Landscapes Podcast: Landscapes and interdisciplinarity (Beth Cole)
A question of how to advance upon the ecosystem services concept leads to lessons of how to work collaboratively across disciplines.
Lesson’s Learned Writing (a blog by Beth Cole
Music: Kilkerrin by Blue Dot Sessions (www.sessions.blue), Creative Commons license Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International (CC BY-NC 4.0)
*The transcript has been edited lightly for comprehension and read-ability
[00:00:38] Adam Calo: In an earlier episode of the podcast, I talked with Dr. Janet Fisher, where we discussed the rise to dominance of the ecosystem services framework and its limitations for resolving problems in landscape decision-making.
Around that same time, a group of researchers made up of ecosystem modelers artists, ecologists and social scientists were getting together to ask: If the ecosystem service concept has run its course, how might we think of more holistic strategies for deciding how to use or how to treat land?
Part of this episode summarizes and academic paper that was produced through these collaborations. In this episode, I speak with the lead author of that paper, Dr. Beth Cole, who is senior advisor in earth observation at Natural England.
Beyond the content of the article, what this episode really offers is a deep look into how the concept of landscapes forces interdisciplinary work. The lessons about processes for negotiating embedded, disciplinary worldviews, and ingrained forms of knowledge production are valuable for how to do research in their own right.
But these learnings bear striking resemblance to the group's conclusions about how to make more convivial decisions on the land.
Here's Beth Cole.
[00:01:52] Beth Cole: So the paper really looks at the ecosystem service concept -- or framework as a concept-- and identifies some of the challenges with it as a concept and comes to the idea that actually for landscape decision making, which is a complex kind of process, we need to enhance that concept, which has been fairly well established now and add in, a set of sort of complimentary approaches.
We've called them lenses. They're more viewpoints of things that should be considered to go alongside that concept to make sort of more holistic decisions. So we identified the lenses as we called them as, power or market gain, ecosystem services – that's the existing one that we're enhancing—cultural landscapes and ecocentric, and the idea was by bringing in different viewpoints and perspectives, we can make better, more holistic decisions. We've also propose a framework as a way of kind of trying to align these lenses. We don't give an exact one size fits all answer as the way to do it, but we kind of propose how they might sit alongside each other.
[00:03:06] Adam Calo: So isn't the ecosystem service framework already attempting to do this in some way? Isn't some of its core argumentation that it is able to provide a more holistic view of values and relationships on the landscape. So why, why does it need this modification?
[00:03:20] Beth Cole: It's good at what it does. It's good at what it's good at, but it's not good at everything. It's got some failings or, well shortcomings, I should say more. We basically say, let it do the stuff it can do well and think from completely different viewpoints to try and do the extra stuff. The things that it's not so good at are identifying values or, cultural perspectives that are things that can't really be identified as services because the whole sort of framework concept is based around the fact of what nature provides for humans, what the benefits or services to human wellbeing.
There are some things that it’s just inadequate at valuing. So we're saying let's not scrap it, then throw the baby out with the bath water, but equally let's try and add to it and really try and incorporate some of the elements of the complex sort of decision-making.
[00:04:19] Adam Calo: One of the key narrative structures in the paper is the discussion of this flower petal diagram, because it does seem that the ecosystem services framework does have a trend in research to try and take on these more complicated and complex and contested valuation processes by doing research on them, just understand and translate them into the kind of service language. In the flower pedal diagram, the paper talks about how the ecosystem service framework attempts to add more pedals at different types of values and relations into the framework. But the paper suggest that at some point that type of logic is flawed, correct?
[00:05:02] Beth Cole: Yeah, I think we argue that we should stop adding petals and add different viewpoints to sit alongside the concept, because I think you can keep adding petals forever, but it will start to just get over complicated. What the concept is struggling with is, not always giving equal weight to some of the harder to achieve and value services.
[00:05:28] Adam Calo: So the paper writes “we argue that we cannot simply keep adding petals or expanding the ES concept further. We need a more holistic way of approaching landscape decisions one which includes the valuable insights afforded by the ES concept, but which acknowledges how ES represents a particular worldview. That must be supplemented by a suite of other perspectives and approaches.”
