Where have the big ideas gone?

By Joern Fischer

In the 1960s, island biogeography changed the way ecologists think about species distribution. In the 1970s, the first ideas for reserve design were beginning to take shape. In the 1990s, we learnt about fragmentation and edge effects. In the late 1990s, the idea of ecosystem services transformed the way we thought about conservation.

What are our big ideas today? My (controversial and perhaps mistaken) impression is that we are too often replacing the generation of new ideas with higher levels of technical sophistication when implementing the old ones. Climate change predictions are getting ever more accurate, but that hasn’t changed climate change per se. Planetary boundaries have been defined and recently refined, but that we’re beyond the limits was well known for decades before that. Technologies to refine agricultural yields are becoming more and more refined, but food distribution remains inequitable. In short: much of the highest impact science seems to just add higher levels of technical sophistication to what is already well known, but does little to address the foundational issues arguably most in need to being tackled.

This is of course, just an opinion of mine, and it may (1) be wrong, and (2) be seen as arrogant, or (3) be just plain unhelpful. As in: if I don’t like what is being researched, what then do I propose scientists ought to do more of? This is tricky, and if there was a simple answer, perhaps everyone would be doing just that. I guess I’d just like more signs from the scientific community that “we care”, that we realize that just re-arranging deck chairs on the Titanic will not be helpful, and that we know that simply refining our estimates and tools – within existing conceptual boundaries – won’t ultimately lead to sustainability. Not knowing the solution doesn’t mean one shouldn’t at least try to find it, beyond the space that is already well explored.

And last but not least: along with a loss of genuinely new ideas, I feel we are also increasingly losing scientists who are willing to express their vision for real, substantial changes in how humans interact with one another and with the planet. When talking in the pub, many sustainability or conservation scientists will still frankly speak about the need for major changes. But in papers … it’s just not neat and tidy enough, I guess.


Filed under Concepts in sustainability and conservation, ecosystem services, Leverage Points for Sustainability, Research updates, Today's question, Trends in conservation and sustainability science

When keeping the past just doesn’t work

By Joern Fischer

As conservationists, we frequently seek to keep something the way it is – e.g. ecosystems or sets of species living in a landscape or region. But much of the time, keeping that past just won’t work. Either there are introduced species that we just can’t get rid of (“novel ecosystems”), or there is social change which (for better or worse) brings about landscape change.

This situation is particularly evident in traditional farming landscapes. Two such landscapes that I have worked in are in Central Romania and in southwestern Ethiopia. In both cases, it is highly uncertain how the landscapes will change: but there is no doubt that fairly major changes of some sort will be inevitable. In both cases, changes are driven partly by external drivers (such as policies and the mental models underpinning them), as well as by the genuine desire of some stakeholders to improve the socio-economic prosperity of the region’s inhabitants.

What might successful conservation, or sustainable development, look like in a situation like this?

Some years ago, Adrian Manning and some of his collaborators (myself included) proposed the idea of “landscape fluidity” (also available via Research Gate, here). This term was meant to convey the idea that constant change is part of landscapes – species and structures ebb and flow through the landscape through time, re-constituting in composition and changing the overall system as a result. We argued that if such change is inevitable, perhaps it was not the specific identities of each and every species that needed to be prioritized in conservation efforts: rather, perhaps the general system characteristics or properties that are deemed valuable should be maintained. (This is not to say that we should forget about conservation for specific species!)

I think the idea of landscape fluidity could be usefully extended to social-ecological fluidity. Landscapes will change, and social systems will change. Still, traditional farming systems – which include elements deemed worthy of conservation – are not “random” amalgamations of people and nature. Rather, there are specific properties of these systems that, as a sustainability scientist, I would like to see maintained. Among these properties are things like high levels of heterogeneity, a substantial amount of near-natural vegetation, and often small patches of different types of modified land juxtaposed among large areas of semi-natural land. On the social side, there are also some typical system properties – e.g. high levels of local knowledge about ecosystem functioning, low levels of agrochemical inputs, and often community-level coordination for landscape management.

