Current projects / collaborations:

  • The Georgia Climate Research Roadmap project: aligning scientific research with policy needs. Emory University initiative in collaboration with Climate@Emory, 2016-17.
  • Too Big to Ignore. A global partnership for the future of small-scale fisheries. Canadian Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council (SSHRC) Partnership grant led by Ratana Chuenpagdee, Memorial University, 2012-18.
  • Global horizon scanning/research prioritization for Society of Environmental Toxicology and Chemistry (SETAC) multi-regional (North America, Africa, Latin America, Europe, Asia-Pacific) and global research question prioritization exercise, 2013-16. Led by Bryan Brooks, Baylor University.

Research orientation

Integrated modeling of environmental-human systems requires understanding of natural processes, how human behaviours influence those processes, and how policy and regulatory mechanisms feedback within systems. We need to identify major policy levers and other value-changing interventions that could help transform current behaviours that threaten ecosystem integrity.

From a social science perspective, building understanding of the challenges we face requires the integration of natural and social science perspectives in substantive crossdisciplinary collaborative efforts. When identifying, clarifying, and modelling environmental challenges, social scientists are very much ‘information providers’ and fulfil a similar role to natural scientists, providing critical information about the human dimensions of environmental change given a complex suite of human beliefs, perceptions, capabilities, and values. Our research efforts focus on quantifying trade-offs that individuals and organizations are willing to make given their current perceptions of threat salience, their backgrounds, and their capacity to act.

Going beyond problem description, social scientists must delve deeper into the questions of why people act the way they do. Environmental social scientists need to consider both subtle (e.g., social norms) and explicit (e.g., governance prescriptions) intervention options that catalyze or constrain behaviour at both the operational level (i.e., on the water) and at the implementation level where bureaucrats and funders make critical decisions about how to respond to potential threats (i.e., through institutional innovations, investments in human capital, or direct investment in restoration efforts). Our research in this realm spans a number of fields and methodologies that are primarily qualitative in nature (e.g., using Qualitative Comparative Analysis to identify the role of leadership in achieving positive socio-ecological outcomes in small-scale fisheries in Southeast Asia). The fundamental link between qualitative approaches and our more quantitative research is that credible storylines are needed to understand values and to act as ‘glue’, anchoring potential scientific and policy responses to environmental challenges; numbers from impeccably conducted quantitative analyses will not necessarily shift the values of individuals (witness the climate change ‘debate’) whereas evidence-informed storylines do have greater potential to shape values and catalyze transformative change.

Crafting policy requires credible, legitimate, and policy-salient science. We need to understand the ecological and environmental constraints to policy options, the science-policy interface, how science is translated during policy debates, and how transdisciplinary research teams can be constructed and managed to maximize the chances for transformative social change. Over the past five years we have been deeply involved in various efforts to understand research priorities and have parlayed involvement in research question identification exercises into further in-depth work on scientists’ and policy-makers’ framing of environmental challenges (e.g., Rudd and Fleishman 2014). A common thread among our policy research is that the role of information – both scientific and traditional, and how it is used by various actors (private, public, non-governmental, and research sectors) to advance their diverse interests – needs to be made explicit and solutions crafted that consider myriad incentives and institutional constraints. Through the crafting process, which necessarily involves thoughtful dialogue, deliberation and contestation, opportunities arise for reflection on societal and personal values that may, or may not, be open to adjustment. Our work draws on new theoretical perspectives from political science such as narrative policy analysis and instrument constituencies.