Tuesday, November 5, 2013

Conflict, emotion, & engagement in science: Some context (Part 1)

I am going to write a small series of posts about the role of conflict in an engaged in the natural sciences and, to start, I think it’s important to provide a bit of context. Beginning in graduate school, I spent many years working within the cooperative extension system. I won’t spend a lot of time explaining extension because, well, google, and because many are familiar with it (a good recent piece in Wired is worth a read though). The main thing to say here is that from my perspective it provides one of the most direct, relationship-focused interfaces with communities that a scientist could ever want – it’s fantastic that way. It is an original example of an institutional approach to use-driven or actionable research and outreach; it's a system that was designed from the outset to provide research within an academic, yet service-driven context.

I was "raised," in an academic sense, within this system as a graduate student at University of California, Berkeley. I was lucky enough to do research that was driven by end-user needs from the get-go. After a AAAS diplomacy fellowship at the State Department, I went back and spent about four years working in a wildfire research and outreach center that was also affiliated with the state cooperative extension system. Obviously, wildfire is a big issue in the western U.S. and certainly in California. Part of what we worked on in those years was how structures could be built to better withstand wildfires – it had increasingly come to be understood that many houses burn from smoldering embers, which often travel much further than direct flames in wildfire situations. "Into the Wildfire" from the New York Times did a pretty great job explaining the state of the science if you are interested.

At the time, and maybe even still, these kinds of ideas were challenging for agencies, communities, and researchers alike because focusing more directly on the details of structural resistance was a real paradigm shift in a lot of ways. We spent a lot of time with state agencies, firefighters, and local communities trying to jointly figure out how to alter management practices to incorporate the latest research results.

This work is a kind of science communication, but really it's focused on direct engagement and relationship-building, and goes well beyond the one-way communication approaches that people have traditionally used. As an example, after co-writing a paper on the benefits of a “stay or go” policy for the state – meaning residents would be given the option to shelter in their homes during a wildfire event so that they could defend their property – I participated in a community event in which people cried describing the sheer terror of a fire nearing their home. I was focused on what was a science-based approach to the growing challenge of how to reduce risk and contend with a lack of firefighting resources, and I inadequately addressed how my research connected with a very important and personal component of community concern. It stuck with me.

Through these kinds of experiences -- seeing people cry, get angry, grieve over natural resource issues -- I really got that my training had not prepared me for them, not prepared me for what to do with all the real emotion in the rooms we work in. Over time, though, I realized that I had been prepared by my own personal experiences of trauma and the work I’ve done to heal from those, and that applying them to my work was useful. My time spent at the State Department more formally expose me to diplomatic and negotiation approaches, which also helped. I now strongly feel that in order to do really good, connected work as scientists and practitioners, being comfortable with human emotion and having tools to help deal with conflict, to transform it into something positive, can really be a vital lifeline, and yet is something we rarely talk about.

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