With the idea of social-ecological fluidity in mind, I would argue then that we may not need to maintain the past. Instead, we could spend more effort on finding out what it is we value about particular social-ecological systems, and then perpetuating the properties identified into the future.


Filed under Concepts in sustainability and conservation

Paper recommendation: Claire Kremen on land sparing and sharing

By Joern Fischer

Finally: an authoritative must-read paper that provides an in-depth critique on the framework of land sparing versus land sharing. I highly recommend this new paper by Claire Kremen, published in the Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences (and freely available here).

The paper is an impressive synthesis of a vast amount of literature on land sparing and land sharing. While it takes a critical perspective of the framework, it also acknowledges some of the key strengths of the work by the original proponents – including density-based field sampling, and a field design that allows the careful assessment of yield-density relationships.

The paper also addresses numerous other issues that have caused controversy and confusion in the past, including inconsistent terminology, and whether higher-yielding farming will actually spare land for nature. It synthesizes nicely up-to-date insights from a governance perspective, too – showing that without effective environmental governance, higher yielding agriculture may backfire badly on biodiversity conservation. Higher yielding agriculture, by whichever method, thus will not automatically lead to the sparing or land for nature.

I particularly liked the clear critique that there must be a consideration of who is to benefit from potential yield gains achieved. As one of very few leading scientists, Claire Kremen departs from the dominant, largely technocratic perspective that first, we must increase yields, and then worry about how to best distribute the material gains thus achieved. The world doesn’t work like this, and Claire Kremen emphasizes that equity considerations, explicitly accounting for smallholders, need to be part of potential management strategies from the outset.

Finally, I agree with the author that it’s time to come up with a new framework. The framework of land sparing versus land sharing was, and is, useful for focusing the attention of researchers on the intersection of two interrelated issues: food security (or production) and biodiversity conservation. This has been a great contribution, because many ecologists who never would have thought about these issues in combination are now ready to engage with these topics.

But: it’s time to move on, and add the further nuances that are clearly needed – including issues such as governance and equity considerations. The onus here, to my mind, is not on the original proponents of this framework, who did a great job getting an important issue on many, many people’s agendas. Rather, the onus is on the scientific community as a whole to move on: respecting what we have learnt to date, but recognizing that it, alone, will be insufficient to guide future policy or management decisions.


Filed under Concepts in sustainability and conservation, ecosystem services, ERC project, food security, recommended in F1000

Ideas for a PhD defense

By four newly pressed graduated PhD students

In continuation of Joern’s blog entry on strategies for a successful PhD, and since all of the four PhD students working on the Romania project have just finished their PhD, we would like to take a reflexive step, and share our experiences with you about our PhD defenses. At Leuphana University in Germany, the common procedure is to present one’s work in about half an hour, followed by one hour of questions and discussion, the actual “defense”. This procedure can be seen as a last formal step to being accepted in the “scholars’ club”.

We hope our thoughts will be useful for the next generation of PhD students, or to anyone who googles this topic.

The following is not an exhaustive list and there are plenty of other good posts on the topic (e.g. 1, e.g. 2). Similarly, this post is not intended as a blueprint for preparing a PhD defense. It is up to the candidates how they would like to approach this step. As we had the chance to see the strengths in each others’ presentations, it contains what we thought worked well in our defenses, but also what we now believe we could have done better. As a little disclaimer, we should mention that none of us respected all of the following points… that is why we entitled this post “ideas”, and not strategies for a successful PhD defense, as we actually did not test all the suggestions below. Moreover, merely having a list of useful things to think about is not sufficient, since they also need to be put in practice, which can be difficult in conditions of stress, nervousness and limited time. Likewise, there is always the possibility of over preparing which can distract one’s focus from the achievements of the research (see one of the points below).

So here’s a collection of lessons learnt and useful tips.

