Transgenic golden rice: friend or foe?

By Annika Kettenburg

How come scientists disagree quite fundamentally at times? In our new paper, we investigated the academic controversy over transgenic Golden Rice. Itself a microcosm of the broader debate surrounding genetically modified crops, it shows some unique particularities: Here, rice plants were modified to synthesize beta-carotene and thus act as an edible cure against Vitamin A deficiency – a humanitarian project developed in university halls, to be handed out for free to smallholders. It is anticipated to become available in the Philippines and Bangladesh in two to three years from now.

rice

At first sight, the scientific position on Golden Rice seems to almost exclusively consist of utmost approval. In 2016, 131 Nobel laureates signed a petition to accelerate the introduction of Golden Rice – calling to end the “crime to humanity” committed by the GMO opposition. Though critics are outweighed in numbers, they voice various concerns. Most often, they point to an overshadowing of malnutrition’s root causes, namely the social determinants of access to food, and the inadequacy of Golden Rice in addressing these.

Corresponding to this bifurcation, our cluster analysis identified two major branches in the Golden Rice literature. Interestingly, the branches and their clusters correlated with the disciplines authors adhered to and the scope of topics they addressed. Put simply, the branch optimistic up to euphoric about Golden Rice was mostly comprised of plant scientists, and the topics our indicator analysis marked as constitutive centered on deregulation. The more critical branch consisted mostly of social scientists writing on a variety of topics relevant to sustainability.

What now is the cause for this divergence? In our paper, we argue it is mainly the authors’ starting point – the perception of the problem (also discussed in this blog here, here and here). In simplified terms, if the problem of vitamin A deficiency is a result of mainly eating rice that lacks beta-carotenes, then the solution is to enhance the rice. In contrast, if one sees the problem in a lack of access to diverse, nutritious food, then one has to pursue biophysical, economic, political and social changes altogether. This means bio-fortification of crops results to be only one out of many strategies – a short-term fix until social and political structures change.

But even if scientists were to overcome disciplinary divides and arrive at a shared conclusion on Golden Rice – is it for us to decide what people should plant and eat? Why has nobody involved affected communities in their research? When reviewing the literature I was bewildered by the paternalistic undertone of some articles: either local people were completely left out or treated as passive victims. (Would we like to have Asian scientists donating to us a GM wheat variety against high blood pressure?)

A lot of the questions I came across were ultimately ethical in nature: what type of agriculture to pursue, whose needs to prioritize, which risks to take – can the concept of sustainability provide guidance here? We argue that for this to happen it is necessary to explicitly recognize which criteria constitute sustainability in a particular context (as we tried in our paper, see Table 1) and to ultimately seek genuine dialogue across disciplines and actor groups.

The full paper is available here.

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Theft or inspiration? – How good ideas spread

By Joern Fischer (apart from the bits I stole from Ioan Fazey)

Academic work, ultimately, is all about good ideas. But how do you know an idea is truly yours? In this post, I reflect on some of “my” best ideas, wondering where they came from – and posing a few different hypotheses. Perhaps there’s no such thing as an original idea…

So let’s take a few examples first, as a little reflection that serves to show that some of “my own” ideas probably have not been mine at all. I’ll then get into a few hypotheses as to what might be happening.

But first some ideas. A nice hierarchical survey design of nested triangles was used by me and my co-authors in a 2004 paper in the Journal of Applied Ecology (Fig. 1). This idea came up in a meeting with my co-author and statistical advisor at the time. Later, I learned that a very similar design had been used by Josh Dorrough, who had previously worked with the same statistician. So perhaps it had been his idea? Interestingly, a broadly similar design is also used in the large “safe project” in Indonesia (see linked Fig. 1). So perhaps there is an altogether different source of this “idea”, which neither Josh nor I knew about?

Another example is the notion of slow, substantial but difficult-to-implement change, versus rapid but easier-to-implement change. This notion was captured in Fig. 1 in a 2012 paper I published with a bunch of co-authors. But a very similar notion had been communicated by Donella Meadows a decade earlier, in her paper on leverage points.

Or take our literature review on cultural ecosystem services, published in 2013. This paper came a very short time after a paper by Terry Daniel and others on the same topic; and a very short time before a paper led by Mónica Hernández-Morcillo. I could list many more examples from my own publications, or I can extend this notion to colleagues of mine – noting for example, that Ioan Fazey was working on evidence-based conservation in the early 2000s, quite separately from work by Andrew Pullin who later set up a whole centre around this notion. And so on.

