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.

Mainstreamism and self-fulfilling prophecies

By Joern Fischer

It’s good to be policy-relevant, and it’s good to get published in prestigious journals. But I’m concerned that the collective desire to attain these goals is taming science to a distinctly unhelpful middle ground that everyone can agree on. It’s like in politics, where major parties end up so similar you can’t really tell the difference anymore – in an effort to appeal to the largest number of people, almost by definition, distinctive elements and innovative ideas are filtered out.

This is annoying when it happens in politics, but it’s unacceptable when it happens in science. Science ought to be about expanding our understanding of the universe, not channeling it into the centre of status quo worldviews. And yet, I find there is more and more evidence that this is precisely what is happening.

Two things today inspired me to write this slightly impassioned rant. First, one of our papers got rejected due to its less-than-mainstream methods. The argument was in fact not that our methods were bad, but rather that they were unusual and may be difficult to accept by the readership of the journal. Second, a colleague pointed me to a paper that says we can’t really change values because they change slowly, and so there’s no point in trying. In combination, I feel these events are symptomatic of a new kind of “anti-sustainability” sustainability science – implying that we need innovation, but preferably without actually changing the world or the way we look at it.

In modern science then, it seems you must not rock the boat. You must not work towards paradigm shifts, or try to look at problems too broadly. Instead, you should look for clever, incremental improvements within existing ways of thinking. In sustainability science, you must look at societal problems, but only advocate for minor changes – no matter how deep the root causes are of the problems you are looking at.

Sustainable intensification, REDD+ payments, and the right kind of messaging to an audience with unalterable values – this is now the dominant way advocated to achieve sustainability improvements.

Those who point out that radical changes are not possible successfully get their stuff published – but to me, they lack creativity (and frankly, guts) to do what needs to be done. With everybody heading for the front of the mainstream, there will be no real innovation, and no major change. Or put more bluntly: we’d have the same values as decades ago, including slavery, racial discrimination and women not taking part in politics.

Think again: Of course things can change, if we want them to, including big things, and including human values. And from a sustainability perspective all of this can happen in relevant, short periods of time, too.

Trying to work for deep changes may not always work in the short term. But the growing zeal to not even try to think boldly strikes me as much more certain to lock us into a self-fulfilling prophecy of ever greater un-sustainability.

Managing time and expectations

By Joern Fischer

Our jobs as researchers are pretty nice in many ways — we get to work on stuff we’re truly interested in, we might get to enjoy the occasional sense of achievement, and we might even feel that we’re doing something good in the world. This good side of academic life has been emphasised by some; I’ve heard senior academics complain that we should stop complaining because really, our academic lives are so privileged.

While that’s probably true in general terms, many academics are also suffering from a sense of “too much”. Or, just as commonly, their families are suffering, or their collaborators, or students, because they have to engage with somebody who is stressed and evidently over-committed.

I’d like to make one simple point here: that we ought to do a good (or even excellent) job 100% of the time in which we work; but that we should not put up with pressures, incentives or norms to work more than 100% of time. When I worked in Australia, there was a pretty simple system regarding performance agreements. Once every two years,  you sat down with your boss and discussed how you would allocate 100% of your time to teaching, research and service. Teaching involved classes but also supervision of research students; research was, well, research; and service included committees and things like that within the university, but also communication engagement or editorial boards beyond the university.

There are three key benefits of institutionalising such performance agreements. One, nobody is expected to work more than 100%. Two, if you add a percentage to something (e.g. an increase from 40 to 50%), it’s clear that something else has got to be reduced. And three, not everybody has to be equal — some people might benefit their departments through service roles, others through teaching, others primarily through research. In extreme cases, an individual might drop one of the three components altogether.

What I see in Germany is starkly different. We are incentivised to be in more and more projects; raise more and more funds; “supervise” more and more students; travel a lot; sit on committees without reward; and teach a lot of hours — and all of us should be the same, in terms of teaching load especially. What this does is it causes immediate declines in quality in all activities (nobody can be great at everything, in more than 100% of the time), and you get a bunch of over-committed, unfocused professors, left, right and centre.

Since this is systemic, there is no easy solution. But I think we should be aware of such patterns, and fight them whenever we can. As I said before: it’s not about being lazy or unproductive. It’s about recognising  that ideas are created by people who are happy in the workplace, who are reflective, and who have retained the capacity to focus to get the job done to the best of their abilities. If “excellence” is the goal (and many institutions claim that it is), you can’t keep adding stuff to people’s schedules and get the same quality out at the other end.

