Challenges and Opportunities in CHANS Research

The discussion forum is now up and running at CHANS-Net. I have just posted some questions regarding challenges and opportunities in CHANS research that arose from the CHANS workshop at US-IALE 2009. The topics include;

  • Abstract vs. Applied Research
  • Communication in CHANS Research
  • Conceptualizing Human-Environment Relationships
  • Pattern and Process in CHANS Research
  • Spider Diagrams
  • Future Directions for CHANS Research

Register in the CHANS-Net Forum, read the questions and post your replies there.

US-IALE 2009: CHANS Workshop

Coupled Human and Natural Systems (CHANS) research is all about relationships – that seemed to be one of the main conclusions of the Challenges and Opportunities in Research on Complexity of Coupled Human and Natural Systems workshop at the US-IALE meeting in Snowbird, UT. The processes of identifying relationships between system elements and fostering them between researchers are key to realizing successful CHANS research. The workshop followed-up on a symposium in which principle investigators from several NSF-funded CNH projects presented their work, and was an opportunity to ask questions that went unasked during that symposium. The workshop was also the kick-off event for the CHANS-Net website.

In my notes below I have not identified individual workshop participants, both because I may have mis-interpreted their actual opinions or thoughts, but also because in some cases I can’t identify from my notes who said what. The workshop started with a panel discussion (the panel composed of the symposium speakers) followed by break-out groups to continue the discussion.

The first question from the audience asked how the panel approaches the dichotomy between abstract and contextualised research. Just as many dichotomies are false, it seems this one is also not always appropriate. For example, one response was that just because we can explain some characteristic about a specific place does not mean we didn’t use any theory whilst arriving at that explanation. Talking to local people can generate interesting, if contextualised, questions and one panel member highlighted the usefulness of ‘stakeholder steering groups’ (composed of local decision-makers and actors) to identify diverse opinions and direct research in ways that may not have happened otherwise. Another suggestion was that communication tools (such as role-playing, hypothetical scenarios, model output, etc.) are useful as a starting point for discussion, even if the theory underlying those tools is not discussed. To summarise the responses to this question I’ll paraphrase one of the panel members; ‘it was Louis Pasteur that said the question is not about whether the science is abstract or applied, but whether it is good science or bad science’.

A subsequent question along similar lines touched on the interplay of theory and practice; “what happens when your research proposal does not match ‘messy reality’? How do you explain why you ended up doing what you did do [to the people that accepted your proposal]?”. No original research goes entirely to plan – as some famous scientist once said; ‘if we knew what we were doing, it wouldn’t be called research’. In reality, there is always ‘wriggle-room’ in resolving this issue – if you start with a broad question it is easier to stay with a research theme even if the details get modified. Similarly, it is useful to make sure your research question is more important than the place where you will address that question. One panel member described how a research project they worked on needed to change the country in which is was situated. By focusing on the general research question they were able to negotiate this seemingly insurmountable problem. Other respondents from the panel got into more ‘messy’ details about the execution of such research. For example, in a project that involved both social and physical scientists there was initially confusion about how the two different types of scientists perceived and undertook measurements. A useful suggestion was to read your colleagues synthesis/review papers from other disciplines or backgrounds. Through commitment and patience in working together, an objective should be to identify a common language between researchers that can then push the research goals forward. Again, the importance of relationships was stressed.

An issue that came up both in response to this theory versus practice question, and frequently throughout the workshop, was the importance of good project management. One panel member suggested that an individual needs to be designated with the task of keeping the project on timeline, and that this person may need to take tough decisions (e.g. to drop researchers from the project) if deadlines or standards are not met. Finally, changing research can be a healthy thing – there will be frequent opportunities to extend research in new directions because new questions will arise as understanding develops. We shouldn’t be afraid to pursue those new directions.

One participant wanted to talk about fields that remain under-represented in CHANS current projects. They asked; “what about landscape architects and other ‘professional’ individuals?” A variety of missing experts and knowledge were suggested: the built environment, technology, environmental psychology, historians, political scientists, and communications experts (cartographers, public relations consultants, etc.) amongst others. The need for greater engagement and strengthening of relationships with political scientists seemed to be particularly important to several participants: under what conditions does a policy succeed or fail? How do we achieve good governance of the systems being studied? The US EPA (for example) are making decisions all the time – how are CHANS researchers engaging and influencing them?

