Network talking different languages

Posted by & filed under CSAG blog, Frontpage.

Let’s try this again. This is my second attempt at writing my first CSAG blog. I made the classic error the first time around of biting off more than I can chew. And then I made the equally classic error of going to look at what others had written for their blog entries and got intimidated by how cogent and compelling their contributions are, which is a sure way of getting a bad bout of writers block. But now I’m back and ready to try another angle…

I was initially writing about how I think “science and society” is not as divided or separated as that phrasing suggests, one that is often used by climate scientists grappling with their role and responsibilities. This line of thinking has been brewing in me for a long time, throughout my engagements with CSAG. And it was ignited again when participating in a CSAG seminar Bruce Hewitson recently gave on climate science research frontiers and who determines or shapes what these frontiers are. But, as I said before, getting into the complexities of the relationship(s) between scientists and others in society proved to be a bit too ambitious for a first blog post. Although it did lead me back to the work of Roger Pielke Jr, who proposes four idealized roles that climate scientists can and do play:

1)      the “pure scientist” focused on generating new scientific knowledge with little or no consideration for how it might be used;

2)      the “science arbiter” who avoids normative positions and commenting on policy options but engages with decision makers by communicating their scientific research and/or responding to scientific questions they have (and avoiding normative or political questions they may pose);

3)      the “issue advocate” who actively tries to promote a particular policy option or course of action that they see as being most justified by the best available science;

4)      the “honest broker of policy alternatives” who actively participates in the decision-making process, together with other stakeholders, seeking to explore the scope of options and collectively arrive at an agreed course of action.

I think it can be productive to reflect on these idealized roles not only in terms of different individuals each playing one of these roles but rather how an individual can potentially play each of these roles in different contexts and circumstances. It is only really by playing the first role that science can possibly be conceived of as being somehow separate from society (even that feels like a stretch to me as the production of science and the stature of scientists is very much socially constructed). In each of the other three roles, scientists are playing a direct part in shaping societal outcomes and so are very much part of society and social processes, be those political, economic or otherwise. But, as I said earlier, I then got into a bit of a tail spin about what all this might mean and so decided, in the pursuit of getting this blog post completed and online, to try a different tack. However, luckily Pielke’s characterization has proven to be useful in my second attempt at writing this blog, so all is not lost.

I’ve decided to turn to a topic closer to home for me, that of doing embedded research. The reason for addressing the embedded research topic is that we are currently advertising two of the new embedded researcher jobs created within the FRACTAL project (one in Lusaka and one in Durban). In drafting and circulating the adverts for these posts I have been thinking a lot about who might be tempted to apply, what might attract them to the role and what they might benefit from and be challenged by in the role. Drawing on my own experience of working as an embedded researcher in the City of Cape Town local government over three years (2012-2015) I can honestly say it is a tough but rewarding role, for the right person of course. If you want to be a pure scientists or even a science arbiter, by Pielke’s definition, then it’s likely to be an uncomfortable space because demands will be made on you that you feel exceed your preferred role. But if you are keen to learn first-hand the nitty-gritty of what challenges and demands are being faced and prioritized on the ground in a city, how government works (at least in part) and where some entry points are for change, and then to work backwards from there to figure out how climate change maps onto all of this, then it’s a very stimulating role to be in. The research part means that you have the time, space and mandate to look at the literature and speak to researchers and practitioners working on/in other cities to draw on experiences and insights from elsewhere to try and understand better what is happening in the city you are working in – a luxury that many government employees have little time and scope for. While the up-side is that you get to work across the research and local government domains, learning a lot in the process, connecting with a variety of people and hopefully contributing a lot too, the down-side is that you become somewhat of an anomaly in both. You no longer neatly fit into either as a member of the tribe, but rather you are a hybrid that can move between the two. You get to work with a whole spectrum of colleagues, from the theoretical to the operational and much in-between. Some of these colleagues will be very supportive of and interested in your area of work, others will be dismissive and even obstructive, especially if you (are perceived to) take up the role of issue advocate pushing a course of action (justified by the best available science) that clashes with the agendas of others. Working with this diversity of colleagues and contexts provides ample opportunities for learning valuable skills, like how to (re)frame your questions, inputs and feedback to connect with people coming from different starting points and how to relate a scientific finding to a policy concern or a planning controversy, which are critical skills for becoming an honest broker of policy alternatives. The lessons one can learn from being in this relatively unique position are invaluable if you see a need for and value in bringing theory and practice or science, policy and operations closer together in ways that can contribute to increasing the health, wellbeing and integrity of society and the earth system as a whole. It’s not for everyone, that’s for sure, so you’ve got to find the fit that works for you.

Comments are closed.