Tuesday, 30 April 2013

Could the 3Ds breathe new life into farming systems research?

by Jim Sumberg, STEPS centre research fellow

Hans Ruthenberg
Hans Ruthenberg’s Farming Systems in the Tropics, first published in 1971, still stands as a classic. Through detailed and systematic treatment of the major tropical farming systems, he demonstrates how – in principle and in practical application – systems theory can be brought to bear on the analysis of smallholder farming.

While he was neither the first nor the last agricultural economist to advocate a systems approach, Ruthenberg made a major contribution in broadening and enriching the arena of farm management studies. In so doing he also helped set the stage for the development of ‘farming systems research’ (FSR) as an exciting new multi-disciplinary (although most often economist-led) field of study.
Read more

Tuesday, 23 April 2013

Public events in May: climate, justice, planetary boundaries

Next month we're running three public events in Brighton on climate change, social justice and planetary boundaries. These events take place during our annual Summer School on Pathways to Sustainability.

All of them are open to the public and free to attend.

Lecture: Michael Jacobs, Grantham Research Institute / LSE'Capitalism, carbon and climate change'
13 May at 5.30 – 7.00pm
Fulton A Lecture Theatre, Sussex University
(This event is followed by a drinks reception - all welcome)

Lecture: Prof Johan Rockström, Stockholm Resilience Centre
'Planetary boundaries and Sustainable Development Goals'
16 May at 4.00 – 5.30pm
Fulton A Lecture Theatre, Sussex University
(This event is followed by a drinks reception- all welcome) 

Debate: Fuel poverty, climate change and social justice
20 May at 7.30pm
Jubilee Library, Brighton
Public debate as part of the Brighton Festival Fringe with speakers:
  • Kirsty Alexander (Head of Communications, Nuclear Industry Association)
  • Thurstan Crockett (Brighton & Hove City Council)
  • Doug Parr (Chief Scientist, Greenpeace)
  • Jim Watson (UK Energy Research Centre)
  • Chaired by Alice Bell (SPRU – University of Sussex)
Visit the Spring Series event page for more information on all these events.

Read more

Monday, 22 April 2013

Democracy in the Anthropocene?

Planetary boundaries / Illustration from Global Change magazine

STEPS Centre director Melissa Leach recently wrote in the Huffington Post: "When the cover of the Economist famously announced 'Welcome to the anthropocene' a couple of years ago, was it welcoming us to a new geological epoch, or a dangerous new world of undisputed scientific authority and anti-democratic politics?" Melissa's blog has provoked a series of fascinating responses and contributions to a vital debate about the planetary boundaries concept, the use of scientific expertise and authority within political processes, and the nature of democratic involvement in sustainability debates.  

Melissa was reflecting on her experiences as part of a group of experts convened by the United Nations to discuss science and sustainable development goals. She was writing about a particular UN process, and did not claim that the concepts of planetary boundaries, the anthropocene or the scientists developing and working with these concepts, are undemocratic or authoritarian. Far from it.

However she did express concern that the anthropocene could neatly be aligned with top-down, rather than bottom-up solutions to our planet's most urgent challenges: "The anthropocene, with its associated concepts of planetary boundaries and 'hard' environmental threats and limits, encourage a focus on clear single goals and solutions," She wrote. "It is co-constructed with ideas of scientific authority and incontrovertible evidence; with the closing down of uncertainty or at least its reduction into clear, manageable risks and consensual messages."

The Huffington Post piece roused Roger Pielke Jnr, a professor of environmental studies at the Center for Science and Technology Policy Research at the University of Colorado at Boulder in to penning a thoughtful intervention on his blog, entitled Planetary Boundaries as Power Grab. Roger wrote: "For the proponents of planetary boundaries as political authority, issues of legitimacy and accountability are easily dealt with through the incontestable authority of science."

