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A Summer of Listening

Science and policy have a somewhat chequered history when it comes to listening. (See Shelia Jasanoff, Brian Wynne, Alan Irwin as key authors for further reading..)

I don’t think anyone would be surprised by that statement applied to policy makers (except perhaps the politicians as I imagine / hope that’s what they think their job is). With ‘Science’ however it’s a little trickier. We might not expect a doctoral student studying quantum mechanics, particle physics or the obscure DNA of a prehistoric grain, to listen to the views of the populace. If I said however, that their work would contribute to artificial intelligence, flood management and genetic modification. Suddenly the ‘view of the populace’ becomes significantly more important.
When working in landscapes there are also local and situated knowledges to consider; high levels of expertise, outside the formal scientific and political institutions.

I was introduced to this rethinking of science through my MSc (in Science and Technology Studies at UCL). However, it’s through my PhD research that the complex interactions between the social, environmental and physical factors that form landscapes have become really significant.

As an interdisciplinary scientist (geographer!) I am trying to act on all the lessons I’ve learnt. I am exploring the flood characteristics of a river catchment and the potential impact of tree planting. However, rather than starting here, the project starts with the recognition of the impact of people’s values, preferences, perceptions, lived experience, history etc. on not only the way we talk about flooding, but the very shape of the catchment itself; taking into account the importance of the social in future planning, but also engaging with expertise and developing co-production of knowledge with those who live and work in the catchment.

So, I have spent my summer listening…

… and walking, seeing, recording, smelling (I have a whole blog post to write about the importance of the smell of silage). I have been trying to understand the landscape through the lived experience of those who have made it.

I have heard (seen, experienced) a wealth of knowledge. Narratives that contain and emplace good good old fashioned ‘facts’ of physical characteristics of the land, but also the values and perceptions that inform the behaviour that shapes it. I have experienced how the physical characteristics of the landscape (both static and everchanging with the water and the weather) shape the behaviours and values of its inhabitants (human and more than human).

This is an ongoing learning process; I am working with a single case study catchment and will continue this experiential data collection whilst moving onto the more traditional approaches of model building and evaluation.

(I have asked my supervisors if I can use clay, but they’ve said I have to use a computer)

The work I’m doing raises interesting methodological questions. How does the social, value-based data impact the numerical / quantitative computer model? How much can I / should I, include? (I can’t see a way of getting the smell of silage in there, I wish I could). Very practical questions include how I balance the need for maintaining confidentiality of participants with the methods of ensuring my model can be scrutinized and checked?

These questions are challenges which make this a PhD. Each one is solvable in a very simple way (no, don’t, can’t). But each richer solution will lead to a more integrated approach to interdisciplinary science. Which hopefully, will enable more people to experience the absolute joy of listening.