Values, conservation and sustainability

By Joern Fischer

In 1992, Shalom Schwartz published a seminal paper entitled “Universals in the content and structure of values: Theoretical advances and empirical tests in 20 countries”. The paper has been cited something like 12,000 times, and the findings have been refined since then. In short, it summarises different value orientations held by individuals. On reading this paper, I began to wonder what the implications of this are for conservation and sustainability.

schwartz_spatial1

Source: valuesandframes.org

I’ll start with a disclaimer and a summary of what Schwartz found. First the disclaimer: perhaps everything I write below has long been known by people working on conservation and sustainability, and I’m very late in catching up. If so, I’m happy to be further educated, e.g. by people explaining to me and other readers how this has been applied to conservation and sustainability in the comments below. But if I’m somewhat “typical”, then this is not at all widely known, understood, or reflected upon within the conservation and sustainability fields. And if that is the case, there might be some pretty important implications that require our attention.

Second – a summary of what Schwartz found. In the original paper from 1992, Schwartz developed theory, and then tested it on a large sample of individuals from a number of different countries. His theory was largely confirmed, and went something like this. Different people hold different values. Some values are compatible, whereas others are oppositional. Compatible values are, for example, if I value the attainment of wealth, and if I value the achievement of social recognition. Oppositional values might be valuing tradition versus seeking excitement in life.

These kinds of constructs – compatible and oppositional values – can be depicted in a kind of circular wheel, as shown in the Figure above. This wheel was generated by a multivariate analysis of many people responding to the same questions about their values, so this is an empirically grounded theory . Adjacent sectors in this wheel are compatible values, whereas opposite sectors in the wheel are oppositional.

So far so good – how is this relevant to conservation and sustainability? I think it is in a number of ways.

A lot of the values associated with conservation and sustainability cluster in the sector on “universalism” (top right). For example, here, we find “protecting the environment”, “social justice”, and even “unity with nature”. Opposite of that, we find the sector “power”, with values such as “wealth” and “social recognition”.

We can now ask ourselves where in this wheel individuals belonging to different cultures might sit. This is relevant for conservation and sustainability, because we might pitch our messages differently, according to people’s values (e.g. see this comprehensive report, or here for a simpler summary; and here for additional materials).

But I think perhaps there is something even more interesting going on. Here, I present three testable hypotheses, which would have implications for conservation and sustainability action.

Hypothesis 1: A substantial proportion of the population (probably differing between jurisdictions) actually holds values that are compatible with universalist values (i.e. sustainability and biodiversity conservation).

Hypothesis 2: Despite this, we are seeing patterns of behaviour at an aggregate (societal) level that emphasise values that are largely oppositional to sustainability, such as achievement and power. That is, we have created institutions that foster values that are not inherently shared by people. We thus have a mismatch between the value sets fostered by institutions and the value sets held by people.

Hypothesis 3: If this is correct, the “solution” to sustainability problems becomes one of “simply” re-aligining institutions to what people actually want. This may be a major task, but is a relatively smaller problem than if people themselves actually did not hold values compatible with sustainability. In other words, we may not need to “re-educate people”, but rather draw out what people actually want, and ensure that institutions are reformed in ways that reflect the want of “the people”.

Hopelessly optimistic? Actually, people are selfish and individualistic, and care about power and wealth and nothing else? Perhaps – convince me if you can. But at this stage I think it’s more likely that we are dealing with a mis-match between values fostered through institutions and values held by individuals. I speculate, in turn, that such a mis-match has probably arisen from power dynamics that go hand in hand with how we have organized societies (including economic principles); i.e. the whole thing is an institutional and power problem, not fundamentally one of values.

If I’m right, all of this points to us needing more conversations at a societal level about what it is that we truly value — and then working towards how to (re-)organise society accordingly. And then who knows, perhaps sustainability is within closer reach than we may have thought …

The eternal challenge: walking the talk

By Joern Fischer

Having recently come back from a short, long-distance trip halfway around the world in the name of sustainability science – and having blasted a vast amount of carbon into the air in the process – I couldn’t help to think, yet again, about the perpetual challenge of “walking the talk” in sustainability science. But how does one “walk the talk”? The following are some suggestions for how to think through this.

