The idea of a “research journey” (sensu McGowan et al. 2014)

By Joern Fischer

In a recent paper in Ecology & Society, McGowan et al. introduce the idea of a “research journey”. An academic’s research journey takes place along two axes: from expert knowledge to knowledge that is co-produced with stakeholders; and from unpacking details to getting the “big picture”. The following figures stylises this:

McGowan's idea of a "research journey"

McGowan’s idea of a “research journey” (click to enlarge)

I wondered what my own research journey looked like, and so I tried to analyse it. I started with birds and paddock trees — a pretty specific issue, solely relying on expert knowledge (number 1 below). I then moved to reptiles in farming and forestry landscapes — still, largely drawing on expert knowledge, but trying to come up with general patterns about what drives biodiversity in human-dominated landscapes (2). From there, I moved to paddock trees in a broader sense; in a transdisciplinary project that involved stakeholders, social scientists and ecologists. The scope of this was much broader, ranging from specific to general, and the type of knowledge generation was much more diverse (3). From there, I went to a project on sustainable development in Transylvania, which went both very deep and very broad, and involved locals (but to a lesser extent than my previous work in Australia on paddock trees; 4). Finally, I’m now starting to work on the intersection of food security and biodiversity. The goal here is extremely general, and it is largely based on scientific knowledge. But still, I’m hoping we can also involve stakeholders in our case study in Ethiopia, and be of some local use (5).

Three patterns are apparent for my own journey: a trend from specific to general; a trend from expert-driven to stakeholders, but slightly back to expert-driven; and (most strikingly) an increasingly comprehensive scope (i.e. a bigger bubble, see below). I found this an interesting exercise! What does your research journey look like?

Joern's research journey

Joern’s research journey (click to enlarge)


Filed under Concepts in sustainability and conservation, ERC project, food security, Research updates, Romania project, Today's question

Leverage Points for Sustainability: Four Postdoc Positions

The official advertisement will be available on the Leuphana website (here, to be precise!) — it will be identical. 

Please help to distribute this widely! Thank you!

DEADLINE for all four positions: 10th of March — very soon!!

About the project

Understanding how changes in interconnected social-ecological systems facilitate the transformation to sustainability represents one of the key challenges of sustainability science. Drawing on insights from systems thinking and solution-oriented transdisciplinary research, this project will focus on hitherto under-recognized leverage points – system properties where a small shift can lead to fundamental changes in the system as a whole. Leverage Points will focus on changes in relatively intractable, but potentially highly influential, system properties that could help to realign complex social-ecological systems to the normative goals of sustainability. Specifically, we will analyse three sustainability-relevant leverage points: (1) institutional dynamics (RESTRUCTURE); (2) human-environment interactions (RECONNECT); and (3) sustainability-related knowledge creation and use (RETHINK). The three leverage points will be studied individually and with regard to their interdependencies, on two key themes (food and energy) in two contrasting case study regions (Transylvania in Romania, and Lower Saxony in Germany). For details, see The following four positions are postdoctoral associate positions within the Leverage Points project.  You will be expected to work closely with the research consortium, including eight Principal Investigators, and eight PhD students.

PD1: RESTRUCTURE: Institutional dynamics in sustainability transformation This position focuses on processes of institutional change for restructuring food and energy systems in Lower Saxony (DE) and Transylvania (RO). RESTRUCTURE will address dynamics (transformations) in institutional arrangements. Social structures embodied in institutions (rules, regulations and policies) enable, constrain and guide human action and thus are of central concern to sustainability transformations. Different from most existing research, Leverage Points will not only consider institutional innovation and ‘successful’ institutional arrangements, but will specifically investigate what can be learnt from institutional failure, and assess how purposeful institutional decline could foster sustainability. Full details are available here.

PD2: RECONNECT: Conceptualising and quantifying human-nature connections This position focuses on conceptualising and quantifying human-nature connections and how changes in such connections relate to sustainability outcomes, in food and energy systems in Lower Saxony (DE) and Transylvania (RO). Full details are available here.

PD3: RETHINK: Sustainability-related knowledge creation and use (Germany) This position focuses on consolidating conceptual foundations related to new forms of knowledge production and use, and will apply these to local transdisciplinary case studies.  The themes of the case studies will revolve around the food and energy systems in Lower Saxony (DE) and Transylvania (RO).  This position focuses on the Lower Saxony case, but contributes to the Transylvania case. Full details are available here.

