Thursday, 29 March 2012

PLANET UNDER PRESSURE: BEYOND SCIENCE?

Planet Under Pressure, which ends today, is a big conference – not only in terms of the crowds of people here, but in the grand scale of the problems we’re here to tackle. Global changes in populations, weather patterns and food systems create complex, interrelated problems. A bewildering array of answers to these problems is on show here, ranging from scientific analyses to governance and policy responses. One of the interesting things to note is how they relate to a variety of forms of knowledge and ways of understanding the world.

On day 1, a discussion about the Least Developed Countries threw up a number of problems about knowledge. The first is strikingly ironic: David Smith’s research on knowledge for disaster relief in island states revealed that records on extreme weather patterns are kept on paper in vulnerable store rooms, which can be damaged by storms or fire. Even collecting the data itself is difficult, as extreme events can destroy or damage the measuring equipment.

In the same session, Genene Mulugeta highlighted the lack of preparedness for disasters in Africa, suggesting that more participation is needed in assessing risk, and that research needs to cross disciplines. Local people’s knowledge can sometimes hold vital clues to coping with disasters, but this knowledge is often overlooked by researchers based in urban centres, focused on gathering empirical data.

Adrian Ely developed this point during the same panel. The STEPS Centre’s New Manifesto on innovation, sustainability and development includes diversity as one of its pillars. Part of this diversity means including more forms of knowledge in assessing or developing new technologies and forms of innovation. The need for inclusion and participation came back again in the STEPS Centre’s panel session on technological futures, where successes in participatory plant breeding were listed – a way for scientists and non-scientists to share valuable information to help create better seeds. And in a session on “global environmental change: perspectives from the global South”, research from Namibia showed efforts to recognise the value of indigenous knowledge in plant science.

Overshadowing all of these questions are risk and uncertainty – and the lack of knowledge that we don’t always want to admit. It's easiest to deal in "known knowns", as Donald Rumsfeld would put it - but what about the other murkier problems, where "we don't know what we don't know"? Science needs to learn from its past mistakes – the problems with the Green Revolution in India, for example, were illustrated by Tom Wakeford with an account of the Prajateerpu hearings (in a session on the governance of emerging technologies). Farmers were able to confront scientists with the reality of the unexpected and negative effects of technology on their livelihoods. This was an unusual example where well-intentioned scientists came face to face with human reality.

Bringing together different forms of knowledge may sound a noble goal, but it’s not easy. Social and natural scientists, for example, find it notoriously difficult to speak the same language. Yet they desperately need each other to overcome some of the big problems discussed at Planet Under Pressure. More than that, official science needs to learn to listen to some of the non-scientific voices with powerful things to say. That’s a challenge that urgently needs to be overcome if we are to move forward.

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