Tuesday, October 8, 2013

The role of communication in the knowing-doing gap

It’s been a couple of months since I’ve sat down to write a research blog – not so much due to lack of adventures as to lack of time – but recently I’ve been coming across discussions in the world of conservation that have given me some extra inspiration to share my own experiences.  One of these is a blog written by Dr. Toby Gardner, a biologist at Cambridge University’s Department of Zoology, in which he argues that we can’t simply hope that achieving better dissemination of our research will suddenly make human society act in ways that are not detrimental towards the environment.  Rather, he writes, “even the most integrated approach to studying the linked problems and solutions facing the management of environmental resources (or any other problem) in a given region will likely have very little impact if the people who are intended to benefit from, or be influenced by, the work are not intimately involved in the research process itself. Evidence on its own is not enough.”

Madidi park guards presenting a list of priority research
questions for the protected area.  Park guards in Bolivia
are engaged in just more than patrols and fines - they
monitor biological and social indicators and are even
involved in setting national policy in some cases.
With my own research, I’ve been observing this trend that pushes science to have greater impact at several different levels in Bolivia.  In recent months, I’ve been invited to participate in and facilitate such discussions at various government ministries and scientific institutions.  One of these is Bolivia’s National Service of Protected Areas (SERNAP for its acronyms in Spanish) current effort to develop a ‘research strategy’ for the entire protected area system, with the aim of determining gaps in knowledge for improving the management of the entire system.  During two days of workshops in La Paz in August, park staff and representatives of scientific and government institutions met to develop a set of priority research questions for these areas, based on management needs and missing information.  

During Day 2 of discussing the research strategy, scientists
and representatives of academic institutions were invited to join the discussions.

One issue that kept emerging, especially during the second day of the workshop, had to do with the need to go beyond figuring out what kind of research has been done and what is lacking, to discuss how the information will actually be used.  Another question might be, by whom?  Who are those making decisions about land use in these regions, and on what information are they basing those decisions?  Is it enough to involve park management and scientific researchers in the development of research agendas, or should other stakeholders be involved?  And if they are traditionally excluded from such discussions, what needs to be done to change this situation?  

Scientists the the Vice-ministry of the Environment's
Department of Biodiversity (where research permits
for the study of flora and fauna in Bolivia are granted)
discuss the knowing-doing gap in natural resource management.
In tandem to this research strategy, Bolivia’s Vice-ministry of the Environment is also in the midst of developing lines of research in biodiversity and natural resources of national priority.  After giving a brief talk on my research to the Department of Biodiversity, a lengthy and somewhat heated debate emerged on the role of local knowledge and participation in biodiversity research.  One person brought up a situation in which they had to define research priorities in collaboration with indigenous stakeholders in the Bolivian Altiplano, but as the researchers were on a restricted schedule and the local people didn’t show up to the meeting on time, they went ahead and defined topics they found scientifically interesting - animal behavior, genetics, etc.  Afterwards, when it was time to present the information to the stakeholders, the local people disagreed with the priority topics that the researchers had defined, asking, "How is this going to be of use to us?”  Instead of the topics the scientists had come up with, the locals were concerned about a plague of sarna that was affecting the local vicuña population (Vicugna vicugna), and instead wanted to redirect the research agenda towards studying the health of the vicuñas.
Igor Patzi, a Bolivian anthropologist who is helping me to
design workshops with stakeholders, explains the
importance of understanding the concept of 'identity'
when attempting to communicate science with
non-scientists, such as indigenous peoples.
Much of these issues have to do with communication, and its definition as a dialogue towards reaching mutual understanding, as opposed to the one-directional transmission of information.  Many scientists believe that if they can only improve their powers of persuasion, their work will achieve desired impact.  But communication is so much more than that.  During two workshops with the National Herbarium, the key botanical research institute in the country, I facilitated participatory exercises along with other Bolivian researchers, designed to get the attending botanists to reflect on what it means to communicate science to non-scientists, and to better understand the pitfalls scientists tend to fall into when working with people from other walks of life.  Among other issues, we reflected on the importance of appreciating non-scientific worldviews and knowledge, of understanding the local history and culture of places where fieldwork is to be conducted, and of finding ways to incorporate local input into different stages of the fieldwork process.  

During this role playing activity, three 'botanists' attempt to
explain to a 'community' why their scientific inventory of
plants in the region is important, and request permission to
continue to do research in the region.
Some of the most interesting insights came out of the final exercise, during which the botanists had to role-play various scenarios that involved communicating science to non-scientists.  Those stepping into the shoes of the non-scientists (community members, indigenous leaders, etc.) found themselves sometimes aggressively challenging those whose role it was to present the scientific information.  Why should we trust you, they asked, when others have come before and promised things and left nothing behind?  Why should we care about this information?  We already know what species of plants are on our lands and what they are good for.  Why is your knowledge any better than our own? These questions led the scientists to ask themselves what their science and research indeed had to offer these communities, where there is often a great deal of local knowledge about the types of plants and their uses.  

Reflecting a bit on the issues brought up during these various events, I have some questions of my own.  If communicating science is more than the dissemination of information, then what does it mean to incorporate different ways of thinking and seeing the world into other stages of the research process?  What does it mean to truly step inside of the shoes of the other, and shape our work so it makes sense to her way of interpreting what she sees?  And if we believe that it this is way forward for conservation science, then how do we do it?


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