Join Leuphana University for a postdoc … or more

By Joern Fischer and Berta Martín-Lopez

We’re writing this post to highlight some of the options for people who already have their PhDs to join us at Leuphana University. We’d particularly like to encourage expressions of interest with direct relevance to our existing research priorities in the area of social-ecological systems (including but not limited to these). Especially for people from outside Germany there are some really good options to join us for a postdoc or “more” … we’ll outline four possibilities below. (Follow the links to check the specific rules!)

  1. A fellowship by the Alexander von Humboldt Foundation. This option is open to people with a PhD at all stages of their scientific career who live outside Germany; or who have only arrived in Germany very recently. For people within the first four years of the PhD, you can apply for postdoc positions of up to 2 years; if it’s been longer, you can still apply for fellowships up to 18 months (and these can even be divided into multiple stays). In all cases, there is a comfortable living stipend as well as some funds to do actual research.
  2. A Georg Forster fellowship by the Alexander von Humboldt Foundation. This is very similar in terms of the conditions to Option 1 outlined above, but specifically targeting applicants from a list of less developed countries.
  3. A Marie-Curie Fellowship. This is a competitive programme by the EU that provides funding for a 2-year postdoc.
  4. A Sofja Kovalevskaja Award by the Alexander von Humboldt Foundation. This is a very competitive programme, and it remains to be seen when the next call comes out for it. But … if and when there is a new call, it’s a great programme that can truly transform your research career. In short, it’s five years of funding to set up your own research group; it’s open to people within six years of the PhD.

There are, of course, other options as well — for example Jan Hanspach leads a BMBF junior research group, and Jacqueline Loos is a Bosch Junior Professor — but the above are some of the most accessible ones for people from outside Germany who finished their PhDs in the not too distant past. So, if you have a strong track record relative to your career stage, and you’re interested in pursuing your social-ecological research amongst a bunch of nice colleagues, we’d be happy to hear from you, and discuss your ideas and a possible application.

Creating pockets of sanity: an ecosystem analogy

By Joern Fischer

In my previous post, I argued that academia had gone increasingly insane. Here, I will draw an analogy to degraded ecosystems – in fact, I’ll draw an analogy with scattered trees in agricultural landscapes. Such trees have been termed “the living dead”, in the sense that they are the remnants of forest patches but in many frontier landscapes they are not regenerating. Are pockets of sanity in the academic system the living dead?

By pockets of sanity, I mean safe spaces in which reflectivity, focus and shared commitment to a greater good is valued; essentially I mean healthy academic environments. Just like with scattered trees, such healthy academic environments persist in only a few places, while the majority of the academic landscape has been converted to intensive, intellectual mass production.

So in this sense, scattered trees are the living dead, and pockets of sanity in the academic system could similarly be thought of as the living dead – they are not able to reproduce in an evolutionary environment that selects against their traits.

But … there’s also an upside to this. Many years ago, Adrian Manning pointed out that scattered trees could also be a “lifeline to the future”. That is, in a world beyond the initial wave of ecological destruction for the sake of industrial agriculture, scattered trees hold the genetic potential to re-build some of what was destroyed.

And in just the same way, the pockets of academic sanity that still persist become disproportionately more important as the world around them gets more and more “intensified”. There’s one big difference though: trees have no agency; humans do. And thus, we have a choice to keep some pockets of sanity, to keep pushing back against insanity, and to thus maintain pockets of focused and meaningful academic work, in environments that care about the people involved.

Of course, this analogy can be extended infinitely to the world at large… especially for those of us expecting some kind of societal collapse, it’s important to maintain some kind of hope. Perhaps not the hope that everything will be alright: but instead, the hope that we can maintain pockets through the current storm of insanity that can serve as a lifeline to the future … eventually.

Collapse?

By Joern Fischer

Many years ago, I published “Academia’s obsession with quantity”. Similar arguments about unhelpful trends have been made in many places, including recently in a nice piece by Paasche and Österblom. My sense is increasingly that many university systems are deeply broken already. Arguably, we have a new wave of “crowding out” unfolding: Just like many visionary and talented people don’t get into politics (because what you need there is not just talent and vision but a thick skin and a big ego), I’d argue that we are seeing many of the truly talented people dropping out of academia (for much the same reasons).