PD4: RETHINK: Sustainability-related knowledge creation and use (Romania) This position focuses on consolidating conceptual foundations related to new forms of knowledge production and use, and will apply these to local transdisciplinary case studies.  The themes of the case studies will revolve around the food and energy systems in Lower Saxony (DE) and Transylvania (RO).  This position focuses on the Transylvania case, but contributes to the Lower Saxony case. Full details are available here.

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Working hard versus working efficiently

By Joern Fischer

Prompted by some not-so-efficient moments I encountered in my recent academic life, I thought I should write a few words on the difference between hard work and efficiency. You can double the hours you work by a maximum of 100% (from 8 to 16 h a day), but efficiency varies by a much greater margin between individuals and institutions.

At an institutional level, here is my hit list of some of the most notoriously inefficient processes, with some counter-examples:

  • Reporting on things that nobody wants to hear about. Believe it or not, but many people actually complete time sheets on projects funded by the EU! To an Australian (for example), this is hilarious… (or tragic) … the Australian Research Council – Australia’s most prestigious funding body – has extremely minimalistic reporting requirements. This shows that excellence is not necessarily contingent on overly detailed reporting procedures.
  • Over-regulating administrative procedures, such as job appointments. People joke that in the US, you have advantages if you know people on the selection committee – whereas in Germany, this could work against you. This is because for professorial appointments, people who have worked with somebody are not allowed to participate in the selection procedure for that person. This means that favouring friends becomes impossible (a good thing), but it also means that some of the best people end up missing out because nobody ever speaks up for them! References are not considered important for tenure-track appointments in Germany, for example. What’s worse, people external to the university get a say on the appointment of professors in Germany … again, to make things more “objective”. But appointing people is not an objective process, but a process of choosing the best person for the job. (In short: I think German professorial appointment procedures make little sense.)
  • Accounting systems that remain hidden from the user. For a personal bank account, we can log in and check what our balance is. For research accounts at many institutions, we have to ask administrators to look for us. This wastes two people’s time.
  • Stamping, double-stamping, and triple-signing of everything. This still happens at some institutions. Again, I note that this happens about three times more (yes, that’s a 300% waste of time) in Germany as opposed to Australia (the other place I am familiar with).

At a personal level, here is my hit list of inefficiencies, with a list of alternative strategies:

  • Fretting over little things. In any process, you reach seriously diminishing returns to effort at some point. Once that curve levels off, it makes no sense to continue shuffling and re-shuffling bits of words – unless this is very fast to do. It’s important to recognize when diminishing returns are happening, and then “let go” and give the task to somebody else (a co-author, collaborator, or a journal).
  • Poor communication resulting in needing to work more later on (when people are unhappy). In an effort to be efficient, many academics communicate the bare minimum. Ironically, this often leads to misunderstandings, and then wastes a lot of time later on. I think it is advisable to spend quite a lot of time on regular communication, with everyone you’re working with, to build a culture of trust and make it clear what’s important and what needs to happen.
  • Ignoring one’s own timelines. Timelines are there to help us manage our workload. The most impressive example I have seen is a friend of mine, who finished his PhD with a hard deadline. In the end, he set himself tasks for every half day, did those things, and then moved on – no matter how perfectly or not he had achieved a given task. Learning to do this is essential to not get drowned. People who make timelines, but then ignore them, tend to be delayed with everything.
  • Trying to do the wrong thing at the wrong place or time. Everybody is different. It’s key to know yourself, and know what you can do well, where, and when. Some people need a change of location to write. Some need a quiet place to read. Some need a walk in between activities. It doesn’t really matter, but the key is to know for yourself what makes you efficient. Simply working long hours until late at night is not necessarily the best recipe (in fact, often it’s a bad recipe).

With these things in mind, it should be possible to be productive, while working a reasonable amount of time – if our institutions allow it. It should also be possible to stay physically and mentally healthy. And all of this, in turn, should make for a better chance to contribute something sensible to the world.

(One last note: there probably is a downside to too much of a focus on efficiency. If every minute of your day is planned diligently, it’s possible there is no resilience left to deal with surprises. So … that’s probably worth thinking about. But for things you can control, it’s probably a good idea to do them in a way that maximises “output” (this could be ideas, friendly communication, or papers) relative to the time used.)

