Veronika Leitold, Alec Armstrong
An international activist, a fly fisherman, an NGO manager, a food & beverage consultant, a water quality researcher and an indigenous elder are all gathered around a table… Why? They have come together to make a decision: either approve or veto the construction of a new hydroelectric dam upstream in the river basin that is home to all of them. There is much tension between the proponents of the new energy source and the conservationists in the group. But with the recent forest fire that swept across the region mobilizing all available resources to control damage, these members of the community learned that only through coordinated effort and integrated action are they able to effectively safeguard their environment. Therefore, after carefully weighing the pros and cons, the group decides to veto the dam construction, thus evading the displacement of an indigenous village from the forested upper valley and maintaining the integrity of the community and the ecosystem.
The above story is only hypothetical and somewhat simplistic in nature. Yet, it models a plausible real-world scenario, which was based on the WWF’s interactive board game called “Get the Grade!” that we used as a tool in our Coupled Human and Natural Systems class last week to explore the topic of engaging stakeholders – i.e. people or organizations that have a legitimate interest in a project or entity, or would be affected by a particular action or policy – and the role of environmental report cards in guiding stakeholder decisions.Get the Grade! is a game of natural resource management based on role-playing, where participants are randomly assigned a character role and have to advocate a specific value within a river basin as if they were ecological, economic, health & nutrition, management & governance, social & cultural or water quality & quantity stakeholders. Through communication, negotiation, and decision-making among the players, the report card grades associated with the six different values get successively modified as the river basin conditions change. The objective of the game is to achieve the highest overall grade as a team (to “Get the A!”), which requires the players to work together and take collaborative measures in favor of the common good – in this case, the health of the river basin – rather than focusing on their own specific values in isolation.
Following the hands-on session of Get the Grade!, the second half of our class took on a more theoretical tone as we reflected on ways in which collaborative research, stakeholder engagement and public outreach might fit into a scientist’s working life. The assigned readings for this week questioned many of the traditional academic and institutional norms, which hold that scientists are trained to provide information as “experts in their field,” they share knowledge through one-way communication by writing papers and giving talks, and their main motivation in the academic race for tenure and promotion is to improve their publication record (“publish or perish”). Stakeholder engagement is an inherently different approach, however, which consists in the co-development of the information gathering process between scientists and stakeholders, openness to the perspectives of others, and a shift in motivation from publication to creating public action. As such, it has much in common with transdisciplinary research.
Often, the problems we face in our modern-day society are complex, and they are best solved by applying transdisciplinary research elements, such as effective communication and leadership, intense collaboration, and the integration of multiple knowledge streams and value systems. In the field of conservation science, for example, it has even been suggested that “a conceptual paradigm shift should take place in the academic conservation discipline toward more commitment on the part of the researchers to turn conservation science into conservation action” (Arlettaz et al., 2010). But how can this be incentivized if academics are essentially evaluated on their research performance, i.e. their publication record, and not rewarded for any commitment to action and implementation in the current system? How much agency should scientists have in transdisciplinary collaborations? Can collaborative work and public outreach be considered as legitimate scientific output? Who is to decide?
The resounding consensus in our class discussion was that even if we can agree that engagement and public outreach should be part of our science careers, such roles require lots of time and effort, yet they remain undervalued in academia, therefore scientists are hesitant to engage in these activities, seeing them as mere distractions from the scientific productivity. There is a real value, however, in effective data synthesis and interpretation, and a growing demand for “knowledge brokers” who can facilitate transdisciplinary problem solving and action-oriented research by mastering “the art of communication” and bringing people together to collaborate. Perhaps not every scientist is fit for such a role, but the power of choice to transcend disciplines and think outside the academic box should be granted to everyone.
- Arlettaz R., Schaub M., Fournier J., Reichlin T. S., Sierro A., Watson J. E. M., Braunisch V. From Publications to Public Actions: When Conservation Biologists Bridge the Gap between Research and Implementation. BioScience 2010; 60 (10): 835-842.
- Boyer E. L. Scholarship reconsidered: Priorities of the professoriate. Chapter 2: Enlarging the Perspective. p 15–25. Princeton University Press, 3175 Princeton Pike, Lawrenceville, NJ, 1990. [pdf]
- Dennison W.C. Environmental problem solving in coastal ecosystems: A paradigm shift to sustainability. Estuarine, Coastal and Shelf Science, v 77, n 2, p. 185-196, 2008.
- Longstaff B.J., Carruthers T.J.B., Dennison W.C., Lookingbill T.R., Hawkey J.M., Thomas J.E., Wicks E.C., Woerner J. Integrating and Applying Science: A handbook for effective coastal ecosystem assessment. Chapter 4: Communication strategy: packaging and delivering the message for maximum impact, p 45–58. IAN Press, Cambridge, MD, 2010.
- Walton A., Gomei M. and Di Carlo G. Stakeholder Engagement. Participatory Approaches for the Planning and Development of Marine Protected Areas. World Wide Fund for Nature and NOAA—National Marine Sanctuary Program. 2013. [pdf]