Such examples are common, and if you write a lot, invariably, sooner or later someone will come to you and wonder – more or less politely – whether you stole her or his idea. Or you might see your own idea in somebody else’s work, and wonder whether they stole it from you. (If you’re fast, you’ll experience others accusing you, if you’re slow, you’ll experience feeling they stole your ideas…)

So what’s going on here, and what do we do with it? I want to lay out four different hypotheses for what is happening, and why this is happening.

Hypothesis 1: People like me consciously steal other people’s ideas. Perhaps I liked something that someone else is doing, and I think … hmmm …. perhaps I can get a paper out of something like this, too? And then I use that idea, and bingo, track record is improved and nobody noticed. Hooray.

Hypothesis 2: People like me sub-consciously steal people’s ideas! Perhaps I liked something that someone did. I then forget about it … and then later on, it comes back into my conscious mind, and I turn it into some kind of product. Possible? Yes, this is quite possible. We hear a lot of things, all the time, and I at least can’t remember all the different places in which I hear different things. These ideas all go into some giant sub-conscious storage space, and then later get drawn on, but re-combined in new ways and without explicit reference to where they had originally come from – because there is no conscious process of tracing their origin.

Hypothesis 3: Sometimes, things are simply “ripe” for a certain idea, and different people realize this at the same time. So for example, Carl Folke was writing on “environmental services” in the mid 1990s, just before Bob Costanza published his famous paper on ecosystem services, and before Gretchen Daily published her book on ecosystem services. Earlier examples of such parallel processes abound, for example Wallace’s work on evolution being at a similar time to Darwin’s.

Hypothesis 4: The universe is all just energy, everything is connected to everything else, and good ideas float about in the ether – we just need to open ourselves to them and let them flow through us. What?! Admittedly, this hypothesis is mildly less grounded in conventional physical evidence, but there are a number of spiritual thinkers who would probably support this idea. When you have a good idea – one that feels truly original – where does it come from? Where do brilliant ideas of artists, musicians or scientists come from? What, really, is a “moment of inspiration”, what is it we are accessing then? Perhaps knowledge is there, always, and when we are in a state of flow, we can access the right knowledge to make progress at the time?

I won’t be arguing for or against any of these four hypotheses. In the scientific circuit in general, I actually think it’s a combination of all four of these going on. What’s more interesting is the question, what do we do about this?

What becomes highly evident is that ideas rarely originate in one individual. Our system of giving credit to individuals (or sets of authors) is flawed. “Breakthroughs” of any kind happen on the shoulders of many who have been there (or very close) before – funnily enough, google scholar acknowledges this when it says “stand on the shoulder of giants”. We’re all standing on each other’s shoulders, all the time, whether in physical space, or metaphysical space. No idea is truly yours, or mine, or anyone’s. And yet, we operate together in a world, and some of us have decided to operate together in ways that try to make the world a better place. It makes sense then that we should work together, rather than get hung up about who contributed what, precisely.

And yet, we live in a world of institutional incentives, and it’s probably only expert thieves (or highly inspired people? Hm…) who can afford to “not care” about who did what. The challenge thus appears to be to try to be explicit about which idea comes from where; but also to recognize that ultimately, we’re in this together – as all of humanity, that is!

So: credit where credit is due … but preferably in full recognition that we have no idea where that actually is.

(I wonder where the idea for this blog post came from. Parts for sure I stole from Ioan Fazey, and he even paid for my coffee. Pathetic, really.)

The gardenification of nature revisited

By Joern Fischer

In 1998, Daniel Janzen published a paper on the gardenification of nature. In that paper, he argued for the gentle and careful use of wild nature, rather than its strict protection from humans.

I liked the metaphor of the paper when it came out, and I recently thought of it again in the context of a second garden metaphor currently circulating: that of seeds of a good Anthropocene. What if we were to combine these two gardening metaphors?

Seeds of a good Anthropocene suggest that we have choices in the projects we create. We can initiate projects that contribute to the beauty of life on Earth – to social equity, prosperity, joy, and biodiversity – or we can initiate projects that are destructive. Those projects that contribute to the beauty of life are, essentially, seeds of a good Anthropocene.

Once we have planted such seeds, these seeds can put roots into the ground, thus becoming firmly established. And as the seeds spread, they create a garden of human endeavours. This garden can be beautiful, if we grow and look after the right seeds. Wild elements can persist in pockets of this garden, cherished for their intrinsic value as well as for the benefits they might provide. – What if we keep growing the wrong seeds? Then we risk creating a post-industrial wasteland.