I wonder, in this quote, you kind of get the core argument of the paper, but in one sense, it also seems to embrace a certain epistemology. One more from a social constructionist perspective. Do you think for the more biophysical scientists who are participating in this … It seems like a hard pill to swallow for someone who deals more in empirical research aimed at identifying objective truths.
[00:06:13] Beth Cole: The biophysical scientists who were involved, who were actually mainly focused on ecosystem service modeling and enhancing that modeling and working out how to combine models in a better way t make the concept more complete… actually really did accept this as a viewpoint because they were saying –I think I was actually pleasantly surprised how it wasn't such a hard thing for them to accept because they are aware they're fully aware of the challenges and that you can't quantify everything. And the ecosystem service model is very good at quantifiable factors, but it's not so good at the unquantifiable and the taking into account the subtle differences and the more local based knowledge that you really can't feed into a generic wide viewpoint.
[00:07:06] Adam Calo: So perhaps there's an important opening there by a reflective attitude amongst people who work with this framework, you know, day in and day out. Otherwise there's no space for this kind of collaboration.
[00:07:18] Beth Cole: Yeah. And I think the people who we were working with on this were quite open-minded and quite keen to include some of the other ideas from the other disciplines, because ultimately that is enhancing the whole process of for decision-making. By being open to addressing ideas from different viewpoints, They are ultimately progressing the area know it's just very complex. And if they can add tools to that complexity, that's the benefit, but they're not trying to have a one size fits all, I can do everything type of attitude.
[00:07:56] Adam Calo: And I wonder, if the umbrella concept of landscapes and landscape decisions helps facilitate that as well? If it was, you know, an environmental sciences project, or something looking at biodiversity decline, then maybe it's not as open to reflection as something as broad as landscapes.
[00:08:17] Beth Cole: Landscapes in themselves are a very broad, complicated inter-relational thing there's so much that comes under that landscape umbrella and what people consider landscapes are and what they do and what they provide and what they mean to people is in itself a very wide, broad concept.
And I think what this program has really done is to try and take some of the issues that are being developed within disciplines, which fall under that and trying to widen them out and say, put things against each other and say, we can't just keep working within our own disciplines on this topic, because ultimately it is a net is a massive complex topic that interweaves with each other. And I think being part of the network setup that it is trying to achieve, researchers are now working across disciplines on a much wider, broader scale than they would be answering smaller, specific questions.
[00:09:18] Adam Calo: So in your mind, is that the real promise of interdisciplinarity? It's something that appears almost mandatory in a lot of new funding calls. And I think there's a lot of recognition that interdisciplinarity does something good, but, quite what it does is unclear or how to do it is also unclear.
[00:09:37] Beth Cole: Yeah, I think most people accept the interdisciplinarity is a positive thing. I think ultimately complex problems are never going to be solved by one viewpoint by one discipline. I mean, in general, in research, big complex problems need to be viewed from multiple angles. And I think the interdisciplinary approach really allows people to think outside the box.
I think within the interdisciplinary sort of wider escape, you still do need the focused research in one topic to answer elements of problems. But I think the promise of interdisciplinary is by linking those up and joining them, being able to answer much bigger, much more complex questions, because you are sort of viewing things from lots of angles.
[00:10:28] Adam Calo: It's almost kind of a parallel to the conclusions of the paper, right? To recognize these multiple approaches, but then somehow bring them to the table at the same time. Can you tell me about why these writing groups were formed and what, what their goal was?
[00:10:44] Beth Cole: They came directly out of a big, workshop which was a program wide workshop. So it included all the researchers and principal investigators, and everybody involved on the projects under the landscape decision program. And at the end of it, we proposed some writing groups for people to self-select. They volunteered. You could sign up for them if you, if you wanted to. I went through all of the outputs from the workshop –the notes and the report at the end of the workshop to sort of pick out some themes of things that have been talked about quite a lot, or that were hot topics, or that were discussed that people engaged with in the workshops and the discussions afterwards.
We had initially a long list and then we've got it down to a short list of questions and themes of things that came up as outcomes of the workshop. We talked through refining those initial themes into some specific questions or working titles, but we did make sure that we had a range of disciplines in each of them and that everybody who wanted to be involved could be.
And that's how they were formed.
[00:11:50] Adam Calo: So there's already some interesting process elements here because you have a larger program with an unusually large group of disciplines. Because this is a program that includes, you know, biophysical scientists, social scientists, and then the arts and humanities are actually strongly represented. The deciding of the themes you were already kind of instrumental here in trying to translate what everyone was talking about into a couple of clear buckets.
