Turning hurt into impact (?)

By Joern Fischer

“I can’t afford to buy pencils for my daughter, who needs them for school.” – This was the response by a woman in our study area in the SW of Ethiopia when asked about her biggest challenges. The SW is one of the most food-secure parts of Ethiopia, and yet, by international standards, many people in this part of the country live in severe poverty, and are afraid of food insecurity in most years.

For me, engaging with issues of poverty first-hand stirs up a potent mix of strong emotions, including empathy, hurt, anger, impotence, and a sense of shame. It hurts to see people who deserve a good life have fundamentally worse access to things that I take for granted – material safety, schools, doctors. It makes me angry that the world is full of poverty, and yet, in the rich nations we still fiddle around the edges, and by and large, are happy to exploit the poverty of others to make our lives yet more comfortable. I feel a sense of impotence by not knowing what to do about it, and a sense of shame that I will be publishing research on these issues, yet I cannot help very well in tangible terms.

How can a researcher navigate such feelings? This question is work-in-progress for me, in the sense that I’m far better at offering a theory for this than living it in practice. My current understanding is that all of these feelings are worth experiencing. But being caught in them achieves nothing, and so they should be noted, but then left to settle. Caught up in strong emotions, we don’t function well as researchers, and both our science and potential to have real-world impact will suffer.

Ultimately, then, when the strong feelings have settled, they can turn into motivation: Motivation to question one’s research, frame problems in ways that are relevant to the “subjects” being studied, and motivation to generate impact. Impact, in this context, is likely to be diffuse. As researchers, we generate an understanding of complex challenges – we can’t single-handedly implement solutions, especially not in messy situations that don’t lend themselves to ideal-typical transdisciplinary research. Yet, even when it’s difficult, we can think about how to best engage a variety of different stakeholders so that we can be of use not only to the international scientific community but also to the stakeholders in the system under investigation.

I wrote about poverty in the above, but the same is true for other normative research endeavours. If I care about conservation, it hurts to see landscapes cleared of forest. If I care about climate change, it hurts to see policy failures. I argue that engaging with these feelings, and reflecting on them, is important to channel our energy wisely – to prioritise where to work, what to work on, and how to work on it.

PS: Why did I write this post? Because I figured I’m probably not the only person struggling with these issues; and because it’s the kind of thing that is not being talked about in (most) scientific papers. Yet, the context of science is just as important in shaping our science as the intellectual questions we are so much more used to debating. 

Transylvanian Transdisciplinarity: Before the Beginning

Check out the original at leveragepoints.org — a nice project here at Leuphana! This post was written by Julia Leventon.

Leverage Points for Sustainability Transformation

On Friday 8th January, Andra, Daniel and I headed out to Transylvania for a week of ‘scoping’ fieldwork. Our aim was to come up with some practical options for the transdisciplinary case study in Romania. More information on the case studies and their role in the project is here. In this blog post, I will just give and overview of the highlights of the trip, and a few key emerging discussions.

Highlight 1: The richness of opportunity

Prior to the trip, Andra had invested a lot of time into locating organisations and projects with potential for collaboration. She drew a lot on her experience from her PhD work in Joern Fischer’s sustainable landscapes project, and with assistance from Tibi Hartel. We therefore met with a range of organisations and were able to present the Leverage Points project and ourselves, and hear about an extensive…

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From counting carbon to commodifying nature: the per-analytical ties that bind

Recently I read an article in the Guardian with the headline “The solution for the melting polar ice caps may be hiding in the rainforest”. It was written by Dr Paul Salaman, the CEO of Rainforest Trust. The article was, at least tangentially, about a recent paper by Houghton et al. in Nature Climate Change about the carbon stored in the tropical forests (which can be found here). The Houghton et al. paper is purely a biophysical assessment of net primary productivity in rainforests. Dr Salaman used that scientific paper as a starting point to argue:

“Rainforest conservation is also incredibly economical. One acre of Amazon rainforest in Peru, which stores up to 180 metric tonnes of CO2, can be protected for just a few dollars; the same is true elsewhere in Latin America and Africa. The implications here are astounding and should give us pause: for the cost of a meal – or even a coffee – each of us could save an area of forest about the size of four football pitches and safely store about 725 metric tonnes of CO2. To put this in perspective, the annual emissions of a typical passenger vehicle in the United States is less than 4.5 metric tonnes of CO2.”

On reading this I had two thoughts (two more than my usual daily ration). My first thought was: “Hmm he is confusing stocks and flows…” This is not a very helpful way of relating a stock carbon in standing trees to reducing emissions, which are flows.