In the past, I argued there were changes needed from the bottom up as well as from the top down. Re-reading that analysis from years ago, I still think it mostly holds. I reproduce a key part of the 2012 paper here:

roadmap

So, are we moving in the right direction, or if not, why not?

Unfortunately, I believe there are very few academic institutions in the world that are moving in the right direction. The societal pull towards insanity is strong, and not even the most wonderful institution is immune to the forces towards “more” which so dominate our era at large. Moreover, there are truly dangerous undercurrents that suck academia ever more deeply into the depths of insanity. One of the most dangerous undercurrents is of an evolutionary nature: those who “make it” to positions of decision-making power in academia are increasingly not those who value the kinds of things I highlighted in the roadmap above.

To stylise the current predicament, one might argue we have four types of academics: (i) those who can actually keep up and do an amazing job; (ii) those who think they can keep up and think they do an amazing job (but they do not); (iii) those who realise they can’t keep up but don’t know what to do; and (iv) those who simply collapsed and are functioning well below their actual capacity.

If we were to put percentages onto these groups of people, those who actually do really well in terms of the quality of what they do are very, very few. Those who think they are doing great things, in turn, are more, and it’s this group who manages to climb university ladders because they “perform” so nicely. It’s only when you speak to their students, see their actual input into papers, and so on that you realise that all is not well at all—you have to look deeply to uncover such instances because on paper the performance of many in this group looks very compelling.

It’s not uncommon then, for example, that senior professors get together, sell their science as inter- and transdisciplinary in order to get project funding; and then put in little time into either inter- or transdisciplinary collaboration, and sometimes not even into supervision (what are postdocs for, after all?). It’s not uncommon for the students involved in such projects to be deeply lost and disappointed by the process; and it’s not uncommon for the whole thing to then be sold back to the funding body as a “big success”. This story is something that repeats itself over and over at not just one university.

If I’m right, this is a self-enhancing process of maladaptive evolution: university institutions will increasingly become mediocre mass producers of scholarly “stuff”, produced on the backs of not yet over-committed PhD students and postdocs, whose products are used as highly prized chess pieces in political games among senior professors. The students and postdocs who stay and continue the climb up university ladders are not the brightest, but the toughest.

The situation raises serious questions about whether to engage or escape. With many other systems equally sick, escaping is not necessarily a feasible option. I see an urgent need for those who truly want to change things to stick with our academic institutions for a little longer; keep challenging the status quo; and bring about better ways of working from the bottom up.

Why am I writing this post? Because in an era of widespread insanity, I believe there is a need for solidarity among those who are not interested in simply keeping up with what I called earlier an “ever-faster treadmill to intellectual nowhere”. As a colleague of mine said a few days ago: just because everyone else is running increasingly fast to fall off the cliff like a lemming, that in itself is hardly a good justification to join the crowd. And hence my plea is to walk the tightrope between engaging with a sick system, while trying to uphold different norms within small pockets wherever we can …

to be continued in the next blog post ….

The impacts of social-ecological system change on human-nature connectedness: A case study from Transylvania, Romania

A new paper by Ágnes Balázsi, co-written with people from Leuphana. Our empirical work on “reconnecting” people and nature is beginning to come out, yay!

Leverage Points for Sustainability Transformation

By Ágnes Balázsi

How were social and institutional shifts of the last century perceived by communities of rural areas in Transylvania and how have those changes influenced the connectedness of locals with nature and their landscapes? – These were the starting research questions in our case studies carried out in 2017 in Erdővidék and Aranyosszék. The answers were revealed to us because locals shared stories about their perceptions on landscape changes and confessions about inner connections to nature.

In our recently published paper we distinguished four major governance eras that have influenced human-nature connections:

(1) formal and informal institutional governance after the World Wars and before socialism (before 1947), (2) top-down governance during socialism (1947–1989),

(3) during sovereign state governance and transition to European Union (1990–2006), and

(4) multilevel governance since European Union accession (after 2007).

Agnes

The two areas were similar at the beginning of the 20th century, but developed…

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Congratulations, Dr. Girma Shumi Dugo!

By Joern Fischer

About a week ago, our project on food security and biodiversity conservation culminated in yet another completed PhD! Girma Shumi Dugo successfully defended his thesis. Congratulations Girma!

Girma’s thesis had an emphasis on biodiversity conservation, but also included several social-ecological aspects. The overall focus of the thesis was on woody vegetation, including its conservation values but also its values to local people.

