Using science to understand how sustainability leadership training affects scientists

Guest post by Megan Jones, 2018-2019 Sustainability Leadership Fellow and Ph.D. Student in the Department of Human Dimensions of Natural Resources

Evaluating the impact of our work is one of the bugbears of sustainability scientists and practitioners alike: we know we should do it, we don’t have the resources for it, and so we keep our fingers crossed and keep working. As one of a cohort of scientists just finishing a yearlong sustainability leadership fellowship, I wonder – how do we know what difference it made to our science and practice? Here I’m talking less about evaluation best practices, which I’m sure SoGES draws on. Rather, I’m talking about the SLF students as part of a wider community of scientists-as-humans, who are caught up in the dailiness of our lives. What stories do we tell about how this experience has shaped us, and how do we know we’re telling them right?

I have many anecdotes from the SoGES Sustainability Leadership Fellowship that I can share to evidence the impact it’s had on me and my fellow fellows. They include our passionate debate about the meaning of the word “sustainability,” which we’re still discussing months later, the science communication training that made me get on Twitter (shout out to Nancy Baron, for telling me I should do this, and to Cara Steger, for role modeling how I could), and the fact that I now track my work hours on SlimTimer (thanks Dr. Sarah Reed!). And that’s not to mention the friendships with other amazing scientists that have grown over the last year, or the inspiration from knowing that there’s more amazing scientists to get to know than there is time for coffee dates.

Clove currant planted in backyard of author.
Measuring impact: I’ve planted this clove currant and other native plants in my backyard because my Ph.D. research is on wildscape gardening behavior change – and if my study participants can do it, so can I.

We are taught that anecdotal evidence is not scientific. And yet anecdotes are the seeds from which stories grow, and the stories we tell ourselves have power. This is why we have such a clear responsibility to use them well, especially if and when our position as scientists gives us added authority. In the fields I work in, women’s conservation leadership and pro-environmental behavior change, scientists try to identify how people can take action and influence others to promote healthy relationships between people and nature. But how do we apply those ideas when we, the scientists, are the “people” who are being trained to change their leadership and their behavior, and in so doing help to change the world? Here, I suggest a few ways that concepts from social science can help us – participations, trainers, and observers – understand how sustainability leadership training has shaped us.

  1. Opting in? No, dude, I totally chose this! Research on choice shows us that we think we make decisions based on our own beliefs and values, even when our decisions are actually shaped by infrastructure around us – be it opt-out organ donation forms or bike lanes. So as participants in a training we may overlook ways in which it has affected us, seeing instead the ways we think we’ve chosen to change.
  2. A mug is worth more if it’s mine: In a now iconic study, behavioral economists found that if they gave people a mug, people were only willing to sell it for more than what they knew was the market value. So as an SLF participant, it’s possible I might exaggerate its value (in stories I tell myself and those I tell others) simply because I feel ownership over it.
  3. Perceptions are data: Social scientists have worked for a long time to show that perceptions have value in science. They have argued, for instance, that perceptions determine the benefits of conservation to local people, the legitimacy of national parks, and the norms about what environmental behaviors are right or wrong. So despite biases (1) and (2), understanding participants’ experiences is still a crucial part of knowing if a training has been harmful, helpful, or even unimportant – and that means hearing from others as well as our own perspective.
  4. Scientists learn from those they trust: Scientists are humans, and humans are built to absorb information from sources we trust. On Hidden Brain Cailin O’Connor describes how when doctors stick to the status quo and don’t trust outsider ideas it halts innovation, giving examples of smallpox inoculation in the 1700s and stomach ulcers in the 1900s. This suggests spaces like the SoGES fellowship can be essential for pushing us out of our bubbles, so we can build trust across disciplines and exchange new ideas.

How do we measure progress in sustainability? In daylights, in sunsets, in midnights, in cups of coffee? It’s like a line from a retelling of the musical Rent, but instead of the AIDS crisis the cast are singing about sustainability and wicked problems. (I’d totally go watch that.) Until we get our tidy musical ending, perhaps we can use social science principles as one set of tools to help make sure we tell the right stories about the impacts of a sustainability leadership fellowship – just like we try to tell the right stories about what our science means.

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