Lessons from an early-career social scientist

 May 15, 2017    by Tyler Beeton

My interest in understanding the biological, cultural, and historical context of the human experience started at a very young age, and continues to this day. I am an environmental anthropologist, and currently an NC CSC fellow and PhD student in Ecology at Colorado State University. My training has been broad, and has allowed me to work in very different systems. I started down my career path working in Central Asia to understand the late Pleistocene biogeography of humans and Neanderthals during glacial and interglacial periods. The turning point in my career, however, was the opportunity to work as a research assistant on the socio-economic and environmental impacts on human health, nutrition, and livelihoods among pastoral communities in Mongolia and Africa. For the most part, my role in this work was quantitatively-bent, and relied on mapping (GIS), niche modeling, and both classic and spatial statistics.

I knew that I wanted to continue to work in these complex social-ecological systems to understand the linked and reciprocal interactions between humans and natural systems. But it was becoming apparent that the messy, complex, and wicked problems that us researchers are often forced to grapple with necessitate a more holistic and qualitative toolkit—a tool-kit that I did not yet have. So, as a novice in qualitative research and eager to learn, I reached out to Dr. Shannon McNeeley, who is a research scientist and co-lead of the adaptation team at the North Central Climate Science Center, a fellow anthropologist, and expert in qualitative approaches to vulnerability and adaptation science. Lucky for me, she was willing to bring me on. My time as an NC CSC early career fellow has been an invaluable experience. I’ve developed and refined my skillset to better tackle natural resource management issues and understand vulnerability and adaptation science in complex social-ecological systems. If you’re considering a career in applied social science, I hope my experiences can help inform your trajectory. If you’re a social scientist like me, let’s learn from each other.  

I work under the Drought Risk and Adaptation in the Interior (DRAI) project, which is the core project of the NC CSC Adaptation Foundational Science Area. This project is informed by in-depth, qualitative case studies at three sites: northwest Colorado, southwest South Dakota, and the Wind River Reservation in Wyoming. Working under DRAI has helped me acquire new skills, provided opportunities to work across disciplines and ways of knowing, and increased my understanding of, and interest in, co-designing and co-producing actionable science.

Lessons learned: Using a Grounded Theory approach in natural resource management contexts

The DRAI project is informed primarily by in-depth interviews with resource managers on DOI-managed and tribal lands. We analyze interviews with managers using a bottom-up method that relies on local knowledge and observations of drought and climate-related experiences, impacts, and responses in local places. This type of analysis allows for in-depth analysis of individual case sites. And, because the same questions are asked across the three field sites, we can begin to conduct cross-case analyses to better understand similarities and differences across the North Central region, and among DOI bureaus, tribes, and even different management targets. This ensures that we produce science that is usable for local managers and their management targets.

Lessons Learned: Top-Down and Bottom-Up Methods Work Better in Tandem

The NC CSC has helped me understand the importance of using mixed bottom-up and top-down methods to characterize the social and ecological factors that contribute to vulnerability. For instance, we used drought indicator data and key informant interviews in a comparative case study. I learned that neither of these methods should be used in isolation, but together they provide a more complete story of drought vulnerability and adaptation. It illustrated that there are no generic drought responses—they are place- and management-specific. Also, drought is not uniform, and considerations of drought onset, persistence, and recovery are critical factors to consider. These two points together suggest that regional drought indicator data must be tailored to local contexts. To read more about this research, see our recent work in Weather, Climate, and Society

Lessons Learned: Working across disciplines

Working at the NC CSC has also provided me with opportunities work across disciplines with anthropologists, ecologists, and modelers. We are exploring how in-depth interviews can inform ecological response simulation models. These interviews with local managers help document local knowledge and observations of drought to identify factors that are important for managing bison in southwest South Dakota, the trade-offs and uncertainties that managers have to consider, and local drought indicators and monitoring efforts managers use for drought. We then think about existing models and data that are most appropriate to address the issues, concerns, and uncertainties identified by local managers and that could be incorporated into simulation modeling platforms (e.g., NetLogo, ST-Sim). 

Lessons Learned: Co-Production in Action

I have been fortunate to work on the Wind River Reservation Drought Preparedness Project, which has enhanced my understanding and supported my professional development in a number of ways. First, I’ve gotten a better understanding of working with indigenous communities in the region and the unique challenges they face in preparing for and responding to climate change. Second, this is a big project with many diverse partners and many moving parts. I’ve attended project meetings and shared resources between physical climate, ecology, and social science teams, which has all culminated in an increased understanding of best practices to build trust, develop collaborative and iterative relationships, and ensure that the science we produce is driven by the needs and priorities of those for whom we are producing the science for. Finally, this project is also a great example of how research can be driven by qualitative social science, where interviews and meetings have helped identify the type of information and appropriate scales for climate analyses and ecological modeling. 

Working on these projects has made me a firm believer in the need for holistic, qualitative approaches to support climate change adaptation and supplement quantitative methods. It provides critically important on the ground research to help close the gap between science producers and users, and makes sure that the science we produce is actionable. My hope is that this approach can help to develop socio-culturally appropriate, desirable, and sustainable adaptation strategies for those communities who depend on these resources for their social, cultural, and economic well-being, and to ensure that future generations, including my young and adventurous daughter (see photo), will continue to experience, revere, and strive to conserve the natural landscapes that we all care so deeply about.  

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