Arguably, a good Anthropocene’s garden of human endeavours could harmoniously coexist with a wildland garden of biodiversity. What unites these two metaphors is a focus on an underlying ethos of gentle care and interaction. It seems futile to try to disengage from the endless connections among living beings. As Janzen stated: “A wildland garden with gentle trodding from caring gardeners just might achieve the partnership [between people and nature]. A wilderness faces certain annihilation as a battlefield.”

Conservation impossible in ‘silent’ developing countries

Note by Joern: Today a guest post by Badrul Azhar. I look forward to your comments!

Authored by Badrul Azhar

I am thankful that Joern has been kind enough to let me post this sensitive article on his blog. There are few other good platforms to air my opinion among fellow conservation scientists.

Next generation of conservation padawans

The next generation of Malaysian conservation scientists (photo by Badrul Azhar)

Working as a conservation scientist in a developing country requires a high level of perseverance and endurance, to face the litany of domestic and global challenges–especially if you’re a local resident, from a less fortunate socio-economic background, exposed to red-tape culture, with little resources, and are a non-native speaker of English. Most counterparts from developed countries may not understand, nor encounter these problems. If they did, I suspect that no-one would ever produce significant or valid works in conservation science.

I feel a need to share my insights about what is happening today in mainstream conservation science, and what is routinely experienced by fellow scientists in other developing countries. Apparently, we’re fortunate to reside and work in some of the remaining countries still rich with tropical biodiversity. For sure, we’re just 15 or 20 minutes drive to the nearest tropical rainforest, and we can study various organisms and taxa, from viruses to tigers. Yet, in reality, we’re crippled by many shortcomings. These prevent us excelling to the levels we watch our counterparts in the developed world achieve.

Allow me to explain. A few weeks ago I saw an advertisement from a professor in a developed country looking for a PhD candidate to study oil palm biodiversity in Southeast Asia. So I advised a former postgraduate student (MSc by research) to email the professor to apply for the specific PhD research. Unfortunately, I learned from my student that the PhD opportunity is only available to those from that specific developed country. This former student has published several research articles on oil palm biodiversity in impact factor journals, and it would have been a great opportunity for him to be trained abroad, particularly in the developed world. Sadly, all too often this is not possible.

I was immensely lucky. I was given the rare opportunity to further my study abroad twice through government scholarship (not because I’m an outstanding student–I was merely in the right place at the right time). My first opportunity was my MSc in the UK and the other my PhD in Australia. Similar scholarships are now enormously competitive and incredibly rare. Many such scholarships have been withdrawn during this period of economic slowdown that is impacting conservation science. You stand a better chance to win a scholarship if you are pursuing a postgraduate degree in critical field areas such as medicine, engineering and biotechnology.

For many years, I’ve reflected that assistance, such as financial support, mentoring systems, and basic facilities made available either from abroad or domestically to local conservation scientists, have been evaporating. I have also noticed that foreign scientists, who conduct their research in my country, are well funded by agencies from their wealthy origin. Interestingly, some research projects, spearheaded by foreign scientists in my country, are even funded by local companies, generously contributing tens of millions of dollars to ensure great impacts and produce high-quality findings. On the other hand, local scientists are only awarded a tiny fraction of what their counterparts from the developed world have received (if they have been successful in their grant application from government agencies). To my knowledge, on average, my colleagues receive less than USD$15,000 per research project, to finance their work for two years (this may not apply to other developing countries). These days, that small amount of grant money is unlikely to ensure that colleagues in the developing world can advance conservation science and natural resource management, or even to get their research outcomes published in leading journals such as Nature and Science. Fieldwork in remote areas is very costly (you have to pay to access some pristine forests), and researchers are poorly equipped (both in the office and field) to conduct research in the developing world. Attending important conferences, domestically or internationally, is considered a luxury only few can afford. Like many of my colleagues, I would rather spend every cent of the small grant money I accrue to support the students collecting data in the field.

Sincerely, I do not resent those who have secured huge research grant money from my country. However, if the benefits have gone mostly to foreign scientists, rather than to local people, there is an ethical question that needs to be answered by both grant receivers and givers. Local scientists, as well as students, are being sidelined directly or indirectly from studying important conservation topics in their own country, in favour of outsiders. In the long run, conservation science will be less attractive, with no good prospects, for local people (already, many seem comfortable to be identified as naturalists instead of scientists), and conservation degrees in local universities will fail to attract the best brains or even sustainable student numbers.