[00:12:16] Beth Cole: So to do that, I went through the notes and the recordings of all of the sessions, because it was quite a big workshop. It went over multiple days. And it was picking out things that were talked about more than once or that got people's attention or that were talked about from different viewpoints.
[00:12:35] Adam Calo: But this sounds like a really important step because if you had come back to the broader group and presented four themes that have a whole three-day workshop of contentious and pressing issues in the environment and society, and the themes you presented were not well received, then you wouldn't have the buy-in to actually embark on the next step, which is some kind of collaborative project.
[00:12:58] Beth Cole: So I came up with a long list initially myself, which I think I had about 10 or 12, maybe? And I took that to the rest of the program coordination team, who were like a smaller working group and we slightly refined the wording of them. I think we kept all 10 in there, but maybe we just slightly shuffled them. And then they were presented to the people who were interested in participating.
[00:13:25] Adam Calo: And were you comfortable with this prioritization? Did you feel it was kind of an ad hoc democratic process, but at some points there was kind of more directive decision making being used? At any point, did you think, “Ooh, I wonder if we're kind of silencing some of these voices? Or did you think that this was going above and beyond what is usually done in terms of prioritization of a research project?
[00:13:46] Beth Cole: I think I was happy with it because it became quite clear in the discussions, which the favorites were. I don't think there was any that just got pushed to one side or cut out because there wasn't a take-up often it was more that they were actually maybe a bit overlapping or a bit similar or had slightly different focuses, but were on the same theme.
So they were maybe combined or we discussed, which one of the two would work better in, in reality when written up. So I think it was a quite organic process just in making sure we were including lots of views. I don't think any topics just got shoved under the carpet.
[00:14:28] Adam Calo: You have this theme for a paper, which is the role of the ecosystem services framework on landscape decision-making, which you kind of pulled out of a couple of days of interdisciplinary workshopping, and then a number of writers from different disciplines show upon a zoom call, essentially.
Can you describe how those first meetings go? How did it move from this broad theme into this critique of ecosystem services and the idea of multiple lenses or, or worldviews, and suggesting that that's the way forward in into bringing about landscape decision making?
[00:15:03] Beth Cole: The whole process has taken quite a long time. At the time I was thinking this is going on forever, this is taking ages. But in reflection, looking back, I don't actually think that's a bad thing because it allowed a lot of time for discussions and each meeting wasn't necessarily just about the focus of what's going into which paragraph of the paper.
It was more about discussing the concept and the ideas and how to bring in how to combine these ideas and viewpoints, and actually really spending time to listen and appreciate each other's ideas from the different disciplines. So the first meetings were quite, if I remember back that far, they were quite formal. As the chair, I had to go in quite structured with what I wanted to talk about addressed in that meeting. But at the time we were a third of the way through say there were much more organic and much more self-leading and much more people got to know each other and what people were prepared to talk and chat.
And the, the conversation just sort of led itself slightly more. You then went into the next phase of, “we actually do need to write something to get some of this structured and down.” And how are we going to turn these interesting thoughts into a paper? And I think the process it's interesting how the meetings themselves changed as the process was going through, the different stages.
So the first meetings I would say were a bit more formal. People were a bit more shy. It took awhile to get to know each other and bring out confidence to be able to speak. And then once the ball was rolling, the group really did just gel and it was quite easy to get discussions.
[00:16:45] Adam Calo: You could write about this topic in so many ways. So what were some of the key insights or boundaries that were created through either those formal or informal sessions that brought about even a sense of, at least performed consensus, if not, true consensus around what the writers thought was important to contribute in this?
[00:17:06] Beth Cole: I don't know if we had any boundaries. I really actually looking back, can't think at which moment we came up with the like, penny dropping to have the lenses. I think we'd been talking about different viewpoints for quite a while. And that we, I think very quickly, we came to the idea that we needed to be holistic and consider everyone's views.
And we were quite conscious that we needed to bring in all the decisions. But the idea of formalizing them into what we could then have now subsequently called lenses … I think it was literally somebody was talking and somebody else chipped up and said, I think what you're saying is that we need to view this through different lenses and we all stopped and suddenly went, yes, that's it that's exactly it.