My second thought was: “Why am I letting this technical issue (stocks versus flows) occupy my mind when there is a much bigger and more important issue of ‘pre-analytical frames’ To be honest I not sure where the term ‘pre-analytical frames’ comes from or even if it exists, as I understand it, outside my own befuddled mind. For what it is worth, to me, pre-analytical frames are those, often unexplored, views and assumptions we hold about the world. By this I don’t just mean the really abstract stuff like ontology and epistemology, but also more pragmatic things like our ideas of progress, justice, the role of science in society, social and ethical norms.

So why do pre-analytical frames matter in science? Both the paper and the newspaper article essentially frame the conservation of rainforests as being of instrumental value to humanity. Because rainforests can sequester carbon we appropriate and burn from elsewhere it buys us precious time to change our polluting ways. The paper provides an essentially a consequentialist, pre-analytical framework for making judgements about conserving the rainforests (things will be better if we do). Dr Salaman deftly takes this broad consequentialist starting point to provide a narrower utilitarian argument, and one based on aggregate utility maximization (another pre-analytical frame) – no consideration of the distribution of costs and benefits of that choice. I would argue there are many other important underpinning assumptions such as Dr Salaman’s call for buying rainforests, because it is an “economical” means of mitigating climate change, implying that notions such as efficiency and cost effectiveness are the metric by which we should judge such choices. What role does that leave for notions such as rights, justice, or responsibility (as expressed in traditional deontological arguments for conservation)?

There is an argument that multiple ethical arguments can co-exist, that we can simultaneously ascribe to utilitarian and deontological ethical arguments for conservation. Certainly I would say I do this as an individual, even if it is sometimes awkward. However, the rub (as I see it) is that that adherence to these ethical frameworks is to some extent a social construct. Our ethics and world views are shapes by our experiences, relationships, and what we learn (and are told) about the world. This matters because, we can reinforce and legitimize certain ethical framings through the institutions of science and the pre-analytical frames science is built on.

Science holds a unique position in our societies. Scientific knowledge has legitimacy, and therefore power, because it is still seen as disinterested, observation of the world. However, here I would argue that science is built on a tradition of instrumentalization of the world. When science abstracts complex reality it has traditionally done so with the questions like “what causes this”, or “how does this effect that”. And indeed Utilitarianism itself comes out of the same tradition. Science and Utilitarianism share some of the same pre-analytical frames. So when traditional descriptive (describing states of the world), natural sciences evolves into normative (making judgements about states of the world) science, like conservation biology, it seems natural that it gravitates towards an instrumentalist (i.e. utilitarian) ethical framing, even if the individual scientists hold quite different personal ethical positions.

I would argue that because other ethical frameworks are not so amenable to instrumentalization, they do not receive the same legitimization through science. I believe this can lead to an, unintended, crowding out of other equally legitimate ethical framings for conservation science and sustainability science more generally. This crowding out is both in terms of dominant social and political discourses and ethical crowding where one ethical framework becomes the legitimate framing for judging states of the world. For example, the influential planetary boundaries discourse, is largely premised on and legitimizes an (aggregated) consequentialist ethical framing of sustainability. Ditto for the land sparing versus land sharing debate (with added assumptions about efficiency as an intrinsic good; food security as a technical rather than social problem; scientists as those responsible for defining how states of world should be judged etc, etc..).

So, what does these all mean (other than rehash of an old, possibly tired, debate)? Well for me it suggests that we need to think more about the scientific models we create. We should be mindful of the pre-analytic frames our models are the based on, and what discourse and values these in turn legitimize. I know there are thoughtful, erudite debates on these issues in the literature, but these ‘academic’ debates seem very isolated from the ‘sharp end’ of conservation and sustainability science.

As scientists not just our models of the world, but also our methods and metrics shaped by these value laden pre-analytical frames. Here Shannon diversity is not a million miles from $ per hectare in terms of the strength of the worldview that shapes that measure. Not that that there is anything wrong with those methods, metrics, or models (I thought I might not be able to slip an alliteration in here but that is quite smooth!), their normativity is unavoidable. For me it is crucially that if our science makes judgements about states of the world, in however an abstract of unattended way, it behoves us to make the basis for those pre-analytical judgments as transparent as we do the methods by which we do our science. A discussion of these, to me, fundamentally important issues seems puzzlingly missing from ‘every day science’.


As always I would be very interested in others’ opinions.