Before the presentation

  • Take time. We would recommend two to three weeks in total: One to two weeks for the preparation and practicing of the presentation, and approx. one week for refreshing the memory.
  • Re-read your papers or your monograph several times to be very clear about the methods (and eventually theories) used, the key findings, and what you could have done differently. Arguably, no research is perfect and while you should be aware of potential faults or weaknesses of your research, you should also focus on the positives.
  • Also in relation to refreshing the memory, be able to articulate some important milestones in the evolution of your research field, together with some recent trends as well as potential critique to the theories and approaches you used.
  • On a secondary note, if time allows, tackle the matter of working out additional material and continuously building your knowledge and understanding by trying to mentally integrate some new ideas presented in recent publications. Simply put, stay updated about recent developments in your research field.
  • If not already, get familiar with the work of your reviewers so that you will be able to answer questions in a common “language”. This may also improve your understanding of their way of thinking, and help to anticipate their potential questions during the defense.
  • In the case of a cumulative dissertation, the presentation would benefit from clarifying the overall internal logic and coherence of your papers combined. Also, how does this show in each of the papers?
  • Some distinctive slides on the knowledge generation, significance, and/or applicability of one’s research to the broader academic world are very much welcome (i.e. the “so what?” of your findings, as well as research gaps closed).
  • In the case of co-authored papers one should be able to shortly and clearly explain one’s contribution (it might be obvious, but less so in conditions of stress).
  • Write down the answers to the examiners’ comments on your thesis (which you receive approx. one month before the defense). Try to tackle their main points of criticism during the presentation, and ideally have some “backup” slides prepared for the actual defense afterwards. One may also prepare supplementary slides with some of the questions you thought about yourself or you were asked during test defenses; it can help to use these slides when answering questions during defense.
  • Prepare for the typical questions. These may be content related such as the strengths and limitations of the applied method(s), justification of the use of a particular conceptual framework/theory, explanation of the normative assumptions underpinning one’s work or theoretical framings that were used, and eventually the ‘policy relevance’ of your findings. At least three of us were asked “how would you put into practice and/or translate into specific policies your general recommendations”.
  • Other questions may be rather related to the overall experience as a PhD student: what did you enjoy the most, what would you do differently, what have you learned, what would be your next research goals/steps, what would you do research-wise if you had an unlimited amount of money? Arguably, one cannot pre-empt all (un-)foreseen issues, but we found it a useful reflection exercise. There is also the danger of over preparing, and trying to prepare for every possible question or situation can dilute one’s focus from the main points of the research.
  • Presentation: Focus on your achievements (findings) and their implications. Focus on what you are knowledgeable about. Try to be as precise as possible, and avoid “unnecessary” details.
  • Practice your presentation. At the beginning alone, then with the cat, aunt, on the balcony, on the roof, with pointer or not, etc. Finally, give at least one test defense in front of your colleagues, friends, etc. and kindly ask them to comment and ask questions. We differed greatly among each other in the number of times we practiced. If possible, try to practice once in the actual room where you are going to give your talk. This helps checking whether the projector properly displays the colors you selected for your graphs, and also gives you a feeling for the actual “defense situation”.
  • Stress management; this is crucial and often not tackled well enough. Despite giving a fair number of public presentations until the moment of the defense, some may still be overwhelmed by the amount of emotions. Here again, it varies enormously from person to person, so we will just mention some of our own stress coping strategies: during the days prior to the defense, having someone to bounce back all the accumulated potentially negative energy; try to make sure to have some close friend/family member/colleague sitting in the defense where you can focus at while presenting your thesis; doing sports during the preparation period to clear one’s mind, working on the defense in a different and quiet environment where people would not ask every five minutes how preparations are going.
  • Logistics: prepare the room so that you feel comfortable in it; bring sufficient water for yourself and the examiners, adapters, chocolate, a “don’t disturb sign” on the door, pointer, an extra connection cable for the projector (in case it collapses), pen and paper. Have a copy of your thesis handy in case examiners refer to an exact page in your thesis, etc.

During the presentation

  • We all had very different talk speeds and rhythms, so it depends on what one feels comfortable with (breathing seems a good idea, for example between sentences, but may not always be possible…).
  • Use the pointer to make things more accessible.
  • Show you acknowledge the formality of the procedure by being dressed appropriately.

