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Why Social Science is the Key to Changing Everything

Apr 20 2016 | Posted in: News Release
By Stacey Solie

Recent research suggests we should pay even more attention to the process of how scientists, policy-makers, and stakeholders engage around natural capital information to co-develop solutions. How these processes unfold has a big influence on whether the information ends up informing decisions. Here, Paulo Petry of TNC, engages a community in a water monitoring training session for the Agua Por La Vida water fund in the Cauca Valley.

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Recently, Stephen Posner, Emily McKenzie, and Taylor Ricketts published research in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences examining the conditions that lead to natural capital information being used in policy and decision-making. Here, we talk to Emily McKenzie about what it means.

Your main finding is that the credibility of natural capital science and other factors were not nearly as important as whether stakeholders perceived the science to be trustworthy, fair, and unbiased. Did that surprise you?

I’m not sure that we learned anything we didn’t already know in our guts, but it’s helpful to test our assumptions.

The big outcomes described in NatCap’s new strategic plan—that include transforming supply chains and commodity standards, and development plans at the scale of entire countries—are enormously ambitious. We will still need robust ecosystem service science and innovation to achieve these outcomes. But the needs for biophysical science pale in comparison to solving challenges with practical implementation. Like getting scientists, stakeholders, and policy-makers to interact regularly, understand each other, and jointly create solutions—and establishing effective governance for natural capital.

Where did the inspiration for this paper come from?

At NatCap’s ten year anniversary in October, the panelists all agreed, “We need more social science research to help us make progress. But we don’t do enough of it.” This is an example where we have put our toe in the water.

In the early days of NatCap, we were wrestling with our theory of change. What changes were we trying to create globally and on the ground? What assumptions underpinned how we would create that change? And was it really playing out in the real world?

NatCap’s full of people who have drunk the natural capital Kool-Aid, to use the American term. We believe that this can create a revolution. Taylor [Ricketts] once said “It keeps me awake at night—are we really doing that?” It’s vital we keep questioning, testing and adapting, learning as we go. I feel lucky to be working with NatCap, with people who have an appetite for that.

Interrogating our theory of change is something I am passionate about. Before my time at NatCap, I had experiences that injected me with the Kool-Aid; I believe that the natural capital approach can work. I’ve seen great successes, for example, my first job that led to a lagoon management plan in the Cook Islands that rescued a black pearl industry. And I’ve been involved in plenty of failures—valuation studies that sit on a shelf and gather dust. So I’m driven to find out when does it work and why does it work? And how can we be more effective? It’s not just measuring our impact, but learning lessons that help us maximize our impact.

How is this paper different than what’s come before?

It’s the first of its kind within the realm of ecosystem services, to take a quantitative approach to this question of what enables impact. It builds on two earlier papers, which together form a series examining NatCap’s impacts.

The first paper, ‘Notes from the field: Lessons learned from using ecosystem service approaches to inform real-world decisions’ that Mary Ruckelshaus led, highlighted what was working and provided a framework for identifying different levels of success. It didn’t use quantitative methods but we were able to capture many lessons we’d learnt through experience in 30 early cases. The second paper, ‘Understanding the use of ecosystem service knowledge in decision-making’, went deep into three spatial planning cases. We used novel techniques like content analysis of stakeholder meetings in Belize to understand how people’s understanding and positions about natural capital changed as they developed their Coastal Zone Management Plan, based on an iterative science-policy process. We looked at: What evidence is there that ecosystem service information is being used? How does it get used? But we didn’t look much at what enables use.

With this latest paper, we were warned off a quantitative approach. It’s really hard to measure the impact of any kind of information. There are so many different things at play. The metrics are tricky. But Taylor encouraged us to give it a try. Steve led us in taking the plunge and developed an innovative quantitative approach to look at what affected our impact. Both qualitative and quantitative methods can provide useful insights. It’s great we are now using both and pioneering frameworks that are proving useful for others.

How might these findings change the way we work?

The findings suggest we should pay even more attention to the process of how scientists, policy-makers, and stakeholders engage around natural capital information to co-develop solutions. It also highlights the importance and challenges of governance and collective action.

To do this, we need to broaden our community further. We need to learn about what’s working and what’s not from those on the frontlines trying to make change happen, many of whom work at our two partner NGOs [World Wildlife Fund and The Nature Conservancy]. We also need to engage with more social scientists. Disciplines that NatCap has not yet tapped can shed light on the science-policy interface and governance. I look forward to a future where we’re working with experts from environmental strategy, management, accounting, sociology, science and technology studies, anthropology, policy evaluation, negotiation, and more.

This has already started to happen. During a workshop at the Natural Capital Symposium on the ‘Challenges of Creating Change’—we went through seven case studies with people on the ground who described: What’s not working? What is working and why? Where are we getting stuck? We had two social scientists—Clément Feger from Cambridge University and Laurent Mermet from AgroParisTech—provided thought-provoking frameworks to help practitioners reflect deeper on how they might overcome blockages.

Did any interesting things emerge?

I was really struck by the emotional responses of participants. It was so cathartic because all of us are trying to create change. Whether it’s the software geek or the science model developer or the person on the front line working with the government or business. There’s a huge community of us. One of the reason’s it’s so fun to work at NatCap is because we’re all deeply committed to trying to create change.

What is it that Gretchen said at the Symposium? “We’re trying to change everything.” That’s a crazy level of ambition, we’re all so passionate about what we do. So these questions run deep: Are we creating change? When are we creating change? How can we create more change?

Perhaps the emotional responses came because the workshop was a bit like therapy (next time perhaps we should have a sofa!). Workshop participants valued the opportunity to stop, reflect, and learn. The social science theories triggered questions and reflections that have the potential to enable us to do two very powerful things: strengthen our theory of change and tell better stories.


Policy impacts of ecosystem services knowledge
Posner, Stephen M., Emily McKenzie and Taylor H. Ricketts
PNAS 113:1760-1765. doi: 10.1073/pnas.1502452113

Posner and Ricketts are from UVM’s Gund Institute for Ecological Economics and Rubenstein School for Environment and Natural Resources. Emily McKenzie works for WWF and the Natural Capital Project. After publication of the paper, Posner joined COMPASS, an organization that specializes in science communication and policy engagement, as Policy Engagement Associate.


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