The Chocó-Project: sustainable livelihoods and conservation in one of the most biodiverse places on Earth

Note by Joern: The following post is by Felix Nasser, one of our students at Leuphana University Lueneburg. Our student community has many individuals who are very engaged in “making things happen”, rather than only studying. Felix has been involved with an initiative that specifically seeks to bring fair-trade chocolate to our town — Lueneburg, while also improving conservation outcomes on the farms where the chocolate is grown. You can support the efforts by this very engaged group of students through a crowdfunding campaign – but only for two more weeks. Felix shares the details below.


After changing buses and 4X4s, we were once again at the back of a 4×4, finally getting closer to our destination: The small farming community of “Tesoro Escondido”. Crossing a turquoise coloured river on a ferry run by a timber company, we left behind the green deserts of palm oil plantations and found ourselves in forested mountains. A different atmosphere, different shades of green and toucans and aras flying over the tree tops. One hour later, we finally reached “Tesoro Escondido”. It belongs to the Tumbes-Chocó-Magdalena region, which expands from Peru to Panama and is home to roughly 200 species of mammals, 600 birds, 100 reptiles and 120 amphibians as well as 190 species of butterflies. Some of the highest numbers of endemic plants in South America can be found in this region. Like most biodiverse places the region is under severe threat. In Ecuador alone about 98% of native costal rainforests have been cleared, making it the most threatened tropical rainforest in the world.

Tesoro Escondido is situated in these remaining 2 % of intact coastal rainforests, making it a unique place that therefore experiences severe pressure through illegal logging as well as road and agricultural expansion. The destruction of these forests would mean the extinction of many endemic species, like the brown headed spider monkey. Thus a solution towards the conservation of its flora and fauna faces a wide range of obstacles

In 2015, I was very fortunate and had the opportunity to visit these last intact costal rainforest in Ecuador and to be a part of an innovative project that works to preserve it. I am a graduate Student of environmental and sustainability sciences at the Leuphana University and went to “Tesoro Escondido” on several occasions during my semester abroad. I met the people who started the Chocó-Projekt after they had been searching for a sustainable solution for years. They finally found only one: linking communities, Ecuadorian nongovernmental organisations and national and international researchers. Initially their plan was to save the forest and especially the brown headed spider monkey. They soon realised that this could only happen by considering the needs and expectations of the local communities.

They created a mutual agreement between cocoa farmers and project initiators (NGO Proyecto Washu, University of Sussex and buyers) to provide the farmers with an access to an appropriate market for their high quality chocolate, training courses and legal help on land right issues while farmers agree to save forests and its inhabitants and to use biodiversity friendly farming methods. This year they started to create a sustainable chocolate business that seeks to refund the project costs.

Anyone who is interested, please feel free to contribute to the project and its current crowd funding campaign. There are only two weeks left.


And for those who enjoy a good and fair organic drinking chocolate, can do so with the SchokoLüne. Naturally produced in “Tesoro Escondido”.

Searching for questions: global development issues to prioritise in 2016

I’m re-blogging this post originally posted on the “One Billion Hungry” blog canwefeedtheworld.wordpress.com . Please be sure to visit the original site, too, which often has interesting articles.

One Billion Hungry: Can We Feed the World?

ID-10085673 Image by Ventrilock from freedigitalphotos.net

As 2016 begins many international development issues are threatening to intensify – the crisis in Syria and the thousands of people now refugees, the growing global power of ISIS, and the World Bank’s recently released flagship report, Global Economic Prospects, which predicts a “perfect storm” of financial turmoil coupled with slowing of growth in emerging markets this year. A recent article named the 10 news stories most likely to dominate the news this year as being:

  1. The Syrian refugee crisis
  2. Climate change
  3. Data security
  4. The US presidential election
  5. Regulating drones And self-driving cars
  6. Gun violence
  7. ISIS
  8. Global internet access
  9. Regulating the sharing economy (companies such as Airbnb and Uber)
  10. Online social justice

And while news organisations are looking ahead to the events that will shape the world in 2016, others are focused on how we can prevent and solve some of these global development…

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NEW PAPER: Functional diversity of butterfly and bird communities in Southern Transylvania


Just a few days ago the December issue of Ecosystem Health and Sustainability went online. Two things are interesting in that issue. First, a new paper from our Romania project has been published there, and second, the cover features one of the villages in our study area.

Cover of the December issue of the journal. I took the picture when we were doing bear sign surveys in 2012 and shows the village of Biertan.

Cover of the December issue of the journal. I took the picture when we were doing bear sign surveys in 2012. It shows the village of Biertan. The fortified church of Biertan is listed as a UNESCO World Heritage site.