There is a moral responsibility among conservation scientists from the developed world to partner with scientists in developing countries, and to be seriously involved in capacity building of their counterparts who are at the forefront of the biodiversity crisis. I welcome foreign scientists researching in my country, as long there is a win-win situation for local counterparts (e.g. publications, genuine networking and capacity building).

It’s remarkable that on the cusp of 2018 these statements even need to be made. It’s worth reflecting if conservation science is dominated by elite groups that share similar cultural and socio-economic values. If this is so, the advancement of conservation science is being skewed more to the developed world (judging from the number of research articles published) while it seems to be ‘quiet’ from a significant number of developing countries. Could this be a contributing reason for why conservation science has failed on the ground (beyond the realm of journal publication), particularly in developing countries? Similarly, it’s also worth contemplating why there are so many published articles delivering the same rigid bad news in tropical conservation science these days, while little progress or success has been made in reality. Is this status quo going to remain forever?

Treating unsustainability: learning from addiction

By Joern Fischer

Unsustainability is bad. Humanity is screwing up big time – what was it thinking? Humanity must change its ways. So we set targets … and fail. Have you ever noticed how similar this is to people suffering from addiction? Can we learn by drawing a parallel between the successful treatment of addiction and the successful treatment of unsustainability?

Addictions, at their root, are habituated responses to emotional pain. Individuals learn that something about them is wrong or inadequate, and to feel better reach for some kind of “drug” or pattern. This makes them feel better temporarily – but typically results in spirals of pain and shame. Feeling pain and shame makes them feel worse, of course, and so reaching for more drugs becomes highly appealing… and so on. There are of course chemical dependencies with some drugs, too, but let’s just stick to the psychological spiral for now.

How do people overcome such addictions?

It seems that what does not work is simply telling addicts that what they’re doing is “wrong”. In fact, this just reaffirms the feelings of worthlessness and pain that underlie the destructive patterns in the first place. What does tend to work is identifying the deep causes; integrating aspects of personality that were “forbidden” or suppressed earlier on in life and that caused pain or inner dissonance – shining truth on patterns of pain; and healing these patterns through compassion and love by others and to oneself. Many previous addicts also find spiritual practices and supportive peer communities useful to experience connectedness with a greater whole.

So … let’s take the jump to sustainability. Are there parallels?

If we see humanity at large as the patient, we find that humanity is overdosing on material growth. Exponential patterns of economic activity or resource extraction from an increasingly depleted planet mirror escalation of addictive behaviours that are increasingly affecting the lives and bodies of addicts.

Now, the interesting thing is that we largely treat sustainability by telling the patient he must do better. We say it’s “wrong” to have endless resource extraction – it will kill you, Mr. Humanity (or Ms., of course)! Mr. Humanity feels bad for a moment, and organizes some conferences – and sets targets. Okay, he promises, I won’t do it again! But then … he does. Again, the parallels to the addict are quite clear.

What then if we were to treat unsustainability as an addiction? We’d need to reintegrate humanity’s shadow – to look those aspects of what it is to be human in the eye that we have moralized away but that are undoubtedly there. Humanity can be physically powerful. Humanity can be sinful in so many different ways. Instead of saying these forces are “wrong” – can we lovingly look at them and recognize their presence? Can we see that humanity’s “sins” are simply humanity having lost its way? And through greater awareness of the many forces at play, can we harness their energy in constructive instead of destructive ways?

Can we find out why humanity is “acting out” the way it is – what’s it suppressing, and what as a result, is it over-compensating in its ever intensifying patterns of binge drinking? Where is humanity hurting – and what does it need to heal?

From this framing, it seems likely that the answers lie in “deep leverage points”, around paradigms and values underpinning how we organize our societies. For example, can we exchange competitiveness and individualism with care, busy-ness with being, and dissatisfaction or anger with love? Can we replace unhealthy habits (institutions) with healthy ones?

While the parallel between unsustainability and addiction doesn’t offer an immediate solution for what does work (it’s only a blog post, after all!), it does suggest that a few things might simply not work: reprimanding the addict, forcing him to resolve to do better, and setting him ultimatums and threats of further love deprivation – these aggressive methods act on shallow leverage points, and will fail. What might work is looking beneath the surface – what is humanity aching for, and how can we collectively heal an increasingly sick patient?

Resilience 2017: Care, knowledge and agency as a basic for ecosystem stewardship

Session summary

Johan Enqvist first summarized work in progress, outlining the findings of a systematic literature review. Based on a preliminary review, four themes (ethics, motivation, action, outcomes) were identified. These themes were then examined in more detail in approximately 1000 different papers.

