Looking to start a research group in Germany?

By Joern Fischer

The Alexander von Humboldt Foundation has just advertised its annual call for proposals for Sofja-Kovalevskaja Awards. This award is what funded me to move to Germany and start interdisciplinary work in Romania. I have nothing negative to say about this funding opportunity — the administrative burden really is very low, the reporting duties are very reasonable, and there is a lot of freedom to do good science. It’s a great opportunity, and I’m sure it must be one of the nicest ways to get started on building one’s own research group.

For those who are interested in this funding opportunity, there are a few things to note:

  • It is only possible to apply for people from outside Germany, or for Germans who were outside Germany for a long time.
  • It is really very competitive funding. I know at least one truly excellent candidate who was unlucky in securing this funding. It’s not really worth going for this unless others would perceive your CV as “outstanding”.
  • It pays to have strong referees, ideally from globally leading institutions.

To find out more about this funding opportunity, check out the funding call. For promising  candidates looking to come to Leuphana University in the fields of social-ecological systems, conservation biology, or sustainability science, I am happy to be contacted to discuss my potential involvement as a host.

Paper recommendation: integrated landscape approaches for the future

I would like to recommend the following paper:

Reed J,  Van Vianen J,  Deakin EL,  Barlow J,  Sunderland T. 2016. Integrated landscape approaches to managing social and environmental issues in the tropics: learning from the past to guide the futureGlob Chang Biol. 2016 Mar 17, DOI: 10.3410/f.726225411.793517151

Focusing on the tropics, this paper makes a strong case for further efforts on ‘landscape approaches’ to biodiversity conservation. Landscape approaches are defined as approaches that seek, at the same time, to tackle biodiversity conservation, food security, poverty alleviation and climate change. The paper urges researchers, policy makers and practitioners alike to continue their efforts on focusing on landscapes as units for the integration of multiple interests — with the goal of maximizing synergies, while minimizing and being aware of inevitable trade-offs.

Through its holistic, interdisciplinary and transdisciplinary focus, this paper is a welcome contrast to the dominant discourse in leading journals, which tends to be technocratic in nature {1}.


The intersection of food security and biodiversity conservation: a review, Glamann J, Hanspach J, Abson DJ, Collier N, Fischer J. Reg Environ Change. 2015 Oct 06; 

Nutrition and Food Systems: Comments to the HLPE for their forthcoming report

Jahi Chappell’s latest overview of key research frontiers, with a lot of useful references!


Cross-posted from IATP’s Think Forward blog:

Posted April 21, 2016 by Dr. M. Jahi Chappell

The Committee on World Food Security (CFS) is the foremost international and intergovernmental platform trying to address global food security and nutrition challenges. The current version of the CFS emerged following the food crises of 2008 as a result of a reform process that sought to increase stakeholder participation, especially participation by those engaged in small scale food production systems. Its High-Level Panel of Experts on Food Security and Nutrition (HLPE) mechanism was created in 2010 as part of the reform to be “the science-policy interface of the UN Committee on World Food Security (CFS),” and “aims to improve the robustness of policy making by providing independent, evidence-based analysis and advice at the request of CFS.”

Since its establishment, the HLPE has taken on issues related to…

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Missing the point or a key step in the right direction?

By Joern Fischer

Recently, I watched the documentary “Dukale’s Dream”, featuring Hugh Jackman and Tim Costello from World Vision. The movie depicts nicely what life in the coffee growing parts of Ethiopia is like, and many of the little details in it reflected closely what I had seen first hand in the field. But what about the approach to development being advocated in the movie — is it a key step in the right direction, or is it simply missing the point?

On the positive side, we can note that Hugh Jackman has been engaged with the issue of development for several years. His engagement went far beyond what many of us have done: donating substantial amounts of money, visiting development projects, speaking at the UN about climate change, and starting a fair-trade coffee company. And it’s clear that the work by World Vision depicted in this particular movie did positively affect the life of a poor coffee farmer and his family. These are all good things.