In the paper we studied how trait composition of butterfly and bird communities relates to environmental variables in order to get a more mechanistic understanding of what drives biodiversity in this farming landscape. This is particularly interesting because currently this landscape is subject to land use changes – agricultural intensification in some places and abandonment of pastures and arable fields in other areas which will have substantial biodiversity effects. We found in our study that functional diversity strongly correlated with taxonomic diversity and that land use type was the strongest driver of butterfly trait composition (especially correlating with life history strategies) and that amounts of woody vegetation were most strongly linked to bird traits (especially nesting and foraging strategies). Importantly, both land abandonment and intensification would therefore directly influence bird and butterfly communities via their functional traits. Maintaining a small-scale mosaic of different land cover types and gradients of woody vegetation throughout the landscape would be desirable to maintain a high functional diversity in the region in the future.

This paper is part of a special feature on “Ecosystem Management in Transition in Central and Eastern Europe” in which we have already published another paper (see our recent blog post here).

Trandisciplinarity in a messy world

By Joern Fischer

In pursuit of sustainability, many have argued for the need for “transdisciplinary” research. Such research, ideally, is meant to be co-defined, and carried out in close collaboration with stakeholders – who double-act as decision-makers and thus solution-implementers. This solution-orientation defines sustainability science. But in a messy world, does this work?

The more I have thought about this, the more critical I have become of the idea of transdisciplinarity as defined above. At the same time, I don’t believe we ought to throw out the baby with the bath water (such a horrible metaphor!), and I think there are many good things about transdisciplinarity that we ought to keep. So in this post, I want to highlight three problems with an overly rigid type of transdisciplinarity, and then give a short outlook of what I think is worth keeping.

Co-defining problems with stakeholders may mean scratching the surface. Stakeholders are often quite specific in their outlook. By definition, they are interested in a given problem from the perspective of how it affects their stake in it. As a result, many transdisciplinary projects appear to work on extremely tangible, but rather simple problems. Messy problems that cannot be resolved via a simple research process often aren’t even targeted because they are not the problems of choice, of either stakeholders or researchers.

There may be no interested stakeholders. The idea of transdisciplinarity often goes hand in hand with the idea of a “decision-maker”. What if there is not one decision maker, but instead, a complex governance system? Or what if the decision-makers are disinterested in what other stakeholders are interested in – or even work actively against it? Reducing oneself as a scientist to wanting to work with (decision-making) stakeholders means reducing oneself to situations where there are “benevolent dictators”. Where those situations exist, by all means, engaging with these good queens and kings and helping them make good decisions is great. But messy systems with a diversity of conflicting views are much more common. Complex problems, quite possibly, can’t be solved but only navigated (with thanks to Dave Abson for this point!).

Stakeholders may be uninformed about some of the most important problems. Related to the first limitation of only scratching the surface, stakeholders may simply not know about certain problems that scientists do know about. For example, scientists knew about climate change long before stakeholders starting being interested in climate change. Letting stakeholders define problems thus is empowering for them – but it can mean ignoring the fact that scientists do know certain things, very well, and possibly much better than many stakeholders. Especially for problems that are looming on the horizon, it’s entirely possible that you won’t find stakeholders to work with on these problems. Yet, those problems ought to be worked on.

So, with these three problems, what’s worth keeping about transdisciplinarity? I think deep down it’s its “vibe” (has anyone seen “The Castle”? Never mind …) that is worth keeping. Deep down, transdisciplinarity is about respecting non-research stakeholders, respecting their knowledge, engaging with them, and helping them do better through one’s research. It’s this moral basis of transdisciplinarity that I believe we can apply to just about all settings, because it’s grounded in something so deep that it makes sense irrespective of context. For processes of transdisciplinarity, this means they have to be flexible and tailored to a given situation. There’s no right way of doing transdisciplinary science, no right level of transdisciplinarity, and no inherently greater value in co-defining problems with stakeholders. Rather, if the motivation underpinning stakeholder engagement is right, the rest will probably follow.

Linear vs. non-linear ways of knowledge integration

By Joern Fischer

Just a few days ago, I spoke with a colleague about integration of research findings across scales of enquiry, and across disciplinary domains. We discussed this in the context of complex research projects that involve multiple components. It struck me there seemed to be two ways of knowledge integration that have different pros and cons.

The first is “linear” integration. You can picture this one as a flowchart, where one bit of knowledge flows to another, and where several boxes merge in one place. Such flowchart, or linear, integration is common in research projects. I see two main strengths for this. The first is intellectual rigour and transparency. Because you have mapped out an integration path from the beginning, you now collect the pieces of the puzzle, align them – and then you’re done. Anyone can follow this process because it’s transparent. The second advantage is that you can plan from the outset to have your data be in formats that fit together nicely. So, for example, your economic component can feed into the integration box, as can your ecological component – and if it’s planned well, you might find out something about the cost-effectiveness of alternative conservation methods. So, linear integration lends itself to integration via formal, quantitative models.