Research on stewardship has increased over the last 27 years, especially with respect to “action” and “outcomes” – and these, in turn, were mostly published in natural science articles. In contrast, “ethics” initially took up approximately a third of the existing literature, but accounts for a substantially smaller fraction of current research on stewardship. Given such disparity in focus within the theme of stewardship, how can the different themes – outcomes, actions, motivation, ethics – be bridged?

Johan proposed to do this via care, knowledge and agency – at the intersection of care and knowledge, we find “ethics”; at the intersection of care and agency, we find “motivation”; and at the intersection of agency and knowledge, we find “outcomes”. Action sits at the intersection of all three key dimensions. These three dimensions to stewardship – care, agency and knowledge – thus appear to capture key aspects of stewardship literature, and manage to capture the different emphases that different researchers place on different components of stewardship. Interestingly, with respect to social-ecological work, “care”, in particular has not received as much attention as knowledge and agency.

Following this opening talk, Raphaël Mathevet continued with an ecological solidarity perspective. Ecological solidarity has in fact been enshrined in French law since 2016. It recognizes interdependence between humans and other species, and considers landscape units and watersheds, species area requirements, complementarity of different land covers, movements, metapopulation dynamics, and changes in species distributions. These ecological “needs”, in turn, are “connected” with human values and actions via the concept of “solidarity”. Ecological solidarity, in comprising human and ecological elements, thus seeks to provide guidelines or a vision for ecological stewardship, including considerations of political economy. Departure from traditional management can be “reformist vs. radical”, and “prosaic versus imaginative”. Crossing these two axes then results in four types of stewardship approach: sustainability stewardship, transformative stewardship, reformist stewardship, and adaptive stewardship. Each of these, in turn, exhibit different characteristics, strengths and weaknesses.

Rosemary Hill continued this session, drawing on her experience of working with indigenous Australians. She asked whether Johan’s framework could be applied to indigenous Australia, and how or to what extent. First, she showed that agency and care are very strong in Australian indigenous people. She continued with positive examples of “outcomes”. Examining the drivers of what constitutes success factors driving the success of indigenous land stewardship, Ro highlighted that motivation and ethics were often key factors. Having gleaned over some limitations of Johan’s framework, Ro concluded with a few suggestions for how the stewardship framework could be improved: (1) by improving reciprocity between earth and us, i.e. it’s not one-way; (2) economies need to come into it; and (3) legacy issues and barriers need to be more clearly included.

The final speaker in this session was Terry Chapin. Terry specifically focused on scaling the notion of “care”. The evolutionary instincts of people, in the first instance, support competition and greed. But at the same time, “care” is just as evident in many species – typically, it stops at the barriers of family or local community. The notion of stewardship then, requires us to scale up notions of care. In evolutionary terms, the notion of care is most useful at the small group level. But what about higher levels? Here, there may need to be interactions between ethical and instrumental motivations – where instrumental actions motivate short-term behaviour, while ethics motivate longer-term behaviours.

At the global scale, especially, ethical arguments become critically important. Many actors are notable at this scale – the UN, religious groups, NGOs, corporations and science-based organisations. Terry also reflected on the role of fear: will fear always stop us from action? Or can it help foster action in some instances?

In summary, Terry suggested that instrumental and care-based actions may need to be mixed. This is because people are, fundamentally, motivated by both competition and care. Local action can work, drawing on both care and selfishness. But at the global scale, competition based elements are less helpful – here, it really appears to be care that is more important in order to enact ecological stewardship.

Paper recommendation: The undisciplinary journey

By Joern Fischer

The following paper just came out:

L. J. Haider, L.J., Hentati-Sundberg, J., Giusti, M., Goodness, J., Hamann, M., Masterson, V. A., Meacham, M., Merrie, A., Ospina, D., Schill, C., Sinare, H. (2017). The undisciplinary journey: early-career perspectives in sustainability science. Sustainability Science. PDF available here.

This paper should be particularly interesting to early-career researchers working in interdisciplinary environments, or themselves being “interdisciplinarians”. It should also be of interest to more established scientists who train more junior researchers in such areas, especially in sustainability science.

In a nutshell, the paper is built on the premise that a new generation of sustainability scholars is emerging. These scholars often are interdisciplinary in their orientation from the outset. This makes them different from many of the currently “senior” (i.e. older) sustainability scientists, the vast majority of whom were trained in a specific discipline, and then started to reach out to other disciplines.