Following a synthesis chapter, Girma’s first data chapter investigated woody vegetation in forest sites. This work found that many forest sites were highly species rich, especially in undisturbed locations deep within the forest. Historical effects and edge effects appeared to influence species richness and composition. This first data paper was published in Biological Conservation.

The second data paper is also published already, namely in Diversity and Distributions. This paper looked at woody species composition and richness in farmland areas. It found there was a significant effect of landscape history — and possibly an immigration credit. That is, sites in long-established farmland locations had a higher number of pioneer and generalist species than sites in recently established farmland.

The third data chapter in the thesis is currently in revision; it examines the relationship between the diversity of woody vegetation in plots throughout the landscape with the diversity of ecosystem services generated by woody vegetation in those plots. The findings suggest that woody species diversity leads to landscape multi-functionality, and that all land use types in the study area (farmland, coffee forest, forest without coffee) are essentially multifunctional.

Finally, the last chapter contains a detailed inventory of which species are used by local people for which different purposes. Nearly 100 species of woody vegetation are used by local people for 11 different purposes — this chapter thus demonstrates that woody vegetation is vital to the lives of local people. The chapter is in the final round of minor revisions for publication in Ecosystems and People.

A big congratulations to Girma for a well-rounded thesis!

New paper – Capital asset substitution as a coping strategy: practices and implications for food security and resilience in southwestern Ethiopia

By Aisa Manlosa

Smallholder farmers in various parts of the world often have to cope with a range of livelihoods-related challenges. These challenges may be associated with a lack in the capital assets they need to implement their livelihoods, or to food shortage. How farmers cope with these challenges has an impact on their food security and resilience. We investigated farmer’s coping strategies using capital asset substitution as an analytical lens. We sought to address the following questions: (1) How do smallholder farming households cope with shortage in capital assets and shortage of food?; (2) What role does capital asset substitution play in coping strategies?; (3) How do different types of capital asset substitution influence a given household’s state of capital assets, and what are the implications for their resilience and food security? The paper which is newly published in Geoforum, is available here.

03_Landscape_cows

A common view of the landscape in southwest Ethiopia showing people’s homes, gardens, and livestock in a farm field. (Photo taken by Jan Hanspach)

The study was conducted in southwestern Ethiopia where our team has been doing research since 2015. The analysis was based on qualitative data from an open-ended section of a survey with over 300 respondents and from semi-structured interviews with a subset of 30 interviewees. Data from the survey provided information about the common livelihood challenges in the study area, while semi-structured interviews provided substantive narratives concerning how people coped with the challenges, and the outcomes of their coping strategies.

In sum, the study revealed that “most commonly identified challenges were related to the natural capital such as crop raiding, and land scarcity. Households coped in various ways and most of their strategies involved drawing on the capital assets they had access to in processes of capital asset substitution. Coping strategies that involved drawing on social and human capitals which were very common tended to maintain the capital asset base of households. For example, a collaborative scheme called didaro helped augment labour input needed to guard the fields from wild animals. On the other hand, those that involved a liquidation of physical and economic capitals without commensurate returns tended to erode capital asset base. The erosive effect of certain coping strategies was found to result in reduced resilience or reduced abilities to maintain livelihoods and be food secure.” The paper concluded that “policies which seek to leverage smallholder agriculture for food security need to expand their focus beyond increasing production, and better integrate the aspect of resilience. In actionable terms, institutional investments are needed to support non-erosive coping strategies and to develop alternatives for erosive coping strategies. Since non-erosive coping strategies are likely to differ across contexts, identifying what these strategies are at the local level and building on them will be key to increasing resilience and supporting food security in specific geographies. Given the pervasiveness of challenges associated with natural capital, policies for prioritizing non-erosive strategies over erosive ones will need to be complemented with a sustained effort to reduce challenges associated with natural capital.”

This study furthered showed that the concept of capital asset substitution can be applied in livelihoods analysis to unpack interlinkages between different types of capitals. The application of the concept highlights that some capital assets such as natural capital, are elemental to the construction of livelihoods, and as proponents of strong sustainability have argued, are not fully interchangeable. The distinctive importance of different types of capital assets and interlinkages between them should be incorporated in livelihoods analyses for better understanding of the dynamic preconditions underlying smallholder farming.

