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‘If you have the tools, you can make a difference!’ - Dr Heather Plumpton reflects on her time as a Walker Research Fellow

Thursday, May 12, 2022

Working as an interdisciplinary research fellow at Walker 2019-2021 was a whirlwind and a joy. I worked on a wide and ever-changing variety of projects, from flood forecasting in Uganda to climate risk assessments of the Middle East to East African sweet potato pests. I got the opportunity to try my hand at many new things and work with (literally) incredible people.

Coming from an environmental science PhD, looking at the impact of drought on tropical forests, I knew I was interested in climate change and wanted to make a difference to the people and ecosystems suffering its impacts. However, I was frustrated that research didn’t seem to be making a difference on the ground. Until I joined a Walker training program on evidence synthesis for climate services (CSAT), which opened my eyes to the possibility of doing things differently and achieving change in the real world. When I was offered the chance to work at Walker after my PhD, I jumped straight in and learnt quickly  how to link the work I did as a researcher with the world outside my window.

It boils down into three lessons. First, that we must look at the system as a whole if we want to build resilience to climate change. This includes looking at issues of welfare, socioeconomics, politics, culture, governance and institutional history, as well as the environmental and climatic issues. At Walker, the approach to research is systemic and attempts to bring these disciplines and types of knowledge together, to identify barriers to climate adaptation and focus on these. For example, the BRAVE project at Walker didn’t just look at the availability of groundwater, but the cultural and social barriers to its utilisation by communities. The project activities targeted the social barriers as much as the technical ones, through a strong interdisciplinary research team. We can’t ignore the feedbacks loops and the interconnectedness of the world we are working in – like an ecosystem itself, there are always more relationships and interactions than we comprehend! It has been said a million times before but we must learn to work across disciplines and departments and get out of those silos and boxes to see the blue sky above and the bigger, systemic picture.

Second, participation is key. So, you want your research to be useful, usable and used in decision making? Then you must start by asking the people your research is trying to help what they need. Involving the ‘decision-maker’ in the research process throughout ensures what you do focuses on solving their real problems and can have a long-term meaningful impact. At Walker this was a key part of our work on the National Scale Impact Based Forecasting of Flood Risk in Uganda (NIMFRU) project, which aimed to create a flood impact forecasting tool that could be embedded into national disaster management systems. To ensure it was useful and possible to integrate, ongoing dialogue with the national disaster management team was essential. We need to see more of this approach all around the world, wherever we seek to make change. For example, there have been several examples of this sort of participatory approach being taken to political decision making in the UK which have had fascinating results. Such as the Climate Assembly UK[1] and the results of East Ayrshire council working in partnership with local communities to deliver the services they need[2].

This approach has enormous potential for building political consensus on tricky issues and encouraging participation in democracy. It gives people a very tangible voice in decision making, builds engagement in politics, and builds trust in the results as well as political institutions. It has the power to rebuild the social contract between public and government, but only if there is a genuine partnership there. It must be truly equal and reciprocal, with exchange of knowledge in both directions and respect for the different types of experience and knowledge that all parties bring to the table.  For government, as for researchers, this often involves a humbling acceptance that you aren’t always the expert, and that people living the experience have knowledge that deserves equal respect.

Third, the power of community. A central idea in participatory research is that communities on the ground understand their own needs and context best. Building an appreciation of local context is critical to supporting that community. In UK politics and democracy, the logical extension of this to me seems to be to give communities themselves the power to support themselves.  Localisation and devolution of power to local communities would build ownership and accountability. People need locally relevant political institutions to engage with and participate in where they feel that a) their voice is heard and b) their voice matters and makes a difference. This is demonstrated brilliantly by the work of one my Walker colleagues, Dr Grady Walker, who supported farmers in Uganda to use film making to communicate with their local and national government, securing an increase in funding for agricultural extension services.[3]

After all, that was my motivation to join Walker after my PhD – I wanted to make a difference. I wanted the research all my friends and colleagues were doing to make a difference to people on the ground, to improve lives and the state of our planet. I’m now putting the skills I learnt at Walker to use to try to influence UK environmental policy in my role as a policy analyst at an environmental charity and think tank, Green Alliance[4]. My new job covers topics as wide ranging as drilling for fossil fuels in the North Sea, managing UK land use for climate and nature, and supporting a circular economy focused on re-use and repair rather than recycling and landfill. While the topics I work on have broadened since my PhD and time at Walker, the skills I am using are the exact same ones I learnt at Walker: working across disciplines and developing common language on technical subjects, managing multi-stakeholder projects, developing a theory of change that delivers impact, and how to use evidence to engage with policy makers, to name a few.

I enjoyed my time working at Walker, with its wonderful global community and commitment to deliver for the people on the front lines of the climate crisis. Hopefully my journey shows that there are lots of ways to create change, inside academia and out, and that once you have the tools, you can make a difference.

Contact: hplumpton@green-alliance.org.uk

[1] Climate Assembly UK, The path to net-zero, full report, Sept 2020: https://www.climateassembly.uk/recommendations/index.html

[2] Tackling council cuts in Scotland through community action, The Guardian, Sept 2017, Jane Dudman: https://www.theguardian.com/public-leaders-network/2017/sep/20/council-cuts-scotland-community-action

[3] https://zenodo.org/record/3980769

[4] Home » Green Alliance (green-alliance.org.uk)

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