A trip to France (in the name of science of course…)

I’ve recently got back from a 10-day stint in France learning all about marine socio-ecological systems at the wonderful MSEAs conference. It was a jam-packed trip full of science, networking and perhaps a glass of wine…or two! I left inspired, and this week I’ve been reflecting on some of the things that I learnt as well as reading some of the great work that I heard about. My scientific batteries have officially been re-charged!

Before the conference started I attended a 3 day course aimed at trying to teach natural scientists some social science methods. The course was run by the brilliant duo of Marloes Kraan and Maiken Bjorkan who provided a lot of knowledge and entertainment! We started the course with some simple maths:

(natural) scientist + toolbox & manual + training + social scientist = great science

showing that there are many elements to undertaking great interdisciplinary research!! The course covered a range of topics, from some of the methodologies you can use to do this sort of work, to thinking about how to analyse the information and the different types of knowledge you can draw upon (such as from fishermen, scientists and other communities). We also had the chance to have a go at interviewing people (in French!), which proved interesting!

There was also plenty of time spent discussing methods, approaches and concepts, which provided a lot of food for thought and ideas for me to take forward. Some of the discussions challenged the way I think about things, such as balancing between being sceptical of the ‘truth’ and being a naïve realist when drawing on knowledge from different stakeholders. It also made me step back and think more broadly as to why I am taking a social science approach to my research – to simply ‘extract information’ or for something deeper, more contextual and holistic?

After a day off on the Sunday exploring the city of Brest, it was then time for the MSEAs conference to start. This conference was aimed at bringing people from a range of backgrounds (natural scientists, economists, social scientists etc) to talk about marine socio-ecological systems and how to better incorporate the ‘human dimension’ into work being done in this area (whether that be pure research or more on the ground stuff). There were some really great keynote speakers there who gave some really inspiring talks, particular highlights for me were Beth Fulton and Eddie Allison whose work I have followed for a while now. Lots of topics were talked about during the parallel sessions each day, from governance of marine systems and appropriate indicators for assessments, to modelling approaches and participatory assessments.

The whole week was pretty much non stop, and so having now had some ‘down time’ I thought I’d summarise some of the key things that I personally learnt from the week. The conference had such a relaxed and creative atmosphere – I have so many ideas now, but unfortunately not so much time in my PhD to try and implement some of them!

Get stuck into modelling!
Listening to Beth Fulton, one of her key messages was simple – give modelling a go and get stuck in! Too often we can get caught up in the details of trying to model all the complexities that are typical of marine socio-ecological systems, and this can be overwhelming or put us off from really embracing modelling approaches. We can become so critical and obsessed with trying to get the best, most perfect model (this is often my case!), when in actual fact this doesn’t exist. Instead, trial and error, iterations and just a determination to try things out is the most important aspect of modelling.

You don’t have to be an expert in everything….
Perhaps this is obvious, but sometimes doing a socio-ecological interdisciplinary PhD means that I try to get good at everything and can end up getting frustrated when I can’t quite get my head around a social science methodology or an economic equation. This week reminded me that actually, it’s good to have a subject specialism, and that drawing on the expertise from those around you and getting their help is a much more effective approach to take than trying to work it all out by yourself.

Complexity doesn’t mean things have to be really complex
Given that marine socio-ecological systems are so dynamic and complex, it can be easy to get caught up in the detail. It was nice to hear from many speakers that despite the need to be aware of and try to capture some of this complexity, complexity can be refined into simplicity and more general patterns. The key, I think, is working out the story you want to tell and what the most important aspects are to incorporate to help you tell that story.

Developing a common language for interdisciplinary work is important
Inevitably, people coming from different subject backgrounds can mean that we speak different languages. Therefore, investing the time in establishing a common background and language is important and worthwhile if attempting to undertake interdisciplinary work.

Knowledge comes from multiple sources
It really struck me during the week just how many different perspectives, values and opinions people can have on particular issues and subjects. Whether they are scientists, fishermen, policy makers, practitioners, members of local community groups and whoever else, everyone has their own knowledge which can contribute to and inform our research. The tough bit comes at how to incorporate these multiple knowledges and, as discussed on the course, considering what is really the ‘truth’ (if it even exists at all…)

I have to admit that I was sad to see the conference come to an end – inspiring science, good company and crepes and wine made for an excellent week! The organisers of the conference also had a fab idea to have a cartoonist (Bas Kohler) draw some of the ideas and conversations from the week – check out his work here as they are really great (the image at the top was drawn by him). A post conference beach trip with some friends finished the week off in style!

Now all is left to say is roll on the next MSEAs!

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