Launching effective interdisciplinary human-environment research

After a while bouncing around various outlets, the paper that emerged from the CHANS Workshop at US-IALE 2009 in Snowbird has been published. Presented as a meeting review in the ESA Bulletin, Research on Coupled Human and Natural Systems (CHANS): Approach, Challenges, and Strategies discusses what the CHANS approach is and what the current challenges and strategies in this field are. For example, we suggest the following are the keys to launching effective CHANS research projects:

Identify the goals and final products of the project

  • Goals and products could include answers to scientific questions, hypothesis testing, a simulation model or decision-support tool, policy or management recommendations, or education.
  • Identify and articulate analysis boundaries and scales of interest: spatially, temporally, and in terms of physical processes.
  • A preliminary conceptual model may help initiate discussion among potential collaborators; the conceptual model need not be correct in what it is illustrating, but rather serve to “break the ice” and generate discussion.

Build a team around the identified goals and products

  • Identify project manager(s) and submanagers, where the submanagers may be discipline specific and responsible for a particular component of the project.
  • It may also be beneficial to assign to one person responsibility for overseeing and maintaining the project timeline. It might be advantageous for this person not to be a manager or submanager to minimize potential conflicts.
  • Once the team is together, reexamine the initial goals and final products.

Methods necessary to accomplish project goals and products should now be developed.

  • It is important to recognize that the final products may change in response to the project team’s vision and analysis. Team members must be prepared to be flexible, to reevaluate the project’s conceptual framework and methods as a partnership matures.
  • Potential challenges of complexity and uncertainty should be discussed at this point; where in the project may they later manifest themselves? How may they be overcome?
  • Each team member should be recognized as “a tool in a toolbox,” each providing a unique contribution that works in tandem with the other tools (e.g., the compass and ruler) to build the entire project.

We conclude; “The CHANS approach is emerging from its infancy, characterized by the use of rudimentary language skills in describing deeply complex systems. With proper support, it stands to contribute to a better understanding of the multifaceted interactions between human and natural systems, and thus inform societal choices in pursuit of sustainability.”

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