But what if you start off without ever having had a strong affinity for a single traditional discipline? This is increasingly common for young sustainability scholars, and it leaves them with certain typical challenges — which are what this paper is about. For example, how do you balance depth and breadth? How can you make sure you are taken seriously by your peers, or by more senior scientists? How can you navigate institutional environments that are largely based on disciplines?

To navigate a journey of being “undisciplinary”, the paper provides a compass — a simple conceptual model that can be used to think about how to develop into a good sustainability scientist. A “good” scientist, in this sense, needs two key attributes: agility to move between different ways of thinking, and a good methodological foundation.

Agility to move between different ways of thinking is needed because sustainability is such a broad challenge — to solve problems related to forest degradation, for example, you might have to understand issues of governance, social justice, and ecology. Each of these, in turn, will have a different epistemological foundation; what counts as valid knowledge for an ecologist comes about in a different way from the knowledge deemed valid by a political scientist.

A good methodological foundation is needed because, although sustainability science is an extremely broad field, this can’t be an excuse to not base one’s insights on solid methods. This can be challenging, because the range of potentially relevant methods is vast — but to be a “good” sustainability scientist, it pays to have some clearly identifiable methodological strengths, or at least a solid methodological foundation.

The link to the paper is given above. As I said, I think it’s a nice reflection, as well as really good food for thought for scholars who either are, or are working with, the “next generation” of sustainability scientists. Well worth a read!

Three things that went wrong today (#FONA2017)

By Joern Fischer

The thing about blogging is that you can say things that otherwise may or may not be heard. And so I use my privilege as a blogger to make three observations of what I think went wrong at the FONA Forum that I attended today: (1) much emphasis on the concrete, but too little appreciation of the foundational; (2) six men, and zero women in a final panel discussion; and (3) no black Africans in the discussion on sustainability in Africa.

Why are these three issues problematic? Let’s start with something positive.

The best speaker today, to my mind, was Hartmut Rosa – a sociologist who challenged our contemporary growth-oriented thinking. He painted a picture of humanity addicted to constant “more”, in all spheres of life – more science, more wealth, more access to the world, to new experiences and new places. Constant striving for “more” instead of finding satisfaction in our interactions with others and our immediately available environment, according to Hartmut Rosa, leads to stress as well as to unsustainability. He argued for a change in our relationships, towards greater reciprocity with other beings and places.

His talk was very well received, it seemed. But his talk aside, the vast majority of speakers focused on things like concrete measures, indicators of success, a manual for how to fly Spaceship Earth, recommendations to policy, and steps that need to be taken.

Concrete steps are great – but who, in this era, is taking responsibility for getting humanity to halt and reflect? Scientists are no longer interested in this, it seems – they are much too busy coming up with tangible recommendations and concrete measures. Apparently just shifting discourses – arguably one of the most important things we must do, as a foundation for concrete measures to be effective – is not something many people are interested in. Or, in leverage points language, the vast majority of people speak of shallow leverage points, considering it a waste of time to reflect. – Funny in this context: Hartmut Rosa’s talk seemed really popular, suggesting that people want to be challenged to reflect more deeply. But at the same time, the same people applaud and reinforce structures that only reward tangible outcomes that can be measured.

My last two concerns about today are simple and painful: no women in the final panel discussion, and no black Africans in the Africa session. The latter had about 50 people in it. Admittedly, the session was in German, but come on. Surely, with a bit of effort one could have come up with mechanisms and ways to include people who can contribute their authentically African perspective. How can we meaningfully listen to people speaking of cooperation “at eye level”, or of “partnerships” in this context? The comment regarding no women in the panel discussion evidently points in a similar direction.

This post will be published and tweeted – perhaps someone else who attended the conference will respond, and correct my perspective if it needs correcting. I would appreciate feedback, especially by people who were also here. Thanks!

It’s not like there were no good moments today, or good people, or great insights. There were many. But the three issues singled out here are such that, in 2017 Germany, they make me concerned.

Recognizing and learning the rhythms of local life

A reflection from the field by Aisa Manlosa

I’m nearing the end of my stay here in the southwestern part of Ethiopia for the second field work of my PhD. Lovely highlands. Rich culture. Great coffee. During this field work, one of the important lessons I have been learning is the value of recognizing and learning the rhythm of local life. By rhythm of local life, I simply mean the way things are done by local residents, in the pace they are done. Here I reflect about how this idea had influenced the way I thought and moved in the field and the way I engaged with local residents. This may speak more to researchers in the social sciences but perhaps, the increase of multidisciplinary projects and collaborations, makes this more broadly relevant.