Another workshop participant suggested that the presentations in the symposium had highlighted several different ways to conceive the relationship of humans with their environment, from ‘invaders’ to ‘managers’ to ‘components’. “How do we cross the boundaries between these different conceptualizations?” The first respondent suggested that researchers tend to pick a perspective (on the relationship between humans and their environment) and stick with it throughout their research – a better approach might be to consider different perspectives within the same project. However, the discussion quickly moved on to address the entire concept of ‘coupled’ human-natural systems. Several panel respondents voiced concerns about the coupling metaphor – one suggested that (human-natural) systems are not coupled, rather there is just one system. Another highlighted how the US perspective [remember this was the US-IALE meeting] on the human-nature relationship is rather unique – Europeans arrived with ideas of wilderness, protection and exploitation which differ from those in other places. Many of our ideas about how humans are related to their environment, one panel member suggested, likely stem from the Judeo-Christian philosophy which states that man was given dominion over nature. During the development of that philosophy humans got separated [in their minds?] from ecosystems and a difference soon emerged between a perspective in which humans rightly dominate nature versus one in which humans are viewed as being part of nature [which might be more consistent with Eastern religions such as Taoism or Buddhism].

To conclude the panel discussion someone asked; “what direction does CHANS research need to go in?” I thought the most interesting response was that CHANS research should be about easing transitions between different environmental conditions, and not trying to stop those transitions. The speaker suggested that CHANS research needs to focus on the sustainability of communities in the face of environmental transitions, adopting a perspective closely aligned with the view that humans are a part of nature rather than a controller of nature. A second respondent (possibly a geographer) identified the problem of scale. Whilst pretty much every presentation in the symposium contained a ‘spider diagram’ depicting a system as arrows linking boxes of elements, scale didn’t figure much. Yet, the respondent argued, all the systems presented were to some degree scale-dependent (but note there are cases where scale-invariant behaviour is manifest [.pdf]).

The workshop then broke up into groups to discuss some the issues outlined above in more detail. Correspondingly, there was plenty of feedback when the groups re-convened. Put in the most simple terms, our group decided that there are four things that characterize CHANS research:

  1. It is hard (e.g. issues of coupling systems, scaling, policy work, management, interdisciplinarity, and many more)
  2. It’s all about relationships (both in the systems of study and between the researchers studying those systems)
  3. Face-to-face interaction is key (between researchers themselves, and between researchers and other stakeholders – policy makers, managers and importantly the people in the systems and places being studied)
  4. It takes time (because of all of the above)

This last point was emphasized in several places; it takes time to generate links between disciplines. And it can be frustrating. For CHANS research to be successful, one of the key steps is to identify individuals that are willing to make the same leap across a disciplinary divide that you want to. CHANS researchers aren’t alone in having these kinds of discussions right now, and there are lessons to be learned from many different groups investigating the web of human-environment relationships. That’s where the workshop ended in Utah, but no doubt the discussion about relationships will continue – possibly in forums like that offered by CHANS-Net.


Towards the end of last week the MSU Environmental Science and Public Policy Program held a networking event on Coupled Human and Natural Systems (CHANS). These monthly events provide opportunities for networking around different environmental issues and last week was the turn of the area CSIS focuses on. The meeting reminded me of a couple of things I thought I would point out here.

First is the continued commitment that the National Science Foundation (NSF) is making to funding CHANS research. The third week in November will be the annual deadline for research proposals, so watch out for (particularly) tired looking professors around that time of year.

Second, I realized I haven’t highlighted on this blog one of the NSF CHANS projects currently underway at CSIS. CHANS-Net aims to develop an international network of research on CHANS to facilitate communication and collaboration among members of the CHANS research community. Central to the project is the establishment of an online meeting place for research collaboration. An early version of the website is currently in place but improvements are in the planning. I was asked for a few suggestions earlier this week and it made me realise how interested I am in the potential of the technologies that have arrived with web 2.0 (I suppose that interest is also clear right here in front of you on this blog). I hope to be able to continue to make suggestions and participate in the development of the site from afar (there’s too much to be doing elsewhere to get my hands really dirty on that project). Currently, only Principle Investigators (PIs) and Co-PIs on NSF funded CHANS projects are members of the network, but hopefully opportunities for wider participation will be available in the future. In that event, I’ll post again here.

US-IALE 2009: Coupling Humans and Complex Ecological Landscapes

Coupling Humans and Complex Ecological Landscapes is the theme of the 2009 annual conference of US-IALE (U.S. Regional Association, International Association for Landscape Ecology). The conference will be held in Snowbird, Utah, from April 12-16, 2009. Proposals for symposia and workshops are due September 15, 2008; and abstracts are due November 17, 2008.