On the more critical side, we might feel that this movie leaves many important points unaddressed. Jeffrey Sachs is the only academic being interviewed as part of the movie — and he paints a distinctly pro-economic-growth picture of what development ought to look like. (Perhaps this is fair enough: strong economic growth in poor countries does correlate, after all, with improvements in people’s livelihoods. Or is so much missing from this equation that is is dangerously simplistic?) Similarly, the movie somehow leaves us with the notion that if we all drank only fair-trade coffee, development problems would automatically resolve themselves.

But many key questions remain unanswered: It’s nice that development worked for the particular farmer (Dukale) presented. But what about his neighbours? While Dukale is buying more land, is everyone else really benefiting from it, too, via trickle-down effects? Is it good enough to leave aside population growth from the equation, and wait for prosperity to do its thing to reduce fertility rates? Can we leave Western consumerism (and global capitalism?) untouched and still have “sustainable development” for all?

My own conclusion on this is that this movie does a very nice job of engaging its target audience. And while it leaves many of the more complex questions unanswered, I don’t think we currently have definitive answers or simple recipes. In short: an incomplete story, to me, but one worth listening to nevertheless. If nothing else, I’d highly recommend this movie as valuable food for thought.

Paper recommendation: human value shifts and conservation

I would like to recommend the following paper.

Implications of human value shift and persistence for biodiversity conservation

by Manfredo MJ,  Teel TL,  Dietsch AM, Conserv Biol. 2016 Apr30(2):287-96. (LINK)

 In addressing human values, this is one of few articles in mainstream conservation journals that deals with some of the deeper issues underlying the present environmental crisis. The paper shows that values change only very slowly, but that there is a general shift occurring (in the USA) from domination-oriented values towards mutualism-oriented values. This value change is slow, but goes in the general direction of a more sustainability-oriented humanity.

My only slight criticism of this paper is that the authors recommend focusing on working within people’s value systems, because changing value systems may be impractical. I would argue that these two options should not be framed as mutually exclusive: it seems reasonable to work within existing value systems, while also encouraging and fostering the shift in values that is (according to this study) already underway. This is particularly the case because the authors argue in their introduction that changes in values can be stimulated, for example, by being exposed to new information or crisis situations.

The dimension of human values is greatly under-researched in a conservation context. This paper is an authoritative empirical exception that will hopefully stimulate further work in this important area.

Being NEAR and FAR: The role of a formative accompanying researcher in the Leverage Points team

Reproduced from the Leverage Points blog — enjoy!

Leverage Points for Sustainability Transformation

Rebecca Freeth

When people ask me what my role is in the Leverage Points project, I tend to take a deep breath before embarking on an explanation. I start with what I’m not doing; I’m not looking at the content of sustainability transitions or the mechanisms of leverage points; I’m not studying food or energy systems in Lower Saxony or Transylvania as my colleagues are.  Actually, I hasten to add, I am deeply interested in all these things.  But I’ve travelled from Cape Town to Lüneburg to study the Leverage Points team itself, to learn about interdisciplinary and transdisciplinary research from the inside (well, from the boundary, with one foot in and one foot out, but that’s for another blog post) and to engender learning within the team itself.   So that we all end up a bit wiser about the how-to of research collaboration across disciplines or, to borrow Ulrike…

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(Mis-)Framing for Impact

By Joern Fischer

In our recent review of papers on the intersection of food security and biodiversity conservation, we showed that there was a “biophysical-technical” branch of work. This branch talks about food security, when actually, it’s largely about food production. A recent paper in Nature Communications provides a perfect example of some of the most widespread (mis-)framings in a food security context currently prevalent among scientists (especially natural scientists).

The paper is by Sattari et al. It’s on global phosphorus budgets, and it’s an interesting read. I see nothing wrong with the research as such, but I found its Abstract irritating. I’ll copy parts of it here, with the “offending” bits highlighted:

“Grasslands provide grass and fodder to sustain the growing need for ruminant meat and milk. Soil nutrients in grasslands are removed through withdrawal in these livestock products and through animal manure that originates from grasslands and is spread in croplands. …  Combined with requirements for cropland, we estimate that mineral P fertilizer use must double by 2050 to sustain future crop and grassland production. Our findings point to the need to better understand the role of grasslands and their soil P status and their importance for global food security.”

