is not discussed. To summarise the responses to this question I’ll paraphrase one of the panel members; ‘it was Louis Pasteur that said the question is not about whether the science is abstract or applied, but whether it is good science or bad science’.

A subsequent question along similar lines touched on the interplay of theory and practice; “what happens when your research proposal does not match ‘messy reality’? How do you explain why you ended up doing what you did do [to the people that accepted your proposal]?”. No original research goes entirely to plan – as some famous scientist once said; ‘if we knew what we were doing, it wouldn’t be called research’. In reality, there is always ‘wriggle-room’ in resolving this issue – if you start with a broad question it is easier to stay with a research theme even if the details get modified. Similarly, it is useful to make sure your research question is more important than the place where you will address that question. One panel member described how a research project they worked on needed to change the country in which is was situated. By focusing on the general research question they were able to negotiate this seemingly insurmountable problem. Other respondents from the panel got into more ‘messy’ details about the execution of such research. For example, in a project that involved both social and physical scientists there was initially confusion about how the two different types of scientists perceived and undertook measurements. A useful suggestion was to read your colleagues synthesis/review papers from other disciplines or backgrounds. Through commitment and patience in working together, an objective should be to identify a common language between researchers that can then push the research goals forward. Again, the importance of relationships was stressed.

An issue that came up both in response to this theory versus practice question, and frequently throughout the workshop, was the importance of good project management. One panel member suggested that an individual needs to be designated with the task of keeping the project on timeline, and that this person may need to take tough decisions (e.g. to drop researchers from the project) if deadlines or standards are not met. Finally, changing research can be a healthy thing – there will be frequent opportunities to extend research in new directions because new questions will arise as understanding develops. We shouldn’t be afraid to pursue those new directions.

One participant wanted to talk about fields that remain under-represented in CHANS current projects. They asked; “what about landscape architects and other ‘professional’ individuals?” A variety of missing experts and knowledge were suggested: the built environment, technology, environmental psychology, historians, political scientists, and communications experts (cartographers, public relations consultants, etc.) amongst others. The need for greater engagement and strengthening of relationships with political scientists seemed to be particularly important to several participants: under what conditions does a policy succeed or fail? How do we achieve good governance of the systems being studied? The US EPA (for example) are making decisions all the time – how are CHANS researchers engaging and influencing them?

Another workshop participant suggested that the presentations in the symposium had highlighted several different ways to conceive the relationship of humans with their environment, from ‘invaders’ to ‘managers’ to ‘components’. “How do we cross the boundaries between these different conceptualizations?” The first respondent suggested that researchers tend to pick a perspective (on the relationship between humans and their environment) and stick with it throughout their research – a better approach might be to consider different perspectives within the same project. However, the discussion quickly moved on to address the entire concept of ‘coupled’ human-natural systems. Several panel respondents voiced concerns about the coupling metaphor – one suggested that (human-natural) systems are not coupled, rather there is just one system. Another highlighted how the US perspective [remember this was the US-IALE meeting] on the human-nature relationship is rather unique – Europeans arrived with ideas of wilderness, protection and exploitation which differ from those in other places. Many of our ideas about how humans are related to their environment, one panel member suggested, likely stem from the Judeo-Christian philosophy which states that man was given dominion over nature. During the development of that philosophy humans got separated [in their minds?] from ecosystems and a difference soon emerged between a perspective in which humans rightly dominate nature versus one in which humans are viewed as being part of nature [which might be more consistent with Eastern religions such as Taoism or Buddhism].

To conclude the panel discussion someone asked; “what direction does CHANS research need to go in?” I thought the most interesting response was that CHANS research should be about easing transitions between different environmental conditions, and not trying to stop those transitions. The speaker suggested that CHANS research needs to focus on the sustainability of communities in the face of environmental transitions, adopting a perspective closely aligned with the view that humans are a part of nature rather than a controller of nature. A second respondent (possibly a geographer) identified the problem of scale. Whilst pretty much every presentation in the symposium contained a ‘spider diagram’ depicting a system as arrows linking boxes of elements, scale didn’t figure much. Yet, the respondent argued, all the systems presented were to some degree scale-dependent (but note there are cases where scale-invariant behaviour is manifest [.pdf]).

The workshop then broke up into groups to discuss some the issues outlined above in more detail. Correspondingly, there was plenty of feedback when the groups re-convened. Put in the most simple terms, our group decided that there are four things that characterize CHANS research:
  1. It is hard (e.g. issues of coupling systems, scaling, policy work, management, interdisciplinarity, and many more)
  2. It’s all about relationships (both in the systems of study and between the researchers studying those systems)
  3. Face-to-face interaction is key (between researchers themselves, and between researchers and other stakeholders – policy makers, managers and importantly the people in the systems and places being studied)
  4. It takes time (because of all of the above)

This last point was emphasized in several places; it takes time to generate links between disciplines. And it can be frustrating. For CHANS research to be successful, one of the key steps is to identify individuals that are willing to make the same leap across a disciplinary divide that you want to. CHANS researchers aren’t alone in having these kinds of discussions right now, and there are lessons to be learned from many different groups investigating the web of human-environment relationships. That’s where the workshop ended in Utah, but no doubt the discussion about relationships will continue – possibly in forums like that offered by CHANS-Net.

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