Several types of financial support for attending and presenting at the conference are available:

(1) the “Sponsored Student Travel Awards Program” of local sponsors (USGS, Utah State University, and Utah Department of Natural Resources),

(2) US-IALE’s ‘Foreign Scholar Travel Award‘ Program,

(3) the ‘NASA-MSU Professional Enhancement Awards Program‘ (supported by NASA and Michigan State University), and

(4) the ‘CHANS Fellows Program’ of the new International Network of Research on Coupled Human and Natural Systems (CHANS-Net, supported by NSF, see background papers in Science and Ambio).

US-IALE conferences are particularly students-friendly, with two popular programs — Lunch with Mentors and NASA-MSU dinner, and a new program — We’ll “Pick Up The Tab!”.

More information about the conference is available from the web site.

CHANS and the Risks of Modelling

In their recent review of Coupled Human and Natural Systems (CHANS), Liu et al highlight several facets of the integrated study of these systems;

  • Reciprocal Effects and Feedback Loops
  • Nonlinearity and Thresholds
  • Surprises
  • Legacy Effects and Time Lags
  • Resilience

Whilst the emphasis of the paper is on the emergence of complex patterns and processes not evident when human and natural systems are studied independently by social or natural scientists, for me the issue that should be highlighted is the importance of surprises and legacy effects when studying these systems. This goes back to what I have written before about the open, middle-numbered nature of these systems. In these systems history matters and events that occur outside the bounds of the system being studied can have an influence on system dynamics.

With this in mind, when I was recently asked where the risks lie in ecological-economic modelling (modelling that specifically considers the interactions of ecological and economic systems) I suggested we might consider three areas of risk:

  1. The production of a integrated model that is not accepted or valued by those we hope it would (whether that be other scientists, decision-makers or members of the society we are modelling). For example, the nature of producing a model that lies somewhere between ecology and economics and/or between science and management has the potential to be accepted by neither party in these dichotomies (as it is not perceived by others to be ‘real ecology’ or ‘real science’ for example). However, this can be avoided by ensuring continued collaboration between economists and ecologists, and between scientists and managers, throughout the modelling process to ensure understanding or model structure.
  2. The production of a model that is not fully integrated but is rather an ecological model used to examine various economic scenarios. In this case, the study remains integrated (examining the interactions between economic and ecological systems) but the model is not (as feedbacks back from the ecological systems into the economic system, for example in terms of prices and costs, are not fully accounted for). Alternatively, if the modelling process is understood to be iterative, then this initial reduced version of the model may simply be a single step in the complete ecological-economic modeling process.
  3. Because of legacy effects, surprises etc, a misplaced confidence in what the model can accurately predict may arise. This is also related to the question of the limited capacity to validate models of complex ecological systems given limited empirical data. Again, this may be prevented by continued collaboration between scientist and manager to ensure the structure and limitations of a model are understood, and if a range of model results are predicted for different scenarios (in order to demonstrate the variability in potential outcomes).

The study of CHANS will become increasingly important in the future. But if political decisions are to be made based on the outcome of the knowledge gained, the risks present in the study (and specifically the modelling) of these systems must be minimized and accounted for.

CHANS Science Paper

In this week’s issue of Science Jack Liu, Director of CSIS (and my boss), and colleagues present a review of recent research on Coupled Human And Natural Systems (CHANS). Using six case studies from around the world the paper discusses these coupled systems with regards spatial, temporal and organisational units, nonlinear dynamics and feedback loops between systems, the importance of history within these sytems, and aspects of their resilience and heterogeneity. We’ll be discussing the paper within the center next week so maybe I’ll have some more insightful comments then. For now, here’s the abstract:

Integrated studies of coupled human and natural systems reveal new and complex patterns and processes not evident when studied by social or natural scientists separately. Synthesis of six case studies from around the world shows that couplings between human and natural systems vary across space, time, and organizational units. They also exhibit nonlinear dynamics with thresholds, reciprocal feedback loops, time lags, resilience, heterogeneity, and surprises. Furthermore, past couplings have legacy effects on present conditions and future possibilities.

Complexity of Coupled Human and Natural Systems
Jianguo Liu , Thomas Dietz, Stephen R. Carpenter, Marina Alberti, Carl Folke, Emilio Moran, Alice N. Pell, Peter Deadman, Timothy Kratz, Jane Lubchenco, Elinor Ostrom, Zhiyun Ouyang, William Provencher, Charles L. Redman, Stephen H. Schneider, William W. Taylor
Science 14 September 2007
Vol. 317. no. 5844, pp. 1513 – 1516
DOI: 10.1126/science.1144004
Also online here`