During the defense

  • Write down the questions you receive in case you are susceptible to forgetting them (it also gives you some seconds to think about, and eventually structure your answers already).
  • When answering try to link to papers you authored or that you read; it may be difficult to remember authors, but it may be worth it. Maybe make a “top ten list” of papers that you really liked during the PhD and that are useful to support more than one argument.
  • Try to underline your arguments with examples (e.g. from other policy fields/world regions). Admittedly, the purpose of a PhD defense is to argue for the importance and validity of one’s results, especially when those results are challenged, but the extent and ways this is done varies.
  • Enjoy your defense as it is a nice occasion when so many bright minds focus on what you have to say and on having a dialogue with you. The defense is also the time when you can confidently showcase several years of research and effort. One can think of this experience as a discussion between peers. This may also be an opportunity to maybe go beyond your work and think about it holistically. Use the time to talk to your examiners afterwards, as you might be working with them in the future. Finally, it is also a time to possibly have nice conceptual talks with researchers you admire, not fearing that you are wasting someone’s time.

As we wrote the above, we have realized that probably the most important point is the last one. “Enjoy the experience of the <<fall>> and worry about the landing when you get there”, as Dave so nicely put it in one of his comments.

These ideas are open for debate. What other points would you add?


Filed under PhD advice

A Sustainability Scientist’s Perspective on the ‘Refugee Crisis’

Today, I was motivated to focus on a more social manifestation of our lack of sustainability: the refugee crisis. In my research I tend to focus on the environmental expressions of sustainability problems. But sustainability is also about social sustainability. My perspectives on the refugee crisis are therefore based on some of the framings I have developed while studying the local and global connections in environmental problems.

**Note: This blog post has been written in anger and disgust, and therefore may not be as articulate as I would like.**

I’m distressed by state of humanity in Western Europe.

  • PEOPLE are ‘living’ in appalling camps around Calais, waiting to enter Britain.
  • PEOPLE are ‘living’ in over-crowded refugee centres with little sanitation and facilities.
  • PEOPLE are suffering danger and exploitation, and arduous journeys to arrive in these camps.
  • PEOPLE are drowning as they try to cross the Mediterranean on rubber dinghies.

To me, this is the crisis – the pain and the suffering. It is depressing in itself. I find it upsetting that life can be so intolerable that such conditions are better. I lie awake at night thinking about this.

But the final straw for me is our collective reaction.

  • Hungary wants to put up a wall along the Serbian border.
  • Britain and France argue over the responsibility for migrants, and label them as ‘illegal’ based on where they want to register as asylum seekers.
  • Britain, Germany and France turn their backs on Greece and Italy, forcing them to handle the crisis in their already over-stretched public services and charities, arguably making ‘living’ conditions worse for many.
  • Our politicians argue that we don’t have capacity to take everyone, and spend weeks arguing over who should be paying what, and hosting who, and how to stop the flow, rather than saving the thousands of PEOPLE dying on their way here.
  • British holiday-makers complain that their holiday is ruined by there being untidy migrants in the vicinity of their holiday resorts.

These reactions frame the crisis as being the impact to the West. This makes me feel sick and ashamed.

Firstly, because we are talking about PEOPLE. Real, living, breathing, feeling people. And all of them just unlucky enough to have been born into the time and situation they were born into.

Secondly, because I find the social construct of a ‘country’ or a ‘territory’ fascinating (and also the construction of nationalism). I query the validity of borders such as we currently define and enforce them. My sustainability science experience means I am fully aware that we don’t actually live within our borders here in Western Europe – we import materials and products and we export negative impacts. These impacts are in terms of environmental consequences such as climate change, or communities in the developing world living with no clean water because of our need for oil. And impacts are in terms of social consequences; for example political instability in areas we colonized (e.g. Nigeria) or invaded (e.g. Iraq) to secure resources. We do not keep to ‘our’ own allocation of resources in order to support our lifestyles here in the West. And to therefore defend our physical space from people fleeing our exported consequences is essentially saying “what’s mine is mine, and what’s yours is also mine”.