As a background, I’m doing my PhD focusing on livelihood strategies of farming households under Joern’s SESyP project. Methodologically, I consider the mix of quantitative and qualitative approaches particularly suited for building understanding of the dynamics and nuances of local livelihoods and its relationship to the broader social-ecological system. Last year, I conducted the first field work for three months to characterize livelihood strategies and explore how these link with capital assets and food security at the household level. The method for data collection was mainly quantitative survey, supplemented by a small number of semi-structured interviews. Building on that, my second field work now investigates gender norms and power relations which mediate individuals’ access to capital assets and how differentiated access influences well-being outcomes. I am presently applying an open-ended, qualitative approach using focus group discussions and semi-structured interviews. My reason for choosing the qualitative approach is its capability to capture local voices, build rich narratives and engage with complexities from the perspective of the local residents. This shift I’ve described from a mainly quantitative approach in the first half of my PhD to a qualitative approach at this stage involved a change in the level of structure and boundedness in the design of the study. It has also required a different set of skills. Inevitably, the change in approach made me ask myself about the ways that I can effectively implement a qualitative study. This precipitated the thought about rhythm.

The rhythm of local life – the beat or cadence if you like, is part of the character of the place and its people. It expresses itself in many ways and we could name a few. In the hour of the morning when people get up and start their day. When the first cup of coffee is served (unthinkable to miss). The interval between ordering breakfast at the mana nyata (eating place) and when that order is served. What most women do at noon time – prepare lunch for children returning from school. What men do in the fields at this time of the year – plow the soil as the first rains of the arfasa season fall. The small markets that happen every afternoon called golit. The larger markets that happen weekly called gaba. The pingpong of greetings people serve to and fro upon meeting, before they begin their substantive conversations. And perhaps more relevant to me, is the time of day the focus group participants can be depended on to arrive. The rhythm is everywhere, because ways of doing and paces of doing permeate daily living. Even in the slow walking of the cows across the street, stopping our car and making us wait.

The rhythm is perceivable because it has a regularity over certain times of a day, over the days of a week, and over the seasons of a year. But it wasn’t so much the regularity that made me notice and think about rhythm, but the existence of my own rhythm.

There are some things one can wish to proceed faster in the course of a field work – the drives on potholed roads, the waiting for public officials, the waiting for focus group participants and others. I began to be aware of the stark difference between my rhythm and the rhythm of the local life when I caught myself wishing for some things to proceed faster. I am an outsider and the “field” where I study is their home. I am trying to understand people’s livelihoods and ways of living; and they are, simply living their lives. My agenda for the day is to research, but it is not theirs. My rhythm and theirs are dissimilar. But what if I could suspend mine and take on theirs? Will that enable me to enter with a bit more depth into the fabric of local life and learn more about the lived realities of the communities where I am undertaking the study? The questions I am asking immediately bring to mind the idea of positionalities (Chacko 2004) between researcher and researched. I find it an important idea to engage with because awareness of positionalities – of myself as outsider and them as insider, of the distinctiveness of my agenda and theirs, of my rhythm and theirs, can be the starting point for moving forward responsibly.

Being aware of the rhythm of the local life has a number of advantages. Certainly not the least, is how it eases the stress that may arise from logistic glitches. No, it may not change the fact that some participants of focus group discussions would not arrive on time, or that it would be very hard to conduct interviews when there is a wedding in the vicinity and people are celebrating. But yes, it helps one develop patience with things not working as planned. And patience finds its root in the understanding that one has entered a different reality. And this reality is that, my agenda for the day is mine, and they have theirs and mine must be subsumed under the truly more important matter of their lives simply unfolding as I try to follow and seek to understand. Recognizing the rhythm of local life, and respecting this as an outsider, also helps one plan activities around people’s availability – considering market days, prayer hours, work times and others.

The awareness of my position as outsider-researcher led to the early realization that some of the questions I prepared for the group discussions and interviews may be insufficient. Rather, these could function as starters for meandering conversations, made more substantive by follow up questions that are actually my responses to their response. And then, a more coherent picture of gender norms and power relations may begin to appear. The whole process had involved a great deal of willingness on my part to cull out from the list of FGD questions, retain a few key ones, and provide space for conversations to take a shape of their own. This is of course, not new, and is a well-known way of working in qualitative research. But I found that process to be more easily facilitated by my awareness of my limitations as outsider. As outsider, I may be unaware of a different logic running through the rhythm of local life – a logic that underpins why local residents do the things they do at the pace the things are done. I may be unaware of underlying meanings and reasons behind some of their ways of responding to questions. As an outsider who is aware of a different rhythm and a different logic, I may exert effort to discover the other logic and respond with sensitivity.