There was not a formal process in that that was what was going to happen and that we were going to try and work out lenses and what fitting our viewpoints into them. It was more that they came out of the discussions that we were having.
[00:18:04] Adam Calo: So I wonder if this kind of informal unstructured time is one of the secret ingredients to create this process? As you're describing it, that seems a really poor match for the majority of how academia is structured, don't you think?
[00:18:19] Beth Cole: Yeah, and I think you can only be informal for a certain amount of time. There was a point at which we then needed to work out how that was going to make a paper and how that was going to fit on the page and structure it. And that sort of was at the net the next phase, so to speak. So once we had decided that we were going to do this lens approach and we'd kind of talked about what they would be, we then really had to sort of get ourselves into line and start to work out how it would form as a paper.
And to do that, we actually spent at least one, if not, two sessions, really working out a structure for the paper and what bits would go where and how the story would unfold on the page.
So I think yes, the formality at the beginning was good because it meant that we really got into the depths of the discussions and what came out was good. But I think you can't do that for too long.
[00:19:18] Adam Calo: You've written a blog that is summarizing some of the lessons learned from this process. And in it, you write nuances can be ingrained in language , subtleties in an argument need to be explored and not just lost in translation. It is helpful to have a person in the group who pays attention to the translation aspect, who takes time to listen and interjects if meaning is being lost or confusion sets in.
I wonder if you can give an example of this when this happened in the context of the paper? It sounds like this is this kind of key role of taking advantage of the informal discussions and giving an even playing field of conversation and translating it into something.
[00:19:53] Beth Cole: I think there's no doubt about it. One of the biggest challenges that interdisciplinary working brings with it is a different use of language by different disciplines. Sometimes, people can be using language or phrases or terminologies that quite clear to them, but might be not as clear to somebody from a different discipline. And actually sometimes we worked out that people were talking from two different viewpoints about an issue and sounded like, not argumentative, that's too strong, but you know, it might be disagreement when actually somebody could chip in and say, but I think you're agreeing, I think you're saying the same thing, but you're just saying it very differently.
And actually just having the dynamics within the group, that somebody could listen to the two arguments and actually, I think often that came from an external third party who might not be in one of the two disciplines, you know, might not be in one of the two camps or the two disciplines who could say, you know, from an external point of view, “I think what you're saying is very aligned. You're just saying it slightly differently” Or, “you might be putting emphasis on a slightly different point.” And sometimes just happened where somebody would just chirp up and just say it, and then the penny would drop and everyone would say, yes. Yeah, we get it.
Or other times I think you did just need to be a bit more aware that people might be disagreeing that using quite conflicting language to do that. And actually then you'd just have to I think mainly as a chair, especially you'd have to just be aware of that and really be taking the time to listen to everyone's viewpoints and work out what the style of language they were using.
[00:21:35] Adam Calo: I think I was probably guilty of this a couple of times in the meeting, because we're so trained in the jargon around disciplines. I remember going on some diatribe about epistemological commitments and one of the senior members of on in the writing group said, you know, Adam, you, you can't use that language because we don't know what you're talking about.
And I was like, really? This is actually core to what I do every day, but maybe not only having a translator there, but also kind of being a little bit more humble in trying to understand where our own language is generated and how that can be exclusive.
[00:22:07] Beth Cole: It's a bit about assumed knowledge, isn't it? It's something that's very common everyday usage to you, or that you might think is quite basic because you use it so frequently. You don't know that it is actually, or you've forgotten over time that it is actually a more technical or ingrained or quite a depth of knowledge in the language that you're using because you don't it's become so familiar to you.
So I think, yeah, it's a bit about taking the time to think about your own language, but also developing the relationships in the group. So somebody could say to you, oh Adam, we don't quite get that. Can you say it again in a different way? And not being nervous, not sitting there thinking, oh, I'm not as clever ,I can't do it, I can't understand what he's saying. He's saying something that's above my head. It's probably not. It's just probably that it's a different use of language that you're not used to hearing. And you could probably quite easily grasp the concept if different words were used. So I think building up the relationships within the group, so people feel that they can speak up and say, can you just reword that?
Can you just say it again and not feeling like they need to sit there in silence because they don't think they understand.
[00:23:21] Adam Calo: One of the areas of tension that I noticed, if you want to call it tension in the group, was around the notion of power relations.
