Eva Plaganyi: Understanding the Human Side of Ecology

CSIRO scientist Éva Plagányi, who has worked with researchers from social and economic backgrounds to better understand human impacts on ecology (Image Credit: CSIRO, CC BY-SA 2.0)

At the end of the day, the aim of an ecologist is to generate a better understanding of the natural world around us. But that can amount to nothing if that understanding isn’t translated to the people who interact directly with the aspects of the natural world that we research. So whilst understanding an ecosystem should be our main priority, understanding the people who interact with an ecosystem is integral to making a difference.

This is where social sciences like anthropology can help. At the ASFB 2018 Conference, I spoke to plenary speaker CSIRO’s Dr. Éva Plagányi, who works on maintaining the sustainability of marine life. Éva’s work includes interaction with everyone from corporate businessmen to traditional fishers, and integrating social anthropology into her work has yielded great results. I spoke to Éva on the importance of incorporating social science into ecology.

Sam Perrin (SP): Can you give me an idea of why reaching out to disciplines like social anthropology is so important?

Dr. Éva Plagányi, Principal Research Scientist, CSIRO (EP): It’s about understanding that if you want to make a difference in resource management and conservation, you need to actually understand people. We’re in the Anthropocene era, and humans have a really large impact on the planet. The way people behave, the way our markets and economic drivers behave, it all influences the sustainability of fish in the ocean. Understanding that gives us some powerful levers to help conserve these ecosystems.

It means working closely with and understanding people, and how to get their buy-in. For many of the communities I work in, particularly ones in remote areas or with involving traditional owners, that’s the only way you’re really going to achieve outcomes. You can’t just do a top-down policy implementation of something and expect that everybody’s going to believe the science.

“…I realised that it’s pointless getting the maths right and understanding the biology, if you forget about the people.”

SP: What was your introduction to this approach to ecology?

EP: My training was quantitative modelling of fisheries. During my PhD I was modelling the South African abalone resource. They had huge problems due to poaching, and the stocks were declining. I was spending a lot of time on all the statistics and models, and I thought I did a pretty good job accurately documenting the decline of this fishery, but it wasn’t really solving any underlying problems. That’s when I started talking to social scientists who were studying the socio-political setting. I got insight into the fact that if we, from the start, had addressed some of the socio-political concerns, we might have been able to change what was happening to that fishery. And I realised that it’s pointless getting the maths right and understanding the biology, if you forget about the people.

SP: How can we incorporate social effects into quantitative ecology?

EP: That’s a hard one. One of the things I do is work with smart people who know more about it than I do. At CSIRO we’re able to put together teams that are very multidisciplinary. When I first started working on the rock lobster fishery in Torres Strait, I looked at the fishery and realised it was another example where it was important to consider the socio-cultural landscape. We put together a project, and I got a social scientist and an economist involved, and we worked together. It’s a complex process, particularly to start talking each other’s language and figure out how to actually link in the different components. Some of it is a compromise. We tried to develop a common language, to monitor the ecological, social and economic factors.

We found that using Bayesian networks we could quantify social aspects like participation, which was driven by other social factors. So once we understood what drives participation, whether it’s the role of community leaders or infrastructure, we were able to model changes in participation under different scenarios. We could turn social information into quantitative information which then just slots into our usual modelling frameworks.

Eva has worked extensively with traditional land owners, yielding better results when their input is taken on board

Eva has worked extensively with traditional land owners, yielding better results when their input is taken on board (Image Credit: CSIRO, CC BY-SA 2.0)

SP: If you have a research group who are producing very tangible outcomes, but they don’t know how to convey it to the relevant parties, what’s their starting point?

EP: The first thing that goes through my head is why are you only now taking the outcome to them? Why didn’t you give them a heads-up earlier? That’s always my advice to try to involve people early on, to at least get thoughts or feedback. That’s the best point to start.

But if you’ve come up with an outcome and you want to get it out there, absolutely try every medium of communication. Writing popular articles is a good way to reach a broad audience, as is giving talks at schools and museums. Nowadays, Twitter and social media are useful. But I think at the end of the day you can’t really beat going and sitting down and not only talking to the people who are affected, but actually listening to them as well.

We’ve had really good feedback from some of the indigenous stakeholders we work with, when we carefully listen to them and use their inputs in our science. Even if it’s just in a small way. So go and talk to the relevant people, and ask for their feedback as well, make it a two-way process. I’d suggest sitting down with them in a workshop setting rather than giving a lecture.

SP: A lot of the time, the scientists are portrayed as this elite discipline that others are incapable of understanding. But your experience with community interaction shows that’s obviously not true.

EP: Yes, and communicating science isn’t that hard. My work often involves a lot of mathematical equations and computer coding. I regularly go and talk to the Torres Strait community, where most people don’t have a mathematical background, and often English isn’t their first language. But I’ve found that if you genuinely try to explain the concepts, they don’t need to know all the technical details. People get it, you just need to explain it in a way that they can follow. It’s not about dumbing it down, it’s just about getting rid of the jargon, and I’ve found that communities around the world can follow if the science is communicated appropriately. It’s no excuse to not try and communicate. I have heard that from people, “oh it’s too complex, they won’t get it, I’m not going to lower the way I’m speaking”. I find that attitude quite shocking.

Certainly in the fishing industry there are a lot of very intelligent people. Folks are super smart and so they’ll pick up any mistakes in your science without having to check your equations, they can just tell when it’s wrong. In turn, they can keep you on your toes.

“[W]hen there is rational, scientifically founded pushback from society against development that hasn’t addressed negative impacts, then it can be a positive influence to encourage more sustainable development pathways.”

SP: Could you explain the concept of social license?

EP: It’s been defined as an unwritten social contract with society, the idea that you need to get a social tick of approval before some sort of action which might have a negative impact on the environment. You need to be able to justify that you’re minimizing that impact for the benefit of the community. Modern society is much more conservation oriented and feel that they should have a say in what happens in an environment, so it’s about society agreeing that an activity is considered and reasonable.

It’s a modern, anthropocene concept, but it’s one that gives society and the public a voice. The challenge to us as scientists is to encourage the public to be factually based and rational, because it’s not a positive thing to have debates dominated by irrational lobbyists. But when there is rational, scientifically founded pushback from society against development that hasn’t addressed negative impacts, then it can be a positive influence to encourage more sustainable development pathways.

minke-whale-268242_1280.jpg

“For many stocks like the minke whale, it’s likely that it’s possible to have a sustainable take. But there’s a lot of concern that the killing of whales is not considered humane or ethical.” (Image Credit: Ronile, CC0)

SP: The concept of whaling. I live in a country where they are adamant that whaling is sustainable. But of course there’s still a knee-jerk reaction against whaling. Do you think it’s possible to have a sustainable whaling industry with social license?

EP: For many stocks like the minke whale, it’s likely that it’s possible to have a sustainable take. But there’s a lot of concern that the killing of whales is not considered humane or ethical. That’s a reasonable ground for society to push back on something, but of course different societies have different values and would push back to different degrees. So no, I don’t think you’ll ever get universal social license with such a charismatic species, and where a humane way to kill them hasn’t been demonstrated. If they solve that issue, then people that are opposed to whaling, would need to provide other grounds to support their views.

We have some of the same issues in Torres Strait with regard to the dugong populations. I work on other fisheries with traditional owners in Torres Strait. It’s part of their culture to kill dugongs, and for western folks such as myself, it’s hard to know whether that’s acceptable or not. But we have to accept that it’s part of their cultural practice, and at the same time the dugong population there is pretty healthy, so it would be hard to argue that their small take overly affects local populations.

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