Framing is all about the hook to sell your paper, and it’s typically evident in the first sentence, and the last big “so-what”. Here, the authors chose to frame their paper around “the need” for more meat and milk, and “global food security”. Both of these statements show utter disregard for what actually drives food security. What’s growing is the global demand for meat and milk, especially in China and India (respectively). What’s at stake by producing more milk and meat is meeting the wants of the increasingly wealthy, not anyone’s needs (and especially not the need to the most food insecure people). Similarly, global food security is not currently limited by a lack of milk and meat — rather, the nations with the highest levels of consumption of these goods are most plagued by obesity.

Petty, perhaps, but it’s what continues to be sold to us by journals that pride themselves of being the most authoritative sources of the best science. Reading simplistic statements on global food security again and again in these journals shows a fundamental lack of respect and understanding for the difference between what is (high demand for meat) and what ought to be (e.g. sustainability); and an implicit and uncritical subjugation to growth-mania (accepting that growth is the thing that ought to be). You can just about bet that anything with an impact factor higher than 10 will routinely publish things under the banner of “food security” that are actually primarily about “global commodity production”. It’s time to realise that these are two different things!

I’m sorry to single out Sattari et al., and I repeat that their study seems quite fine to me — just not the framing in the Abstract. By continuing to accept overly simplistic framings in the context of “global food security”, we risk to continuously miss the point in our science and policy advice.

So, to all editors and authors engaged with high-impact journals: please stop perpetuating this unhelpful trend!


Self-perpetuating hierarchies and their effects on knowledge flows

By Joern Fischer

I recently had two interesting experiences, both involving colleagues from less wealthy countries. The first experience was hearing a stakeholder from an African country say that his country needed more of our knowledge and technologies, so it could move forward. The second experience was a researcher from Asia telling me that in her country, people didn’t develop theories, but rather relied on theories from the Global North. Those, in turn, were implemented, but not questioned or criticised.

It struck me that something interesting is going on here. Instead of taking pride in their systems knowledge, both of these individuals saw their country’s knowledge as somehow inferior to what is produced in wealthy countries. This may be true for some kinds of technologies — e.g. Germans build better cars than Tanzanians (sorry, guys, it was the first random African country that came to mind). But for many other kinds of things, the local knowledge is more likely to be just different, not inherently less valuable. It’s not a big secret that often, people from the Global North have gone to the Global South — and implemented “solutions” that ended up causing more harm than good.

What I find particularly interesting then, is that this pattern is being perpetuated (1) in two directions, and (2) beyond the initial observation that I highlighted above.

First, the duality of “knowledge provider” versus “knowledge recipient” is perceived by many individuals in the Global South, as I outlined above. But this doesn’t come out of nowhere, but rather, is being reinforced through science from the Global North routinely telling people what they ought to do — assuming that such science knows best. Science from the Global North might, for example, tell people where to intensify their land, how to irrigate, or which improved varieties to grow. If this suits local people may be considered, but often as an afterthought.

Second, a general attitude of dividing the world into “providers” versus “recipients” of knowledge is self-perpetuating beyond its origin. That is, the same academic from the Global South who accepts his role as “recipient” of better science coming from the North, is likely to also assume a role of “provider” of science to local people in this country. That is, a top-down extension model that is common in the Global South is in itself the same pattern of one-way knowledge transfer that can be observed between the Global North and the Global South. This gets a little bit ironic then when people from the Global North start to highlight that governance structures in the Global South (for example) do not take local people into account adequately!

So, what to do? Dualistic understandings of one-way knowledge flows need to be treated with great caution. Of course, sometimes one person primarily “provides” and the other primarily “receives” knowledge. But very often, mutual learning is possible and would arguably lead to better insights on both sides: Academics in the Global North can learn from those in the Global South. Scientists in the Global South can learn from smallholder farmers in their countries. Recognising that knowledge flows can go both ways breaks down traditional hierarchies that prevent innovative and holistic thinking.