  1. If it’s work-related travel, carefully weigh the sustainability costs and sustainability benefits. Frankly, a lot of work-related travel is not needed. We have a culture of workshops and meetings, and a culture of attending lots of these even if they are far away. Travel is cheap, workshop papers (i.e. discussion blabla papers) sell well, and have become a business in their own right. Personally, I believe in (i) prioritizing fieldwork related air travel over workshop air travel, (ii) prioritizing close travel for workshops/conferences over far trips, and (iii) thinking through how much travel you are willing to do in a given year.
  2. With respect to work travel, question the difference between what is necessary versus expected versus something you simply feel like. It’s too easy to say “I was invited and so I went”. In a culture where we all travel around without a second thought on whether that is good or necessary, just travelling a lot because everyone else is doing it is a very poor argument. So, as a minimum, be honest with yourself about (i) what is necessary, (ii) what is expected of you, and by whom, and (iii) what is simply your personal preference. Things you classify as necessary, well, I guess they can’t be changed easily. For things you classify as expected you can think about whose expectations these are, and whether you need to meet these expectations. And regarding third, frankly, that might be a fine reason at times, but from a sustainability perspective you should be aware that a preference for personal gluttony is also what’s destroying the planet. So probably best to remain a bit critical with oneself on this last point!
  3. Is there a way to get there without flying? Air travel is fast, and cheap (because it does not account for externalities). But it’s not the only way to get around. For example, many trips within Europe are possible by train if you think about it a little bit in advance. Night trains exist to some places, too.
  4. Once you decide to fly somewhere, consider offsetting your carbon impact. Most likely, your workplace – even if it’s a sustainability department – won’t have an offsetting scheme (do any?? I’d be interested!). Still, you can consider offsetting your personal and work-related carbon emissions. People who fly a lot also tend to earn a lot, making this not as big a deal as it may sound. Obviously, in science, your ability to offset depends on your salary and/or career level.
  5. Beyond travel, differentiate between big-ticket items versus little things in your life. Little actions can be good because you can do many little things. But changing a few big things in meaningful ways may achieve even more in terms of sustainability. Big changes are, for example, to live somewhere where you can ride a bike to work, rather than drive every day. Or to cut down the amount of animal protein in your diet, or obtain your food more locally. Little things like turning off light bulbs are fine … But just leaving your car at home one day (when you normally drive) is like a lot, a lot of lightbulbs!
  6. Recognise that you’re part of a “system”, and work on personal change as well as systemic change. While some sustainability scientists do too little (in my, in this case, not-so-humble opinion) to walk the talk, others beat themselves up for not being perfect footprint-free creatures. I think it’s important we recognize that it’s both a personal and systemic issue. If you live in North America or Australia, it’s nearly impossible to have a lifestyle that is fully sustainable. Most likely, most things from the food you eat to the transportation systems you use, to the infrastructure you support through your taxes are unsustainable. That is why it’s worthwhile to think about what you can do, and do that – while at the same time working on systemic changes so that living more sustainably becomes mainstream. That is, the institutional and socio-cultural context we live in will ultimately need to change, but that won’t happen overnight.

Comments on how you think about “walking the talk” are, as always, most welcome!

The illusion of doing a good job

By Joern Fischer

A little while ago, I published a bit of an outburst about academia’s obsession with quantity. Some people have interpreted this to be in favour of a lower output academia. However, that’s not quite what I meant: I’m not at all against productivity. Rather, what does concern me is the frantic, incoherent production of “stuff” at the expense of theoretical coherence, social relations and reflection.

It is possible to be productive and reflective – to a point. What troubles me is that most of us academics are evidently bad at judging when we take on too much. Hardly anyone will admit to being addicted to “quantity” at the expense of quality. Yet, it’s quite clear when taking a look around that there are many instances in which academic life is less pleasant than it ought to be, because someone, somewhere took on too much (and is now a nuisance to everyone else).

Since, collectively, as academics, we are apparently not very skilled at judging when we’re doing a good job, I thought I’d put up some indicators that we might treat as warning signals. If these things are going well, it means we’re probably working within our zone of meaningful productivity; if they are going badly, it might be a sign that we’re compromising the quality of our work. So, we might ask ourselves:

  • Are products of your work routinely well received by your colleagues?
  • Are the people you work with generally happy with your contributions?
  • Are you able to attend meetings you planned or do you frequently cancel them?
  • Do you generally respond to all emails within a few days?
  • Do you provide timely, quality input on papers you are a co-author on?
  • If someone asked your students to confidentially report on the quality of your supervision, would they praise you or criticize you?
  • Do your papers show consistent messages, or an evolution of your thinking – or are they mixed messages bouncing back and forth, depending on the paper?
  • Do you stop to talk to the people around you, or just rush past them?
  • Do you find time to read and think about what you read? (Or do you just read the titles of papers, their abstracts, or tweets about them?)

How we do with respect to these questions might be something we ask ourselves, or we might ask colleagues to tell us if we’re not doing a good job on these things. To me, quality is about focus, about knowing what’s important, and about delivering what we commit to – it’s about being meaningfully productive, not just busy.

 

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?