So the, the paper tries to suggest that there are other viewpoints that are valid and understanding landscapes and landscape decisions that should help inform these decisions beyond the ecosystem services concept, which is fairly dominant in terms of, you know, a lot of research and policy-making circles.
But then the question for me, and I noticed a lot of debate about this in the group is how, how do you negotiate which of these are more powerful and where they derive their power? And then if we do want them to be held equally or more equally, what needs to be changed so that, that can actually be achieved instead of just saying we should listen to these other viewpoints?
[00:24:06] Beth Cole: So in the latter section of the paper, we talk about how to actually try to align these viewpoints, how to include them. And it is acknowledged that ultimately the people who are making the decisions, even though they can listen to all the viewpoints from all the different lenses and take into account all of the sources of knowledge, which is what we're advocating in the paper, they have to make a decision.
And that decision will probably be biased upon where their views, which of the lenses their own viewpoint sits closest to. So how to balance that the power between the different viewpoints is tricky, and we've tried to set out a couple of ways to make sure all the viewpoints are on the table but I think ultimately no matter how you say it and how you put them together, people are going to feel more aligned to one viewpoint than another facilitating, being able to weight those viewpoints in an equal way is something that is very, very hard to do.
[00:25:23] Adam Calo: When I think about it just now, it almost seems as a more fundamental challenge to the ecosystem services framework, than I was thinking about it when we were writing the paper, because one of the whole ideas of the ecosystem service framework is to flatten these power dimensions by bringing people together around a common framework.
But then if we're saying that in that it might seem like you have a common framework, but you actually end up silencing a number of viewpoints that are actually really useful into making decisions.
[00:25:52] Beth Cole: I mean, I think what we try to do is give a couple of ways to align the lenses and make sure all the information is heard, but I don't think we've hit the nail on the head completely. I think there is, there's still going to be power battles between how much the lenses are taken into account. We just have to try to present ways that minimize that as much as we possibly can at this stage.
[00:26:24] Adam Calo: So the paper in its current form gives this example of a decision of a local authority or being required to allocate land for new homes, but also needing to keep other ecosystem values in check, like reducing flooding and, and increasing carbon capture. Could you describe how these different lenses might view this issue?
[00:26:46] Beth Cole: If we go through the lenses in turn, without considering them all together, each one in on its own would probably come out with quite a different outcome to that decision that needs to be made. So we we've put it in context for saying the power of market gain lens would probably look at evidence existing on land ownership structures, the cost of different options and how they might benefit the communities, and the wider financial benefits of in different schemes. And they might favor developing sort of premium high cost housing that might therefore produce more income for that for the area or for the land, the landowners, or build upon what the greatest gains are for the community, which might end up with probably more higher density housing in that situation. The ecosystem service lens would probably put more of an emphasis on the way which natural land provides benefits to the site to provides the benefits and values to the society. So it would look at the flood management and the carbon sequestration and might favor some more nature-based solutions. So things like natural flood management, where it will plant trees in within the catchment, they look at the nonfinancial benefits as well as the just the financial gain really.
So they'll probably think about the wider benefits. So things like air quality, noise, recreation, crop, pollination, biodiversity, as well as just the amount of where the maximum gain financial gain from the housing location. It focuses on the position of the new houses, but it would recognize that we need, we need the houses, so we would need to build some, but it might be the positioning of them will be informed by other decisions as well. So they might include green spaces within the housing or planting trees upstream to prevent some of the flooding above the catchment.
The cultural landscape lens would use the housing allocation to sort of re-people the landscape, maybe providing cheaper, rural affordable houses in the communities, regenerating the rural economies and connecting the people in the landscape with people to the landscape, people that live there or to the lands. And maybe focus on sort of promoting population growth within the existing population, preserving the characteristics and the sort of shared local knowledge of the landscapes. They look at very place specific solutions and look into the past or the cultural and the current cultural connections with the landscape. And finally, the ecocentric lens, which would probably question more about whether the land needs to be really used for housing or dedicated to human housing and how much has already used for that purpose, whether the existing housing could be improved, whether that would be sufficient.
And also whether there's a balance of habitats taking into account the other species in the area. It might focus on looking at the connectivity of the habitats and the heterogeneity of different types of biodiversity at different scales. So each of them would probably have a different focus in the way that they approached the same landscape decision.