In short, what this boils down to is a call for us all to “check your privilege”. To those who argue that we can’t cope with everyone who wants to come here, I call bullshit. We can’t cope if we don’t change and adjust, and yes maybe make some material compromises. But we have more than enough, its just not distributed very fairly. And it’s us in the West who have too much, who don’t experience the real impacts, and who are reinforcing the disparity.


Filed under Uncategorized

Why trade-off analysis leaves me un-enthused

By Joern Fischer

Last night, I had an interesting chat over dinner about ecosystem services and trade-offs. For a long time, I’ve felt that somehow trade-off analysis just doesn’t really excite me. I think I’ve finally figured out why.

My reading of the ecosystem services literature is that it developed a bit like this. Once upon a time, people recognised that the idea of conserving biodiversity for its own sake did not appeal sufficiently to the general public. So the metaphor of ecosystem services was created as a way to emphasise to people that nature actually matters not only for its own sake, but also for human well-being.

Armed with a lot of enthusiasm about this new framing for conservation, people set out to identify the possibilities of this new metaphor. I’d say people at this early stage of ecosystem services research set out to find new synergies — for example, was it possible to conserve species simply by appealing to the conservation of ecosystem services?

Then, as the ecosystem services concept began to mature in theory and application, an increasing amount of economics came into it. Services were being quantified in biophysical, and increasingly also in monetary terms. Optimisation started becoming possible: where should we have which kind of service? And what will be the cost of having one kind of service to another kind of service? Thinking in decision-relevant trade-offs had arrived.

Right now, my sense is that thinking about trade-offs is increasingly fashionable in the same research community that once upon a time emphasised the need to find synergies. Selling win-win solutions — or framing papers around win-win solutions — has got more difficult. People will be skeptical and will say that’s just seeing the world through rose-coloured glasses and in fact there are important trade-offs that must be considered.

True, I guess, but to my mind also rather uninspiring.

Let me draw a parallel to forecasting versus backcasting. Forecasting is the dominant scientific mode; we generate numbers about the future based on our understanding of the present. And then we work out things will continue to get worse. (Hooray.) Backcasting — the alternative — starts by asking where do we want to be, and what do we need to do to get there? What do we need to do to break out of current trends, rather than assume they must continue into the future? I like backcasting because it lifts us out of the present set of perceived constraints, and opens our minds to possibilities and new, creative solutions.

To me, this is also the reason why I’m un-enthused about trade-off analysis. We can understand in ever more detail the various constraints imposed on current management decisions. But this psychological space of perceiving the world in constraints — to my mind — is likely to keep us locked into the same general structures and thought processes that quite possibly, we need to break through. Seeking win-win solutions — just like backcasting — may be less “realistic” right now, but as a mindset, it paves creative avenues to finding a better future.

I won’t deny that we should be understanding constraints and trade-offs more carefully in some situations, for example to avoid unintended side-effects on marginalised groups. But the overwhelming emphasis on trade-offs in the literature at present, instead of on synergies and win-wins strikes me as also, inadvertently, constraining our thinking to what is — rather than opening it to what can be.


Filed under ecosystem services, Leverage Points for Sustainability, The little things that make you think (and feel)

Reflections on Impact

This week, I’ve been thinking a lot about impact. The ideas in this post have been brewing for a while. But got a bit solidified this week because we were visited by Professor Mark Reed. Mark has done some great sustainability research with impressive impact, and has published on the topic of impact through research. I encourage you to look at his website. Mark gave a good seminar, and as a group we then followed this up with some in-depth discussion. The seminar included ideas for incorporating impact into research, with innovative ideas on how to do so. For me, this resulted in many thoughts, including these on the impact discourse; forms of impact; the role of our limits in impact; and finally, my own personal recommendations of impact for happy researchers.

** Important note: These thoughts are only prompted by talking with Mark and the group this week, and are in no way to be considered a response to, or a criticism of, anybody’s work! **

The Impact Discourse

Having spent time in the UK higher education sector during the last REF round, I am very aware of a particular framing or discourse as to what counts as impact. It feels slightly as though we are being asked to change the world through every piece of research we touch. For those of us who have engaged in-depth with a particular problem in a particular place, and often found that these problems are shaped by a much broader political economy, it can be difficult to really find a solution and make it happen. Especially in a short project. Alternatively, we understand a small component of a system, and so can’t really advocate for a solution that is applicable to that entire system.