The pieces kicked off a very interesting discussion - which can be followed via the comment sections of both Roger's blog  - where Melissa added further clarification about her original piece - and that of the Resilience Alliance's blog, Resilience Science. The latter became involved through a response to Roger's post from Victor Galaz, Associate Professor and Senior Lecturer in political science at the Stockholm Resilience Centre, where Johan Rockström and colleagues formulated the planetary boundaries concept.

Victor countered that: "There is no such thing as one homogenous “political philosophy” for planetary boundaries. And there is no power grab." He listed a number of "vibrant and diverse ways of studying and exploring the governance implications of planetary boundaries" that help explain how planetary boundaries can be used in open and constructive ways. His piece makes persuasive reading.

Following these debates, two PhD researchers at the University of East Anglia - Martin Mahony and Helen Pallett - have penned some rich reflections about the anthropocene on their blog, The Topograph. First Martin, explored the "relevance of the concept 'Anthropocene' to our understandings of how knowledge and politics, and nature and culture, are related to each other". And then Helen went on to talk about her belief that "as an emergent mode of thinking and acting the anthropocene is a potentially productive concept which goes beyond old certainties, assumptions and forms of action."

All of these pieces make fascinating reading, and the opinions expressed might well make you interrogate your own feelings and thoughts about the anthropocene, scientfic authority and the most effective ways to tackle the challenges facing our people and planet. May this constructive debate continue.

This article was originally posted on the The Crossing.
Read more

Thursday, 11 April 2013

What multidisciplinary means: Nature doesn't care about our building blocks

Rats in a maze, by ithinkx on Flickr (cc-by-nc-nd)
The deeper you dig into most matters, the more complex things become. International development research is no different – and, given that it is people’s wellbeing that is the chief concern here, the imperative to pay due regard to such complexity is great indeed.

Dr Gianni Lo Iacono is a mathematical modeller and a partner in the Dynamic Drivers of Disease in Africa Consortium, a large, multidisciplinary research programme convened by the STEPS Centre. The Consortium is exploring the links between disease, ecosystems and wellbeing.

Gianni recently got to grips with just how ambitious this research programme is and how complex things can become when he undertook a field trip to Sierra Leone. Here, the Consortium is investigating the drivers behind Lassa fever – a rodent-borne viral infection common in West Africa, where there are up to 300,000 cases of the disease and 5,000 deaths as a result of it every year.

Writing on the ‘Nature’ blog Soapbox Science, Gianni explains the attraction of a multidisciplinary project such as the Drivers of Disease one.
I am a strong advocate of the old-fashioned, reductionist approach. Accordingly, any complex scientific problem should be broken down into its basic building blocks. Of course nature doesn’t care about our traditional compartmental division of science and therefore there is no reason to think that the building blocks must belong to one and only one discipline.’
He says that visiting Sierra Leone was ‘an amazing experience’ and that it ‘illustrated clearly that forcing ourselves to allocate each building block of a complex ecosystem to one discipline alone seems only to set up a path for failure’.

The field trip saw Gianni returning to the UK with more questions than answers. You can find out why by reading Gianni’s blog in its entirely at Nature Soapbox Science.

Read more

Friday, 5 April 2013

Celestial (policy) navigation

compass1by Jim Sumberg, STEPS Centre research fellow

The proposition that public policy should be ‘evidence-based’ is now widely accepted (although there is still considerable contestation around the meaning, nature, types, and qualities of evidence, the interpretation of evidence, the politics of evidence etc). The evidence in the phrase ‘evidence-based policy’ is often portrayed as evidence about ‘what works, where and for whom’: the ‘what’ might be a policy or technical intervention, and the ‘works’ is understood as the ability to deliver a particular outcome.

There is a second area of evidence that is less commonly referred to in debates about evidence-based policy. This is evidence about ‘what is, what has been and what is likely to be’, which provides a picture (or more likely multiple, partial and contested pictures) of key structures, institutions, alliances, power relations, drivers, trends, outcomes, dynamics and pathways within a particular sector or policy area. Here there is a critical role for historical evidence as it allows for some understanding of what might be thought of as the ‘baseline of change’.

Read more