[00:30:25] Adam Calo: Yeah. And I think what's really interesting about that is you could imagine some kind of decision-making body that is wholly made up of one of these worldviews. And then the result is a drastically different outcome on the landscape.
[00:30:37] Beth Cole: Yeah. I think where the houses were built, the amount of houses, the type of density, whether the flooding reduction had an equal weight to the houses, or whether it was a secondary thing that, you know, was just a tick box exercise or whether they really did want to achieve that could be very, very different depending on the people or the group of people making the decision.
[00:31:00] Adam Calo: And then let's say that using the same example of the hypothetical one that's given, How do you then bring these lenses together? What would it actually look like in terms of a space where these different forms of knowledge, where they are heard are presented and then that leads up to some kind of decision about how to build houses and where to build them and what shape it should take
[00:31:20] Beth Cole: What we propose is really that with the aim is that you're giving equal weight to each lens. That you integrate all the information from each of the lenses. So the information that's provided by each lens could be quite different in its form. It could be, quite narrative in one sense, or it could be quite quantitative from another lens.
And the, with the aim to get a convivial consensus, the process of doing that is tricky. And I think we, we basically say that to do that, you need to really ensure that you get the representation of all lenses brought to the table. You talk about multiple solutions and you talk through the impacts of different multiple solutions in a transparent conversation, which can then go through a cyclical cycle.
So you can go round it multiple times until agreement is made. Well, all of the sort of multiple dimensions of a solution are really taken into account in the decision. You'd need to look at the different scales of information and knowledge that could be brought to the table from the different lenses, the types of knowledge and voices that are heard from the different lenses, because they will provide different types of information and make sure that then some of the voices aren't overlooked
[00:32:46] Adam Calo: So listening to this process, obviously I agree with something like this that could be tried but one of the key critiques of the ecosystem services framework is the transaction costs of doing all these types of analyses for all of these decisions.
But now we're almost suggesting to add even more transaction costs of some kind of multi-layered iterative, decision-making framework. Isn't this too slow or, how would you respond to a critique that says we actually need more authoritarian decision making because of the pressing environmental problems that we face?
[00:33:17] Beth Cole: I don't think it has to be that much slower. I think all we’re saying is don't ignore people's views. Don't ignore sections of viewpoints or sections of knowledge.
I think it's a fairly simple message ultimately, and setting up the process to be able to do that might be a bit tricky, but I think the main message is don't just model. Don't just consider the numbers. Make sure you do do that and you are aware of what the implications on nature are for your decisions. Don’t be blinkered basically.
[00:33:50] Adam Calo: I'm wondering if going through this process, you know, you've written this blog about some thoughts about interdisciplinarity. One of the key papers that I have always gone back to is about this is a paper titled. Is Interdisciplinary research a mashup? And the kind of question they asked there is if we are looking at a problem and this problem is landscape decision-making and we just look at it from one discipline and then in the same paper, kind of look at it from another, have we achieved interdisciplinarity or do we need to do some creative translation, in order to actually come out with a new emergent property of some kind?
What do you think about this concept? And do you think that we achieved that? Or did we just, do the lower hanging fruit of just putting the different disciplines next to one another.
[00:34:36] Beth Cole: I think the idea of a mashup is that to integrate different ideas and you put them together in a new way. I'd say it's a creative undertaking that produces something in a way that is new. I don't think true interdisciplinarity—good interdisciplinarity doesn't just put two ideas next to each other. There is some kind of translation involved in it to mesh them. What we've done here in this paper, I think, we need, you need to consider things from different viewpoints.
But we're, I think have tried to integrate them in a way where, when we were defining the lens, we looked at lots of elements from different viewpoints. I don't think we just said, you looked at it from A, then you go to B, then you go to C and then you go to D. I think we really, in those definition of those lenses, we really did start to break down and integrate some of the viewpoints from many disciplines and mesh them together.
I would say we've not just gone for the low hanging fruit of putting different disciplines or views next to each other on the page and saying, you need to consider them all. But I think we, what we, we haven't done, which I think would be a bad thing, would be to really rip apart each individual viewpoint and say, that's not valid on its own because we're saying they are all valid.
[00:36:02] Adam Calo: And I guess that's the kind of hopeful aspiration that the paper argues is that decision-makers those with the hand on the levers to make these big changes in the landscape would do the same.