However, pressure to have impact and global applicability often seems to lead to authors trying to make large-scale policy recommendations or to be concerned with inputting their science into the policy arena. I agree that we should fully disseminate findings in appropriate ways, but (and as noted by the new editor of conservation letters), not all science has policy relevance. And nor should it necessarily. Indeed, high profile UK academics have criticized the current focus on ‘impact’ as constraining innovative science.

However, as sustainability scientists, I think many of us are motivated by certain desires to make things better (whatever better may be) in addition to being fuelled by pure curiosity. And therefore the vast majority of us would like to feel like there is a purpose to what we are doing. And the purpose is how I consider impact in my own research.

**Interesting note: One of the researchers here (Dave Abson) said that he actually preferred to do no harm, rather than strived for impact. I thought this was also a nice stance.**

Forms of Impact

Research Process Impact

I think we should celebrate the impact we have as a result of being academics. We should seek to maximize the beneficial aspects of these impacts, by being good colleagues, mentors, students, and stakeholders in a research location.

Impact comes through teaching and supervision/participation, in the research community. For example, I think I have impact when I work with a colleague on their methodology, sharing my experiences with them. I have impact when I share case study experiences in a classroom, and motivate a student about a previously unknown issue.

Impact comes locally in research study locations, as a result of just doing the research. For example, I perhaps raise awareness with a community, or demonstrate that the world is aware of a problem. I have impact when I show a group of mining engineers that social-environmental scientists aren’t yoghurt-knitting tree huggers. I have impact when I bring together diverse stakeholders, and provide a forum for all to air their views and discuss for the first time.

Research Results Impact

Arguably, in a transdisciplinary, iterative project, impact from research results is also part of the research process. However, our results often have implications for how stakeholders in our research problem could act. I think we need to think hard about who this is, and therefore who our audience is and where we should be aiming to have impact.

For example, in my research outcomes might be recommendations for how a Hungarian municipality can alter their drinking water management approach. My impact here should be at the municipality level. I can also have recommendations on how the public health authorities communicate with the municipality; and how the national ministries organize their drinking water improvement programmes. In which case my impact should be to the public health authorities and the environment ministry, respectively. From this particular study, I also contributed to discussions around the EU’s democratic deficit… but I cannot use my single case study finding to suggest how the EU should change their decision making procedures. Instead I publish, and intend that it contributes to the knowledge of someone with far more expertise in this than I have.

The role of our limits in impact

As highlighted above, sometimes findings from multiple researchers and projects need to be put together to be ‘policy-relevant’ and to create realistic solutions. Maybe as individual scientists we can’t do it all. Indeed, there is a whole area of research on knowledge brokers and boundary organisations about bridging between research and policy. Sometimes as impact-aware researchers, we should be investigating how to contribute to existing structures and organisations, instead of trying to re-invent the wheel with our own impact approaches.

I think as scientists we also need to be honest and self-aware around what we don’t understand. I don’t expect all ecologists (for example) to know how EU policy-making and governance works. But often, ecologists might like to think about where they try to feed their findings. There is not a single decision-maker, and not all information is relevant for the same kind of decision. Thinking about where information might be used should guide where we seek to intervene. But this is a 2-way criticism: the physical scientists should draw on their governance colleagues, and as governance researchers, we should get better at showing our relevance to our physical colleagues (maybe we should see it as a form of impact).

My own personal recommendations on impact for happy researchers

  • It’s OK if you can’t change the entire world tomorrow (yeah, I feel guilty about it too, but lets try not to).
  • Celebrate all forms of impact – with your colleagues, your research area, and through the relevance of your findings.
  • Appreciate those who impact upon you and your work.
  • Once you have recognized the impacts that you have, seek to enjoy and be good at those, targeting your efforts to be effective.
  • Be honest about what you can’t do, and work with people who know what you don’t so you can work together for impact.
  • Be honest about what you can do, and seek out those who might benefit from that so you can work together for impact.


Filed under Uncategorized