I singled out this pattern with respect to the Global North and Global South, and with respect to academics versus on-ground stakeholders. That’s because this is the anecdote that made me think of it. But self-perpetuating hierarchies like this exist in many realms of life. To truly learn and generate insight, I argue that we will do best to break down such hierarchies much of the time.

Empires, credibility, and a happy workplace atmosphere

By Joern Fischer

Bigger is better in academic reward structures: more grants, more students, more papers, more impact factor. But is there a limit to how big research groups (or “labs”) ought to be? What are the pros and cons of big, medium, or large research groups in terms of producing quality science, scientific credibility, and a happy working environment?

I figured thinking through this could be interesting, but as you will see, I didn’t get very far! Let’s start with very small research groups. Small groups can produce very good science if the individual researchers are very good. This might be especially the case for subjects where it is not necessary to draw on many different kinds of expertise, or where individuals work largely on their own. Here, it’s really largely the quality of the individual researchers that matters. If they’re very good, the science produced will be very good – and nobody would have any doubts about its credibility. On the other hand, if the individuals are weak in some areas, there are few opportunities to buffer one another in such a situation (e.g. if there are three people, and none of the three is good at statistics, then the statistics ends up … well, just not very good!). And complex subject matters, which require multiple different perspectives probably can’t be dealt with very well in extremely small research groups.

Medium-sized groups then … the most obvious advantage here is individuals can buffer one another more effectively, and there are more opportunities for mutual learning and collaboration. There is also the chance of having the beginnings of a “critical mass” of people who collectively can push forward a common approach or idea. In medium-sized groups, communication within the group is still quite straightforward, and the potential for people to be happy (in a social sense) is quite high.

What about really big groups? Well, they are clearly the most prolific. A glance at google scholar suggests that several of the world’s leading conservation scientists now produce over 50 publications a year, for example. So, is this the way to go, something to be frowned upon – or just something that needs to be managed very carefully? To start with, I guess the benefit of having a critical mass cannot be denied in such big groups. They are basically “centres”, though often somewhat more coherent in subject area because they are run by a single senior academic. On the downside, various risks also increase in really large groups. There’s a risk that the quality of the individual researchers in the group can’t be consistently high – it’s more difficult to hire large numbers of truly excellent people all at the same time than to hire a small number of truly excellent people. And then there’s the risk that people will be impressed by, but at the same time cynical, about very large groups: can anyone really contribute meaningfully to more than 50 papers a year? (I’m not sure, but I am sure that many people would say “no”!) And finally, there’s also the risk that overall group cohesion is lower, partly because communication within a large group is much more difficult. And so, very large groups in reality often split into a number of smaller sub-groups.

In the end then, if such sub-groups are working well, there is no reason to believe that large groups should be inherently less pleasant to be part of than small ones. They might even be particularly nice because they have a critical mass of like-minded people. If their governance is organized sensibly, perhaps large groups are in fact the best research environments … ? Or perhaps it’s small groups for some purposes, and larger ones for other purposes?

As I’m approaching the end of this blog post, I have not reached a definitive conclusion on what to make of academic group sizes. Perhaps size is just not an interesting feature in its own right: perhaps it’s how the group is run that matters in terms of the quality of the science and the workplace atmosphere … I’d be interested in people’s thoughts! What do you think, and what are your experiences with small versus large research groups?

A synthesis for everyone: 5 years of work in Romania

By Joern Fischer

After five years of work in Southern Transylvania, our first main project there has now officially finished. Our project website provides an overview of all of our research outputs as well as outreach materials. In an effort to provide an accessible overview of the various things we did, we have just completed a small book that tries to bring everything together. This book could be useful for NGOs in Romania, for engaged citizens and community leaders; but it might also be useful for researchers working on similar issues elsewhere to get a sense for how others go about this kind of work.

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Like our booklet on scenario planning, this new book is published by Pensoft, and is open access. This means you are free to download it and share it with whoever you think may be interested in it.

With this project coming to an end (there are still three or so papers in the pipeline…), one might wonder: what next? Well, we do continue to be involved in Central Romania, albeit in a slightly different way. With the new project “Leverage Points for Sustainability Transformation“, we’ll try to address some of the deeper challenges underpinning un-sustainability. So stay tuned …