[00:36:13] Beth Cole: I think it is quite an idealistic viewpoint. But I think , this is a good place to be fairly idealistic and put those things forward. If you can't do it in a paper where you're proposing a new way of looking at things, then I think it's a -- I think it's a good thing to be positive and idealistic in this.
[00:36:31] Adam Calo: I will say something very interesting, that kind of gives insight into this process into the actual gears is that we had these conversations as a whole group. And then there was delegation of tasks. And at some point, I was in charge of writing a certain lens or at least a few paragraphs about a lens, for example, you could tell, one could tell that where I was writing those because of that ownership.
I was writing in a little bit more of my home discipline. Reviewing the paper, you could tell where that was coming out from others. That meant that you, as the lead author, would have to then renegotiate some of the collective agreements after these, individual delegations were assigned.
[00:37:13] Beth Cole: Yeah, so I would say that was part of the editing process took quite a while. I mean, it was iterative as we went along and I think we had a system where people were given an allocation of a chunk of writing to take charge of. And when we put them all together, there was a process where other authors from the group could comment or edit or make, make remarks.
They helped clarify points often, helped identify areas where it needed more explanation. Or also at some points did temper or bring down some of disciplined language, from particular authors. .And I would say it was quite a slow process because it did take quite a few goings over to make sure that we edited it so it flowed. And so it wasn't very disjointed piece of work with lots of different styles of writing in it, but equally keeping true to some of those voices that, initially wrote the sections because they were allocated based on people's expertise and their knowledge of where they had, input into the discussion.
[00:38:24] Adam Calo: So you gave us all a bone to chew on … I wonder, I did feel like there was a lot of trust in you as the lead author and the convener of these chair groups. How did you build that trust? And what's your research background? How did you come to the point where you embrace interdisciplinary collaboration as opposed to kind of working at the forefront of some kind of disciplinary field?
[00:38:44] Beth Cole: I think that trust well was very kindly granted to me really, through building up relationships with working with the working with the group for quite a long time. And that goes back to the same point about saying, don't try to rush the process.
I think an element was that this paper did fall within my field. So I felt I had quite a bit of confidence in being able to edit the text and lead the discussions because I understood the discussions. And I knew from my background that I knew the viewpoint.
I hadn't however, worked and done anything like this sort of leading an interdisciplinary group before. So a bit of it was learning on the job and just being able to apply skills I'd gained throughout my previous experiences, trying to take time to really consider and think about other disciplines and be aware myself that I needed, just learn how to do that and have a go. And I think my background, which where I have worked in ecosystem service modeling, and I have a remote sensing background, but I've always been very applied and with a terrestrial sort of ecosystem service side of that stuff.
I did feel that having the subject knowledge allowed me to have some confidence. On some of the other groups, the writing groups, where I felt less ownership of the topic or less confident in the content, I think the editing process is harder and slower and I've handed over a lead authorship on one in particular to somebody else. Because it's just really not in my comfort zone to be editing at that level.
[00:40:29] Adam Calo: Was this the same one, that there was a little bit more conflict around where the paper was going?
[00:40:33] Beth Cole: Yeah. It's the group we call “scales” and the actual final working title of the paper is being defined fully at the moment, but that one has ended up being a much more heavily social science driven paper, which is where I don't have the skills I would say in, lead authoring a social science paper in its own right. It takes into account the views of some of the physical scientists, but the main conflict really has been around very different viewpoints of what scales are –the really real fundamentals about how to align social science and arts and humanities viewpoints with the more biophysical or physical scientists on what just really the basics of the notion of what scale is.
So the conceptual theory, with cultural constructions or social production of scale versus the empirical measurements of distance, from sort of mathematical point of view has been a more of a contentious issue in that paper.
[00:41:40] Adam Calo: That's really fascinating. I feel like you have the ability to write a paper about comparing these two processes, because I feel like I could probably have raised a number of conceptual roadblocks to thinking about ecosystem services and landscape decisions, but presenting those roadblocks wasn't necessarily going to affect reaching a new consensus. So why bring them up? And maybe that's a failure because then it's leaving out a more deeper in reconcilable critique?
