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Talking science: can conversations turn research into action?

Progress on environmental problems, global and local, must involve a “conversing science”, where exchanges of views – or conversations – are commonplace. That is what people ‘out there’ want, says Tim O’Riordan of the University of East Anglia (UEA) – where ‘out there’ means all the places outside academe in which people who want to get involved can be found.

That was his opening sally in a discussion at the 2014 Earth System Governance Conference, taking place this week at the same university, aimed at sharpening thinking about how new kinds of collaboration can be instituted.

This is a not completely new idea, as session moderator and Future Earth interim director Frans Berkhout said. It has been clear since before the Millennium that “we now live in a world with far more open systems of knowledge production”. But Future Earth is trying to build in a recognition of that from the beginning – by ‘designing in’ a commitment to deepen collaboration and to think about the production of knowledge. “We see knowledge production as something that is being done in dialogue, throughout the process”, he said.

That puts Future Earth as a programme in a similar position to the proponents of Earth System Governance, as a shorthand term for thinking about how people manage their relations with Earth systems. If it is to be a concept that leads to action, we need to learn by doing. Similarly, Future Earth will review the literature thoroughly, and will soon issue a discussion paper on how it is thinking about co-production of knowledge and engagement. But it will also learn about this kind of co-production by doing it.

In that light, perhaps all research projects become action research, in some measure. So, it seems, do university courses. You can teach for transformation, said Leslie King, Director of the Canadian Centre for Environmental Education at Royal Roads University, although it is not always easy to to make headway with it in a traditionally organised university. We need new models that involve students in co-inquiry and bring in people from outside the institution – co-production in another incarnation.

Tim O’Riordan, speaking from the experience of more than thirty years of teaching and research at East Anglia, argued passionately that “transformative  research is a fundamental part of student learning, and of their contributions to the community”. It includes giving people the confidence and the capacity to communicate, something Asher Minns of UEA’s Tyndall Centre believed should be part of the work of every scientist. And it can start as early as you like, as Rebecca Farnum showed with vignettes from an environmental education project for teenagers in Norfolk. As she urged, it isn’t right to involve young people “because they are the future” as the clich√© has it, but because they are users – and abusers – of the environment now.

So is transformative learning and co-production a done deal? Far from it. Frans Berkhout posed several key issues that Future Earth must grapple with, which raise questions this session touched on, but did not offer magically effective answers for.

Plurality of perspectives is a given, but also a problem. The metaphor people reach for is discussion in the Agora – the meeting place of the ancient Greek city-state in which citizens (but not slaves) assembled to debate the issues of the day. But modern societies are a bit more complex than references to this cockpit of democracy would suggest. So there must be a plan for who gets invited to join in, and who is excluded.

Once you are in, how does the conversation go? Positioning – Berkhout’s shorthand for disparities in status, power, access to resources, perhaps even a facility to speak in ways that are heard – may impede genuine communication. We need creative ways to deal with this.

That leads on to competences. Scientists are often criticised for being poor communicators – a problem he believed is overstated. But there are still problems in holding genuinely multidisciplinary conversations, and there may be problems of competence among other parties, too, as people discover they need to learn how to better work with scientists.

Incentives direct people’s efforts, but the academic reward system as it stands does not help develop transdisciplinary approaches to global problems. (Tim O’Riordan reckoned it does the exact opposite, reinforcing an obsession with publication and hunkering down in disciplinary silos.) Equally, we need to think about the incentives for non-academics to get involved in the discussion.

Then, having made arrangements to do all this, there is the final issue: what is the end product of co-production? That is, if there is an open system of knowledge production, which is built into a process, there may not be a natural endpoint – any more than there is in a conversation.

Perhaps if knowledge is to lead to action, O’Riordan’s “conversing science” will have to come with the co-production equivalent of licensing hours, and someone to deliver the warning of the traditional English bartender closing the taps and getting ready to lock the doors as the evening draws to a close: “time, please, ladies and gentlemen”.