The second way of integration is “nonlinear”. This one may be pictured as a cloud of bits of knowledge about a system. Initially, you target the system of interest from a range of different perspectives. These could be disciplinary perspectives, or different scales, or a mixture of both. These perspectives may focus on the system in very different ways, including entirely different sets of methods. When it’s all said and done, all bits of knowledge thus generated can be visualized as points within a cloud. The system, in this analogy, is the whole cloud, and somehow, you never know the whole cloud. But if you have scattered your points nicely throughout it, when you step back and squint at your system, you start to see it nevertheless. This type of integration is non-linear, and difficult to plan. An advantage is that you might find things you could otherwise overlook, because you have no pre-conceived idea of how things might fit together. An obvious downside is that integration here is much more an art than a science (we’re squinting at a cloud, for crying out loud!).

Which is better? It probably depends on the purpose. My own research tends to favour the second approach, for better or worse.

Influential conservation papers of 2015

I re-blogged this from the ConservationBytes blog, where Corey Bradshaw provided an interesting summary of some of the most notable conservation papers in 2015. Be sure to visit the original blog, too!


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How to deal with bad reviews

Recently a paper I co-authored came back with three reviews from a reputable and respected journal, one of which was very bad. By which I don’t mean that the reviewer did not like the paper (although they absolutely did not), but rather that is was just a horribly written review. The entire review was less than 250 words long and consisted of eight bullet points which I will summarize below (and these genuinely are the extent of the reviewers critiques):

1) “Your hypothesis is flawed”. We had no hypothesis, which makes this statement a bit puzzling to say the least, particularly when no explanation whatsoever of those flaws were provided.
2) “Your work is not innovative” Again absolutely no explanation of why this is the case.
3) “This sentence is inconsistent” No explanation of inconsistent with what, or why it is inconsistent.
4) “You should discuss this thing” Which we already discuss in some detail.
5) “You failed to cite the right papers”. Without providing any idea of what the ‘right’ papers are how can the authors possibly know what the reviewer thinks is missing? Are we supposed to just randomly add new literature in the hopes of hit on those papers the reviewer (secretly) thinks are important?
6) “The use of the second person is sign of poor quality”. As opposed to a perfectly reasonable, and easily replaceable, stylistic choice?
7) “Don’t cite papers that are not published yet”. Despite the fact the Journal guidelines expressly allow you to do just that.
8) “Your reference list is incomplete”. Fair enough they got us on that one.

The reviewer recommended rejection. As it happens the other two reviews, while both disappointingly brief, liked the paper and recommended very minor revisions. However, it is entirely possible that based on this ’review’ that this paper could have been rejected. I believe there is something fundamentally wrong a paper being rejected based on the subjective, unsupported assertions of a very unprofessional reviewer.

So how do we deal with this? Well for this paper I think the solution is easy, we simple state to the handling editor that we do not believe it is possible to meaningfully engage with such an unconstructive assertions and therefore, apart from fixing the reference list, we will simply ignore this review (it deserves nothing more). In more general terms I think we need a change in peer-review culture.

When a handling editor receives a review like this I believe the correct thing to do is thank the reviewer, but clearly state to the reviewer that the review is not of sufficient rigour or quality (explaining why) and therefore will not be used in the peer-review process.

With reviewers I think that all is really needed is for us to think about what sort of reviews we want to receive and make sure that if we accept the invitation to review a paper that we provide one of the type of quality we ourselves would wish to receive. My personal checklist for a quality review would include:

1) Don’t make arguments by assertion. If, for example, you think a paper is not novel enough point out where the ideas have been presented before, just saying the paper is “not novel” is entirely unconstructive and provide no help for the authors in improving the manuscript.
2) If you think literature is missing say what that literature is and why it matters.
3) Acknowledge that just because you don’t like a particular approach that does not make it wrong.
4) Provide examples. If, for example, you don’t think the conclusions match the findings, provide illustrative examples of where this is the case.
5) Don’t ask the authors to add lots of new text/references, when the paper is already at the word count/reference count limit.
6) Don’t ask the author to cite your papers, unless doing so would change the paper in some substantive way. If your work is cited but the paper is fine without it, sorry but that is just tough cheese. You should not try and strong arm others into cite your work.

I would be particularly interested to hear others reviewing does and don’t.