 

Two PhD positions in our new project on future scenarios of ecosystem services in southwestern Ethiopia

We are excited to advertise two PhD positions in our new interdisciplinary project entitled “ETH-Coffee – Towards a sustainable bioeconomy: a scenario analysis for the Jimma coffee landscape in Ethiopia”. The project will analyze the flow of ecosystem services in the rural landscapes of southwestern Ethiopia under different future scenarios. Specifically, the project will quantify both local and distant benefits generated by ecosystem services; it will identify who benefits from these different services; their impacts on biodiversity conservation; and will examine which stakeholders have an interest in and influence on different ecosystem services. 

The PhD positions are summarised in the following, with links to each of the two full advertisements. 

They will be based at Leuphana (in Germany), with fieldwork in Ethiopia.

PhD 1: Ecology and biodiversity conservation Tasks and responsibilities for this PhD position will include: (1) The generation of spatially explicit maps of land use, for four pre-existing socio-economic land use scenarios; (2) Biodiversity modelling based on the results of the scenario land use maps; (3) Natural capital mapping and conservation planning using the INVEST program. Full details and instructions for how to apply are available here: https://www.leuphana.de/news/jobs-und-karriere/forschung-lehre/ansicht-forschung-lehre/datum/2019/07/24/research-associatephd1.html

PhD 2: Flows of ecosystem services Tasks and responsibilities for this PhD position will include: (1) Spatially explicit identification of ecosystem service beneficiaries; (2) Spatial modelling of value flows resulting from four pre-existing socio-economic land use scenarios; (3) Disaggregation of (telecoupled) ecosystem service benefits. Full details and instructions for how to apply are available here: https://www.leuphana.de/news/jobs-und-karriere/forschung-lehre/ansicht-forschung-lehre/datum/2019/07/24/research-associatephd2.html

Deadline: 31 August 2019

For questions, please contact Prof. Joern Fischer (joern.fischer@leuphana.de), Prof. Dave Abson (abson@leuphana.de) or Dr. Jannik Schultner (jschultner@gmail.com).

The future of conservation

By Joern Fischer

I just finished teaching a Master’s level semester-long course on “conservation biology”. Today’s class finished with a student-led discussion on “the future of conservation”. Because I found it a very inspiring discussion – and indeed, a very nice semester (thanks to a lovely group of students!) – I wanted to briefly reflect on this discussion here.

The students running the session chose to base the discussion on a recent paper by Chris Sandbrook and colleagues, which reported on the diversity of views about how to achieve conservation in the scientific community. Their work was published in a high-profile paper, and there is also a website to go with it, where you can assess what kind of conservationist you are.

Interestingly, my class had students who were “traditional conservationists” – emphasizing the importance of science and ecocentric values, and being somewhat skeptical of capitalism; as well as “new conservationists” – who were relatively more people-oriented and more in favour of working with capitalism. Our discussion around these issues was quite deep but relaxed: as Sandbrook et al. point out in their paper, it’s not necessary nor useful to play out the different perspectives against one another. Depending on their background and life experiences, people will favour different kinds of approaches. And most likely, we need different approaches! In such instances I am always reminded of a talk by Michael Soulé, which I covered many years ago on this blog – there are multiple “life-affirming movements”, and from a practical perspective, we probably do better by recognizing what we have in common across our different mindsets than by focusing on what is dividing us.

Unlike my students, my own conservation profile is a little bit different. I thought this is kind of good, because it suggests I haven’t indoctrinated them to the extent that they simply repeat what I say  🙂

Screen Shot 2019-07-04 at 10.18.56

According to the online tool, I’m a fairly middle-of-the-road conservationist, but if anything, I’m a “critical social scientist”. I find this highly amusing because I am regularly annoyed by academia being dominated by a culture of critique… but I guess the point is that I am both a bit skeptical about capitalism, as well as being fairly people-centred in my views on conservation. I see this as a result of my personal experiences; working in human-modified landscapes, and also working in contexts where human well-being depends on nature. As to capitalism, I am greatly skeptical because I see it as closely intertwined with the problems of our era (so how can it be the solution?), and too often, I feel it ends up benefiting the powerful but not those whose well-being is actually most at threat.

Thanks again to my students for a nice semester, and check out the nice work by Sandbrook et al. if you haven’t seen it already!