Recognizing and easing into the rhythm of local life also helped me see and understand people a little better. I see this learning of local rhythm as primarily about recognizing that some of the things I face while doing field work are the daily realities that people live day in and day out. And what to me could be a slowing down of the plan, things that we easily describe as “not working” are the constraints that people face and cope with everyday. It has meant to pause, and notice opportunities when one can come remotely come close to wearing the shoes of the local residents if only in walking up and down slopes with a heavy burden on one’s back, or walking under the glaring sun with very little water to drink. If only that. But there must be more. Perhaps this way of thinking and of experiencing makes the importance of a milling station nearby more real than just a good idea. The whole manner of practicing empathy may or may not change the solutions eventually arrived at, nor is it strictly necessary for good science. But for researchers genuinely wishing to arrive at a depth of understanding about the lives of other people, households and communities, it is known that the process is often as important as the outputs.

The whole experience of staying in the field can contribute to a better understanding of places and its people. And it is in the manner of perception and insight that social science stands with a lot to contribute to efforts for charting the future we want and tackling such wicked problems as poverty, food security, equality, climate change, biodiversity loss, among many others.

Diversity in research teams: more = better ?

By Joern Fischer

Anyone working in teams knows that different people contribute in different ways. We’re all different, and working in a team means appreciating these differences and making the most of them. But there’s something implicit in this that I have often struggled with – the assumption that diversity is necessarily good, while homogeneity is necessarily bad.

Some of you may have had “experts” work with their teams to look at different working styles. When you do this, a commonly used tool is the Myers-Briggs personality test (a shortened version is available here). This recognizes that people can be more introverted or extroverted; more intuitive or sensing; more thinking or feeling; and more perceiving or judging. In combination, you find 16 different stereotypes of people, constructed by four axes of two poles each. These people, so the logic goes, function in different ways, and therefore can contribute different things. (Of course individual people are often very much a mix of stereotypes.)

From this, the logic often goes on to say that good teams need diversity; that we ought to appreciate our differences, and that by appreciating them, we get better at working together. So far so good – but there is an underlying assumption in this that more diversity is necessarily better.

My personal experience and opinion is that, in research teams, this is not necessarily true, or only to a point. Rather, I would argue for the “right” kind of diversity, balanced with the “right” kind of homogeneity. What do I mean by this?

To me, diversity is valuable in that it brings different skills and perspectives to the table. Someone may be more inclined to have an intuitive sense about a hot research topic, and someone else may be good at organizing fieldwork, or crunching statistics after data collection. Indeed, to this point, I agree that a certain level of diversity is useful, because different people in a team can complement one another.

But I think the reverse – that diversity is good, and therefore homogeneity is bad – is not necessarily true. Instead, I would argue that a certain level of homogeneity is actually extremely valuable! When personal differences within a team become very large, it may become increasingly difficult to bridge working styles. In a research context, in particular, output-oriented (J-type) people often clash with process-oriented (P-type) people. Getting these types to be truly happy in a collaboration is very difficult, and sometimes, I would argue simply a waste of time (showing I’m a J-type, I guess…). Similarly, most academics are N-type people, because this is the kind of natural inclination that is associated with wanting to generalize and see the big picture. And last but not least, many scientists are introverted. It’s no surprise that one nickname for an INTJ type is “the scientist” – this particular combination of natural inclinations is very common in academia.

Is it true then that such people “need” others to make up for their weaknesses? Frankly, in an academic context, I don’t necessarily think so. Multiple people who have similar personalities and working styles can still complement one another by knowing about different topics, or for example having a background in different disciplines. Differences in training, backgrounds and expertise, in turn, can be quite readily overcome if the personalities fit together. In contrast, highly diverse, interdisciplinary teams with a lot of differences in both personality types and disciplinary backgrounds, in my experience, suffer from too much diversity. Not only are their disciplinary divides to be bridged but also working styles, including very basic questions as to whether we’re here to have a nice discussion or to get a paper published.

Finally, there’s one more dimension to all this that I have not yet mentioned, and that is the dimension of a shared goal or general normative direction. If things become so diverse that the goal is no longer the same among team members, things can really fall apart in research teams.

So, yes, we can learn from diversity. But too much diversity in a research team, to my mind, does not lead to better insights, but instead can get in the way of achieving any insights at all, and indeed, foster frustration instead. Hence, I’d argue for balance in research teams, not for diversity per se.