[00:42:07] Beth Cole: Yeah, but I think maybe by putting up roadblocks, it maybe makes the discussions slightly richer, should we say? Or more really challenges people's views, and makes them think about what their views are to a greater extent, I would say, but it makes the aligning those views and trying to come to some sort of consensus of what the focus of what is going into the paper a much trickier issue.
In those discussions, we maybe have had more meetings where we feel like we've gone round and round in circles. I think the circles are moving and they are changing, but you do feel like you're discussing similar points for a longer period of time.
[00:42:53] Adam Calo: So maybe even more time and more trust-building and informal relationship is required. If you want to get to that richer level of a deeper engagement.
[00:43:03] Beth Cole: Ultimately there is only a certain amount of time while we're all still employed on the projects and I've still got funding. Out of the two, that one is not yet in review and this paper is, so I think the two processes have pros and cons both ways.
[00:43:20] Adam Calo: A boycott of the knowledge production process over the disagreements … This is raises a lot of more interesting questions, but in your blog about lessons learned from this process, you highlight four elements that you think has made this process work, as it were, in terms of reaching a knowledge output that you feel happy about and is engaging in this field in a productive way. And you talk about language, time,
flexibility and leadership. Do you think you could just give a brief summary of these different dimensions and how they applied?
[00:43:54] Beth Cole: ,I think they broadly all come under the sort of title of working in an interdisciplinary way. That was how I was thinking about the blog because these groups have all been interdisciplinary. So the language one, it's how each subject brings its own language. How we talk about things in different ways, but also, the assumed knowledge and the ways of representing things within different disciplines and how to overcome that in terms of translating between the disciplines and really giving voice to everybody and listening to what everybody's saying. The language one also, it's the discussions, it's the vocal language, but it's also, I think, translates into the written work of different disciplines.
What a social science paper looks like compared to a physical modeling paper or a mathematics paper where they talk about equations is very, very different in terms of writing style and out and the structure and the way the paper looks in the end. The time I think there's just no getting away from building very good interdisciplinary teams that trust each other and are able to have very good discussions takes time. And I don't think you can underestimate the amount of time it takes to build those relationships. Flexibility and the leadership, probably a more focused around the sort of process of getting the paper written more of the logistics of get of it, getting it done.
The flexibility relates, in this instance, was based around the fact that we had to work around COVID restrictions and what was going to be in-person writing retreats quickly changed to being long, slower writing online, with lots of zoom meetings and offline working and coming together to discuss a shared document, but also flexibility in that the way that you approach the writing task at different stages through the process and with different people, there's definitely no one size fits all writing process online, I would say.
And then the leadership, I think, just, it does take somebody to coordinate and I don't think you can write by committee without, somebody steering the ship.
I think the ones that are furthest through the process and that have been submitted or that have been published, have had the strongest leadership hand. And I think that is about chivvying people along. It's about making sure the work is done and also about enabling the discussions, and making sure that we're sort of talking about the right thing at some points in the discussion.
[00:46:48] Adam Calo: One of my mentors has always said that universities and academia are really good at producing first chair violinists, but they're terrible at producing conductors of orchestras. And the point there was that we probably need more conductors of orchestras than we need more first chair violinists when it comes in terms of how experts are engaging with problems of the environment.
Having gone through this experience, if you were a funding agency, or you could tell a funding agency how to replicate this experience, but make it as most productive as possible to bring the benefits of interdisciplinary work to the fore, how would you structure these types of processes?
[00:47:28] Beth Cole: I really liked that analogy with the orchestra and the violinist and the conductors. You do need to conduct. But I think you probably need conductors who know about the topic. They, you couldn't put a, just some generic project manager in who is just there to facilitate the meetings and make sure people work on time.
You need somebody who is engaged in the discussions who understands the subject area from at least one perspective or from at least at least got a base knowledge, in the topic from one viewpoint or another.
I would say to the funding agencies, don't rush these things. Don't always expect outputs -- don't fund lots of six month short projects. Give a bit more time and waiting to some bigger bits of research, because you can't rush interdisciplinarity. I think I would probably say don't try and make them too big. Don't try and have 20 or 30 co-authors because it's too hard to listen to that many voices and for that many people to contribute.
Fund them well. Give people time and employee people whose role is to oversee, but who are not so removed from the process themselves.
[00:48:53] Adam Calo: I think that's a great place to end. Beth Cole, thank you for coming on the podcast.
[00:48:58] Beth Cole: Thank you for having me.