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Filed under The little things that make you think (and feel), Today's question, Trends in conservation and sustainability science

Who we are: Neil Collier

By Neil Collier

I joined Leuphana University in February of this year to work on a project investigating system properties that contribute to food security and biodiversity. ‘Mixed’ is the best way to describe my professional experience, but I suppose that is typical of most people researching sustainability and social-ecological systems. I’m trained as an ecologist and studied butterflies as a postgraduate at Flinders University in Adelaide, Australia. After graduating I returned to my hometown and spent three years in the Livelihoods and Policy group at Charles Darwin University (CDU). We worked on social-ecological systems mainly in the wet-dry tropics of northern Australia and other tropical forest biomes of the world.

A short stint as a credit risk analyst/modeller with a private company was soul-destroying and so I moved back to academic research. The most recent role I had in a university was working as a research and statistical consultant for Edith Cowan University. Most of the time I helped Master and PhD students with their experimental designs and data analyses. It was a very rewarding role but also very challenging. During this time I developed an introductory R course and trained about fifty students, postdocs and academics.

Prior to moving to Germany I spent most of 2014 as a beer tourist in Belgium, and trying to learn Dutch in a region that speaks an incomprehensible form of Dutch (Flemish). Lucky for me the Belgians are an adaptive lot and most speak at least three languages, English one of them. When I’m not working I search for interesting types of beer, take pictures, listen to blues, and dream about freediving.

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Re-balancing … everything?

By Joern Fischer

In a particularly insightful comment to a recent blog post of mine, Jahi Chappell challenged the ultimate benefits of ever-increasing specialisation. Having thought about this a bit, I was struck by the generality of what this may mean. I was amazed by just how often, the problems we discuss in sustainability science result from society having favoured specialisation over balance. In this blog post, I just want to substantiate this observation by highlighting well-known examples where re-balancing would have benefits for sustainability. There is no particular order to these examples.

The time budgets of individuals. Let’s start with the point that Jahi raised – the time budgets of individuals are increasingly lob-sided. We’re encouraged to be super-stars (= workaholics) in one thing, rather than spreading our time across a variety of things; rather than “just being” (in Jahi’s words) in our communities. “Academia’s obsession with quantity”, as we called it, is just one manifestation of this general societal push towards specialisation. The time budgets of many modern people appear to need “re-balancing” – to embrace a wide range of things that give meaning, rather than focus on one thing primarily.

Global equity. Clearly, to sustainability scientists, it’s no news that the distribution of global wealth could do with some re-balancing. The wealthy nations are causing most of the environmental problems, directly or indirectly, because of lifestyles that require more resources than we have available per capita (on average). At the same time, too many people in poor nations still struggle to make a half-decent living, and lack access to services (education, medical) that are taken for granted in many rich nations. According to a recent Oxfam study (thanks Tim Lang, for your Tweet!), 1% of the global population owns 48% of wealth and 80% owns only 5.5% of wealth. More balance would be preferable from a sustainability perspective (i.e. intra-generational equity).

Knowledge generation. For a long, long time, Western scientists have valued specialisation. Knowledge has been divided into disciplines and sub-disciplines. Any given (modern) scientist knows a lot about a very narrow set of issues. As Konrad Lorenz put it (as I’ve learnt from my dear friend Tibor Hartel): “Every man gets a narrower and narrower field of knowledge in which he must be an expert in order to compete with other people. The specialist knows more and more about less and less and finally knows everything about nothing.” From a sustainability perspective, we’re now arguing for re-balancing knowledge generation. We’re arguing that having lost sight of the whole has caused all kinds of problems; and that we must get out of our disciplinary silos and embrace different ways of knowing. That’s where the terms interdisciplinarity and transdiscipinarity stem from.

Supply of ecosystem services. As famously summarised in Jon Foley’s paper in 2005, and also highlighted in the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment, the ecosystem service bundles of intensively used agricultural landscapes are highly skewed towards provisioning services – while everything else is taking a heavy toll. Many scientists have argued for more balanced sets of ecosystem services. Recent concepts such as “ecological intensification”, for example, have suggested that we can have high levels of provisioning services while also having higher levels of other services – advocating a more balanced set of services, in other words.

Beneficiaries of ecosystem services. Recent work on ecosystem services has highlighted that the benefits of ecosystem services typically do not reach all possible beneficiaries equally. Rather, some people get a lot, while others get very little. Perhaps not surprisingly, one might argue that those places where the bundles of ecosystem services are least balanced might also be those places where the benefits are least equitably distributed… time to re-balance both, perhaps?

Resilience versus efficiency. Last but not least, an obvious example is Meffe and Holling’s classic “pathology of natural resource management”. They argue, basically, that a desire for narrowly focused efficiency has undermined the resilience of natural resource systems; making them less able to absorb shocks and continue functioning.

