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Land Use and Climate Change

14. October 2008 by Erica 0 Comments

At the end of August, my graduate adviser, Erle Ellis, was invited to a joint US-German conference in Berlin, Germany:  Tough Choices: Land Use under a Changing Climate. (http://www.nkgcf.org/usg08)  The NSF, which funded the US side, encouraged the "senior scientists" who were attending to invite a "young scientist" to come along, in the spirit of encouraging future collaboration between the two countries.  As a result, I was able to attend the conference as well. (Lucky for me that Erle didn't have a third year grad student with an interest in going!)  I'm writing about it here in the blog at Erle's request, and I think this post may be especially interesting to other graduate students who are similarly new to the conference scene.

There were four major objectives of the conference, as stated in the invitation email:  to assess the state-of-the-art  understanding of the possible roles of land use in climate change mitigation and adaptation, to identify priorities for research that will improve our ability to incorporate climate-change considerations into land-use decision making,to provide opportunities for young scientists (PhD students, Post-Docs, early-career professionals) to participate in the research planning process, and to develop new international collaborations between scientists based in the US and Germany. 

The conference was held on October 2 and 3, with sightseeing plans for the evening of October 3 and Saturday the 4th.  As a venue, the planners chose the fomer Umspannwerk Ost (Transfer Station East), which was built around the turn of the last century, damaged in WWII, and then remodeled to be ecofriendly in 1999.  It now serves as a cultural and convention center, and theater; the sign upon entering the courtyard proclaims it as the "Kriminal Theater", which gleaned a few chuckles from the Americans in the crowd.  (Although it translates to the much more innocuous name of "Mystery Theater").

The first day of the conference was designated for presentations.  It was a whirlwind day, with three opening speeches and sixteen short presentations.  The format was designed for a German and an American to be presenting on (VERY generally) the same subject, and each to spend fifteen minutes on it.   The poster session was scheduled between lunch and the afternoon coffee break, and took the form of a guided poster session with each person presenting for two minutes ("three sentences") about their research; naturally, this took longer than the scheduled hour.  Alas, the schedule was so packed that there was no time for question/answer sessions on the first day.  By the time that there was an official Q & A on Friday morning, Rob Mendelsohn (http://environment.yale.edu/people/282-robert-o-mendelsohn/) was drilled with questions because his was the last talk before it started.

Friday's highlights were the breakout groups that occupied the late morning, followed by a post-lunch presentation of breakout results and a panel discussion to discuss said results.  The entire conference was broken up into two groups (30-40 people each), which made it slightly difficult to have concrete and directed discussions.  The results seemed to be very general, although could be quite useful in the right context. 

I certainly benefitted from the conference.  It was a very unique opportunity to have people from such different backgrounds all together in one room, even if the drawback of that was the sense that there were some communcation barriers (and most of them had nothing to do with language!).  In those ways, it was a good example of the myriad challenges faced by an interdisciplinary gathering.  Since everything is new to me, particularly with regard to geography as a field (since I have a biology background), it familiarized me with much of the language and perspectives utilized by geographers (who comprised the bulk of the attendees, it seemed).  Boy oh boy, do geographers love talking about scale...

Other insights included the political interactions between scientists behaving as people, and the opportunity to hear discussions of what gets (and doesn't get) funded.  It clearly helps to know the people you're going to be applying to for funding.  One piece of advice I got was that when you first start submitting funding proposals, make sure they're high quality work.  The people who are reviewing them will remember you if it's shoddy, and then you'll have a  harder time getting grants the next time around.  That's where you have to prove, even before you do it in journal articles, the quality and solidness of your efforts.

Another set of insights that was really driven home for me was the difference between applied and basic science.  It really amazes me how separated they are!!!  I think this is a subject that I'm going to struggle with philosophically for a long time to come.  Particularly with regard to funding, and the fact that NSF funds basic research, and NAS funds applied research.  How can it be expected that scientists will synthesize the two when they're explicity framing research for only one or the other?  Amazingly, they seem to do it anyway, although I feel like it would be easier with funding sources that based decisions on different criteria.  (I've heard from some people since the conference that there are many other sources of funding which don't make this distinction, which I find very encouraging).  One example of research that seemed to effectively cross these bounds was that presented by Paul Vlek, regarding the Aral Sea as a research area.  Very interesting.

It seems to me that there are four types of boundaries that global research has to address: interdisciplinary, international, intergenerational, and multi-stakeholder.  It's easy to say that everyone needs to be included in the decision making process, but it seems to be much harder to concretely involve people from different areas.  This having been said, it sounds like the NSF and DFG are sufficiently interested in promoting German-American collaboration that they will evaluate proposals for the same project on both sides of the Atlantic at the same time, and with communication between the two organizations.  This was very encouraging, in terms of removing logistical barriers to international collaboration.

I found out that missed the CBD conference in Bonn earlier this year, probably before I was actually a student.  I'll have to try to go next time.  I also became much more aware of the presence of DIVERSITAS, which I had heard of previously, but wasn't sure how big of a role they played in international research interests.  It definitely seems to be an organization to follow with regard to biodiversity research.

I also realized that most people (except for the most established researchers) have a hard time defining what they do, or want to do.  I don't know if it's good or bad, but at least it's encouraging to know I'm not the only one who's started out feeling a little bit disoriented.  Several people also emphasized the importance of having a good advisor during a graduate program, and of having a department that is willing to work with the students to engage their own research interests rather than using them as cheap labor.  After hearing a few horror stories, I have realized that I am very pleased so far with GES as a department and Erle as an advisor.

It was an excellent introduction to the conference atmosphere, particularly since it was a small enough conference to at least recognize (if not have spoken with) all the attendees by the end of the second day.  The atypical structure, planning and setup certainly worked to my advantage, because it meant that almost everyone else was as disoriented as myself!  It was a very special opportunity, and has helped greatly to structure my thinking regarding the process of research, the process of graduate education, collaboration potential, and the development of a research project.  Thanks to everyone who made this conference possible! :)

Also, here's my poster from the conference.  The subject is the hypothetical application of Anthropogenic Biomes to evaluating climate risks and encouraging communication networks: EAntill Poster - Tough Choices.pdf (977.22 kb)

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