From Scotland to Chile: Is socio-ecological research contributing to local and global sustainability?

Daniel Orenstein, Technion, Haifa, IL

A review of the ECOPOTENTIAL_LTER paper: Negotiating local versus global needs in the International Long Term Ecological Research Network’s socio-ecological research agenda.Environmental Research Letters 13, 105003, Holzer J. M., Adamescu M. C., Bonet-García F. J., Díaz-Delgado R., Dick J., Grove J. M., Rozzi R., Orenstein D. E. (2018). doi: 10.1088/1748-9326/aadec8.

As part of a special issue on environmental research infrastructures (hosted by COOP+), this article reviewed achievements and challenges at six Long-Term Socio-Ecological Research (LTSER) platforms in Chile, Romania, Scotland, Spain, and the United States. The paper is a collaboration between ECOPOTENTIAL and the International Long-Term Ecological Research (ILTER) network. The network’s goal of creating a global network for long-term, in-situ research on human-nature interactions to address sustainability challenges is closely aligned with the aims of ECOPOTENTIAL.  The study demonstrates cross-scale interactions between local initiatives and global needs and focuses on managerial activities of LTSER platform, both of which are themes within ECOPOTENTIAL. 

Using examples from the six LTSER platforms – two of which are part of ECOPOTENTIAL’s project consortium — the paper asks what types of knowledge LTSER platforms are producing, what key challenges they are facing, and how platform managers view the benefits and limitations of being part of this international framework. According to our findings, despite sharing a common theoretical framework and desire to harmonize research activities globally, local conditions dominate the character of these place-based research platforms. The paper provides examples of how the integration of ecological and social research is a gradual process and discusses common platform objectives, such as stakeholder integration, data harmonization, and data-sharing.Each platform provided examples of their contributions to regional sustainability, including outcomes of research and networking activities on the local socio-ecological environment like creation of sustainable resource management plans, to the expansion of protected area boundaries, to documented increases in human well-being. Education and training activities coordinated by platforms are also reported, such as school programs, stakeholder workshops, and International research exchanges for scientists.

The paper analyzes some core challenges encountered at research platforms, including lack of institutional incentives for scientists to conduct transdisciplinary work; temporal, spatial, and value mismatches; gaps between societal needs and scientific activities, and; the complexity of drivers of environmental and social change occurring simultaneously at multiple scales. An additional challenge is the influence of funding on research foci and lack of dedicated, long-term funding to support the platforms’ long-term transdisciplinary research approach. As a network, there is lack of representation of scientists from the Southern Hemisphere contributing to global activities.

Despite these challenges, which may be inexorable and need not be viewed as barriers to the realization of platform or network objectives, we recognize that the global research network provides a unique infrastructure for standardizing methods, facilitating data-sharing, and cultivating a diverse community of scientists with similar goals. We emphasize the need for local autonomy in determining research directions and the fact that activities like stakeholder participation, knowledge exchange, and evaluation may be best conducted according to local contexts and priorities. But simultaneously, we suggest that certain elements of networked research may be better managed by a global research infrastructure — such as standardizing metadata, maintaining databases, and developing a centralized funding mechanism. Since we consider the tension between expectations for the international network and for local goals within the network a permanent feature, we suggest that the tension should be something to embrace and learn from in order to advance socio-ecological research to help solve grand environmental challenges.