Perhaps this has been obvious all along, but I was quite struck really by how widespread this phenomenon of “need for more balance” appears to be. From personal lives, to ecosystem services, to knowledge generation … and I’m sure there are many more examples I could have included.


Filed under Concepts in sustainability and conservation, ecosystem services, Leverage Points for Sustainability, Millennium Alliance for Humanity and the Biosphere, Today's inspiring quote, Today's question, Trends in conservation and sustainability science

The thing with workshop papers…

By Joern Fischer

I’m currently at a workshop with a bunch of people interested in social-ecological systems. Almost inevitably at such workshops, the question arises how the results can be packaged into a nice paper (or even several). I’m sure I’m not the only one who has a love-hate relationship with such papers, and so I thought perhaps it is worth reflecting on the pros and cons of these exercises.

On the positive side, good workshops, with the right sets of people can lead to genuinely new ideas emerging. In a good workshop, the whole is more than the sum of the parts, and what emerges can be quite unique – and no individual person could have thought of it, or put it together like that. The resulting papers are typically conceptual pieces that draw on the range of expertise of the people present.

On the downside, such “synergy” papers don’t always work well. Perhaps the most important factor is whether the people at the workshop are truly synergistic in what they bring. This strikes me as an interesting trade-off. If you bring a diverse set of people to a workshop, chances of new and interesting synergies increase – but so does the risk that partcipants have nothing to say to each other (or split into sub-groups). On the other hand, if you bring an overly homogenous set of people to a workshop, “group-think” will take over, and the resulting outcomes may be deemed boring by many outside the workshop.

For workshop organisers (and to a lesser degree, participants), this leaves a few challenges. First, nice ideas and synergies cannot be forced, but they can be supported. Typically, a mix of flexibility, structure, and informal conversation is ideal. Flexibility improves the chances for “emergence” of new ideas; structure improves the likelihood of actually having something tangible at the end; and informal conversation provides an atmosphere of trust and shared spirit that ensures people with different perspectives dare to speak up and listen to one another.

And so I guess my love-hate relationship with workshop papers will continue! I’ve read papers from workshops that I found pathetic, and that seem to have largely got published because they had many famous people on the author list. But I’ve also read papers from workshops with truly nice ideas. The trouble is that one doesn’t quite know before a workshop (or before reading a workshop paper) which it’s going to be! So … don’t judge a book by its cover – some workshop papers are nice, but also, sometimes really good actors appear in really bad movies, and sometimes even together …


Filed under ecosystem services, Research updates, Trends in conservation and sustainability science

Academia’s obsession with quantity revisited

By Joern Fischer

A little while ago, together with my colleagues Euan Ritchie and Jan Hanspach, I led a paper entitled “Academia’s obsession with quantity”. This paper quickly became one of the most downloaded papers from TREE, and considering how short it is, it has clearly had “impact” (ironically, perhaps more so than its more constructive follow-up!).

With my own work having become busier than ever before, I thought it would be worthwhile to reflect on that paper. Many readers took it to be primarily a critique of people publishing large amounts. Now, given that my own publication record has increased in quantity (but not in quality?), it may seem that I was kind of the wrong person to make this argument. I’ve thought about whether this is a valid point – and if it is, what may have been the driver of me, too, becoming “obsessed” with quantity?

First of all, I think I never intended the paper to be primarily about publication output – but rather about the general addiction to more that seems widespread in academia. Just like when we wrote that paper, I still find it unhealthy that some university departments have meetings later than 5pm; and that much of what defines a good academic is how much time she (or more commonly, he) is willing to travel around and spend away from home (and family). Similarly, the general desire to be involved in everything whenever there is a new funding call strikes me as unhelpful. My primary critique is thus of the culture of busy-ness as an unchallenged, supposedly useful goal to pursue in its own right.

But being busy can also be a by-product of various other things. For example, one might be busy because good communication is time-consuming; or one might be busy because of trying to provide timely feedback to students; or because of putting much effort into designing a new course. This kind of being busy may result in a high quantity of outputs, or it might not. What’s more important, I think, is that in this case, being involved in everything, doing more, or having more, is not the goal in its own right.

The trouble is to tell the difference between being busy as a by-product versus being caught up in a culture of being too busy as a normal way of being. To me there’s only one solution: be vigilant that you don’t get sucked into a reward system you don’t actually believe in! In practice, this means saying “no” (a lot) to avoid chronic over-commitment; while still saying “yes” to those things that truly matter – even when you’re busy.


Filed under Today's question, Trends in conservation and sustainability science