Climate change needs a new kind of scientist

Young researchers may provide the “out of the box” thinking needed to tackle climate change problems.
Interdisciplinary science is at the heart of CIFOR’s Global Comparative Study on REDD+.

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Scientific discoveries of recent decades have generated a wealth of knowledge on forests and climate change spanning many different sectors and disciplines. Sustainable development, poverty eradication, the rights of indigenous and local communities to land and resources, conservation of biodiversity, governance, water management, pollution (and all the policies and economic factors related to these sectors) are just some of the issues that scientists studying the relationship between forests climate change must consider.

Such knowledge generation has also laid the foundation for a broader mission to assist in developing integrated solutions. This is not something that we, as climate scientists, have been traditionally trained to do.

It’s clear that developing integrated solutions to such complex problems will require a new kind of climate scientist. A scientist who can think across biophysical and social disciplines. A scientist who can work across scales to engage all members of society in their research. A scientist who can understand the policy implications of their work.

One group that seems particularly enthusiastic to take on such a role is young researchers. In this article, I’ll go through a few examples where young researchers have led the “out of the box” thinking needed to tackle climate change problems.

Interdisciplinary science is at the heart of CIFOR’s Global Comparative Study on REDD+, which aims to inform policy makers, practitioners and donors about what works in reducing emissions from deforestation and forest degradation, and enhancement of forest carbon stocks (REDD+) in tropical countries.

In this study, a diverse group of foresters, biologists, sociologists, economists, political scientists, and anthropologists works together to understand how REDD+ can be implemented effectively, efficiently, equitably, and promote both social and environmental co-benefits.

I help coordinate a component of the study that focuses on measuring the impacts of subnational REDD+ initiatives. Through this part of the study, we have collected data in 170 villages with over 4,000 families in 6 countries: Brazil, Peru, Cameroon, Tanzania, Vietnam and Indonesia.

From 2010 to 2012, we hired nearly 80 undergraduate, Masters and PhD students in Latin America to collect baseline data on livelihoods and land-use at multiple sites across the Amazon. These young scientists have been critical in helping us share project knowledge in different ways.


As I was finishing my PhD six years ago, I joined forces with bunch of graduate students who were thinking about how, within our confined academic research environment, we could share knowledge in different ways.

The “knowledge exchange pyramid” (Fig 1) outlines how graduate students can exchange knowledge with local stakeholders during research.

There are three levels of knowledge exchange: (1) information sharing; (2) skill building; and (3) knowledge generation. The black circle represents the researchers while the white circle represents local stakeholders — communities, practitioners, policymakers.

Duchelle, A.E, K. Biedenweg, C. Lucas, A. Virapongse, J. Radachowsky, D. Wojcik, M. Londres, W.L. Bartels, D. Alvira, K.A. Kainer. 2009. Graduate students and knowledge exchange with local stakeholders: Possibilities and preparation. Biotropica 41(5): 578-585.

At the base of the pyramid (the simplest form of knowledge exchange) is information sharing – a primarily one-way transmission of ideas to stakeholders using presentations, brochures and posters. Our experience showed that these tools are particularly appropriate when time is limited, specific facts need to be shared, and information is not controversial.

If your goal is to change attitudes, you need to ensure that stakeholders are given a more active role in interpreting information either through community forums, presentations allowing discussion time, and short workshops.

An example of information sharing is returning research results to local stakeholders. One year after the teams collected baseline data for the Global Comparative Study on REDD+, we went back to all of the research sites and shared the results with the local communities and with the organizations (NGOs and governments) that implement the REDD+ activities.

While many researchers do go back to the places where they collected their data to share results, it has bothered me for years when you go to communities where you know there have been multiple research groups and they say to you, ‘you guys are the first group that come back with the information’.

Sharing results with local stakeholders is an incredibly important learning process and it makes good scientific sense. It allows community members to interpret the information and verify survey data before final analysis. We have found that when a community says ‘that doesn’t make sense, why would it be that way?’, it helps us rethink our interpretation of the data. All it takes is some time, some creativity, and a bit of money.

In the Global Comparative Study on REDD+, I envisaged us returning the results in a pretty conventional way. What blew me away was the innovation of our young researchers – they used art, games and even theatre to make the science interesting and relevant to local communities.

In the second part of the pyramid (slightly more complex knowledge exchange) is skill building, which encourages stakeholders to use knowledge to develop new skills. This is often a response to local demands for skills such as data collection and analysis, grant writing, or manuscript preparation.

While conducting research in Ucayali, Peru forest communities requested training in Global Positioning Systems (GPS) to help them locate and record specific trees in timber harvest areas required by their forest management plans. They also wanted to learn how to measure timber so they could determine a reasonable purchase price (and ensure they weren’t being swindled when it came time to sell the tree trunks or boards).

Skill building activities require more time, resources, and preparation than information sharing but can be incredibly important for building trust with communities. They can also be fun (friendly soccer games are a common feature of fieldwork in Latin America!)

At the highest level of the pyramid is knowledge generation, which includes communities, practitioners or policy makers as partners in different aspects of the research process (one example is “action research”). Together with the graduate researcher, they can create the research questions, implement the research, and analyze and disseminate the results.

While this is the most innovative type of knowledge exchange, it is also the hardest for young researchers to get involved in. Graduate students and their research partners will need to invest a lot of time and energy as well as obtain institutional support.

I know a Brazilian researcher who, before and during her Masters in The University of Florida’s Tropical Conservation and Development Program, developed long-term action research on the ecology of locally important tree species with one remote community in the Amazon estuary. She involved community members in all steps of the research process from setting research priorities, collecting data and training.

After assessing the research findings, community members took several actions. They more than doubled the number of local volunteers collecting data (and diversified to include youth, women, and community leaders), they presented research findings at community meetings and they shared those findings with nearby communities struggling to improve their livelihoods in a sustainable way.
Engaging local stakeholders in research is possible at any level. Young researchers are the ones who can help us think of new and innovative ways to do this.


If you are in academia, encourage your students to embark on this kind of knowledge exchange in their research. Plug them into your networks and create courses to help broaden their skill sets.
If you are a practitioner, welcome students and young researchers into your work. Be willing to develop research with them, be willing to learn from students and help them become better professionals.

If you are a donor, support the research that shows real and genuine knowledge exchange with relevant stakeholders.

If you are a student or young researcher, recognize the very unique moment that you are in right now in your career and expand your skill set. Some of the conventional academic pressures are less placed on you at early stages of your career, so use the opportunity you have now to engage and innovate.

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