CSAG, like many climate research units, is experiencing an ever-growing demand for “climate services”. In this context, I would define climate services as a mechanism for disseminating the results of research to the wider audience be it through capacity building/training, developing learning resources, developing online data sharing resources or through tailored consultancy work. It is the last aspect – climate consultancy – that has grown exponentially in the last few years. I put this down to climate change rising steadily up the political agenda with a directly proportional link to demand for climate information and the expertise to robustly interpret that information.
The decision for CSAG to start engaging with consultancy work did not come from a financial perspective but more out of recognition that we hold the key to precious resources and information that are unique within Africa. In the interests of robust climate change decision-making, it was necessary for us to meet the growing demand and unlock the door to the information we held. Through consulting work, we are now making this expertise widely available. It sounds simple doesn’t it? Everyone’s a winner? Supply and demand?…… But it’s not simple at all.
Consulting and research are not compatible activities. They work on two very different time scales. Research is about making steady and defensible progress in a cutting edge environment, testing results, retesting results and working through a tried and tested peer review process before making those results available for wider scrutiny. Consultancy, on the other hand, works on a very different premise. Results are required NOW (preferably yesterday), for application NOW, and demands are placed on us to produce cutting edge results in the shortest possible timeframe. This results in a shortcutting of the traditional research process in order to keep up with meeting the thirst for information. We are finding ourselves pushed and pulled to get information “out the door” before it has been thoroughly tested for intellectual integrity. Although we endeavour to make all these caveats explicit in all the work we do, as a reputable research unit, this obviously makes us very uncomfortable. But is there really a way around this problem? We either isolate ourselves to undertake our research while, in turn, hindering the application and utility of the information that we generate or we engage in the consultancy arena, unlock the expertise that we hold, and confront the challenges we are currently facing.
In the interests of facilitating the robust application of climate change research, we have chosen the latter. So, we are now attracting a significant portion of consulting work – based on our reputation as a world-class research unit. But, in order to remain a world-class research unit, we need to focus on just that – defensible research. Yet more and more of our attention is being drawn into the consultancy as it appears to come across as the more immediate and pressing issue. So how do we blend the two? How do we remain a defensible research unit that continues to produce cutting edge science while also diverting significant focus and resources to meeting the user demand for tailored climate expertise? Or are these just the hazards of working on a research topic that has become widely applicable in a practical context?
I currently work as a private sector consultant in the environmental impact assessment (EIA) field, which is undergoing a disintegration/transformation process as a result of the conflict between blue chip legislation requirements, a legacy of environmental degradation, a pervasive and rigid developmental viewpoint based on infinite resources/sinks, and rapid global environmental change.
EIA consulting in SA is generally informed by 1) legislation, 2) science and 3) the often chaotic, complex and dynamic situations on the ground. In consultanting to both government and private sector, we already experience and have to work with situations where rapidly changing environments are clashing with regulatory, government and private systems that do not have the knowledge, flexibility or resources to handle such change.
In the absence of robust and readily-available information about climate-science driven long-term principles and / or solutions, these entities resort to applying the old solutions, which are largely based on a solid-state environment. This approach locks in the current development path for the medium to long term, increases risk and vulnerability, and increases costs of adapting at a later stage. Thus the critical need for solutions grounded in climate science, in the field, right now. This is basically what i’m sure you are already aware of, and thus your quandry of the deep research at CSAG experiencing the pull for information transfer to the hot face of the consulting world.
As no expert in the matter but a practitioner in the field, one way forward may be for CSAG to facilitate the transfer of robust principles and research findings to ethically-solid independent consultants, who possibly have at least some background context of ocean and atmospheric science, thereby enabling research institutions such as CSAG to maintain their primary inner focus on cutting edge deep research, while performing a overwatch, sounding-board and resource role for independent consultants. The consultants, in turn, bring their experience of on-the-ground application, risk management, damage control and legislatory frameworks to the picture, and perform the role of transforming the principles and research into practical solutions and development guidelines. Both fields stick to their specialities, while there is information transfer between them. Certainly, the integration of climate science into EIA is currently lacking.
This is perhaps one way in which the large gap between cutting edge research and cutting edge consulting could be collaboratively shortened from both sides. Those few Environmental Assessment Practitioners who still do have a sound ethic and are not sweetheart consultants, are used to performing the very role of balancing the divide between blue chip legislation and realities of the developing and changing world. Having robust science available in this tension is a must. In those cases where the relevant research is not readily available, or still undergoing intellectual integrity screening, best-practice guidelines need to be collaboratively developed to inform decision-making.
A broad sweep, yet time does not wait.
My humble opinion:
I think that trust is the fundamental ethical issue when in pursuit of scientific truth. The lack of trust between the institution and potential beneficiaries could jeopardise the integrity of CSAG. It is clear that Climate Services have grown into an influential sector of the research group; and perhaps this could be accounted for in the way CSAG operates. However, the lack of understanding, by the majority of Climate Services clients, in how research is conducted and the robust mechanisms employed to verify it is not a problem easily solved. I agree with Anna that these issues are consequential, but I also think they can be endured, as long as the risks can be contained and the benefits preserved. CSAG must be vigilant against such conflicts which can lead to bias and possibly loss of objectivity, as the enterprise of research is reliant on it.