The importance of being (inter)disciplined

Back in July 2022, I was invited to write a blog post for The Green Edge. This online fountain of ‘green’ knowledge was set up in early 2022 by Fraser Harper and Michael Cross, to explore and disseminate information about the skills the next generation* will need in order to navigate the pressing contemporary issues of mitigating and adapting to climate change, whilst simultaneously addressing societal injustices. I have had the pleasure of working with both of the founders of The Green Edge in the past, and am inspired by this new project that they’ve undertaken, with passion and impressive productivity. As well as their blog, they also now have a Podcast. I was grateful for the invitation to join their mission. My instruction from Fraser was to produce a post on a topic relevant to upskilling for ‘sustainable’ futures. I decided that my most useful contribution could be on skills required for effective interdisciplinary research; there’s not a chance we’ll achieve sustainability without working together.

Here’s the link to my post. Please get in touch if you have any comments on it. And if you have knowledge and wisdom to share on skills for green futures, Fraser and Michael would love to hear from you.

*and all of us!

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I apologise for going ‘Green’

I published a paper earlier this month, all about peatlands in tropical latitudes. (Surprising, eh!) It proved an unexpectedly great opportunity to work with a new and interdisciplinary bunch of co-authors….

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And I created my first ‘thread‘! It seems to be what one does now to spread the word about new published research. My main incentive for tweeting, however, was to share the ‘personalised’ link I had been sent by the publisher, Elsevier, as corresponding author. Anyone interested can download the paper, for free, for the first 50 days post-publication. After that, the outcome of two years of information gathering by 10 people and many 1,000s of hours of publicly-funded research before that, will only be accessible to people from universities or other institutions that can afford the annual subscription to the journal, Anthropocene. Because this review paper had been unplanned when applications for research and dissemination funding were written, and was completed outside of one single research project, pooling time and resources from multiple people funded by multiple sources, we didn’t have the £2,000+ Article Publishing Charge to publish it via the Gold Open Access route. Instead, we opted for the shady back-alley route: Green Open Access. This means making the peer-reviewed, accepted version of our manuscript (the version accepted after the final review) available on our institutional website (e.g., here). I am certainly pleased that this is an option (after a 12-month embargo, it seems!*), but it does make finding the article an online adventure that time-poor academics and (often) under-resourced practitioners might opt out of. So for now, I apologise for not going for ‘gold’…

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And soon, perhaps we won’t all have to find pots of gold at the end of the rainbow to make new knowledge available (atleast in principle) to everyone.

*There’s an unhelpful loop-hole I just found out about, so here, legally, is the Author Accepted Version of the manuscript:

Cole, L.E.S., Åkesson, C.M., Hapsari, A.K., Hawthorne, D., Roucoux, K.H., Girkin, N.T., Cooper, H.V., Ledger, M.J., O’Reilly, P. & Thornton, S.A. (2022) Tropical peatlands in the anthropocene: Lessons from the past. Anthropocene. Author accepted manuscript.

A guide to building (interdisciplinary) bridges

Today, Althea Davies and I launched a guidebook. Nope, it’s not a guide to our local peatlands. It’s a Guide to Better Science on Interdisciplinary Research, published by the British Ecological Society and available to download for everyone, for free. We were invited to create the guide after running a workshop on tools of the interdisciplinary trade at the British Ecological Society Annual Meeting in 2019. Since then, we’ve been gathering information and contributions from some inspirational researchers, who reflect deeply on how to make interdisciplinary research (more) effective. We’re so grateful for their wise input, and for the guidance offered by Kate Harrison, the BES’ expert in-house Editor. I can’t fault my pretty great co-author either!

You can learn more about why we wrote the guide through our post on People and Nature’s Relational Thinking blog. And if you do read the guide, and find it useful…or lacking, we would love to hear.

From steaming swamp to blanket bog… We’re live!

After many more hours, and months of work than initially anticipated, our exhibition of Peruvian peatland pics is live. I sketched the article below with colleagues for publicity purposes; this press release adds a few more details. And the exhibition itself is available to everyone everywhere fortunate enough to have an internet connection: https://peatlands.wp.st-andrews.ac.uk/. Compiling the exhibition has very much been a team effort, with colleagues Katy Roucoux and Althea Davies. I’ve learnt a huge amount from their invaluable input and feedback on all aspects of this ‘outreach’ project. I hope we’ve created an accessible narrative that will inspire people to look twice at peatlands, temperate and tropical, and to consider what role they play in all of our lives. I’ve also learnt, the hard way, about the need to balance what can be a very diverse portfolio of work in academia, with publications still being the unit of currency and stamp of expertise for the (academic and employment) world. Now to learning how to achieve that balance before it’s too late…

An open peatland ecosystem in the Peruvian Amazon. Credit: Lydia Cole. To view the caption to accompany this image visit: https://peatlands.wp.st-andrews.ac.uk/.

This autumn, a touch of the tropical has come to southeast Scotland. From early August until late October, 2021, the St Andrews Botanic Gardens are hosting a photography exhibition all about Peru’s lowland tropical peatlands. Lydia Cole, Katy Roucoux and Althea Davies, lecturers from the School of Geography and Sustainable Development at the University of St Andrews, in collaboration with the Botanic Gardens and with funding from the British Ecological Society and The Leverhulme Trust, have curated a collection of photographs that take you on a tour of the steaming swamps of the Peruvian Amazon.

The selected photographs were taken by researchers from the Universities of St Andrews, Edinburgh and Leeds, and the Instituto de Investigaciones de la Amazonía Peruana (IIAP, Institute for Research on the Peruvian Amazon) across ten years of fieldwork in Peru’s peatlands. The exhibition explores three key themes: ecosystems – highlighting the “ecosystem engineers” responsible for carbon storage; fieldwork – describing experiences of data collection in the swamps; and people – illuminating the communities and activities associated with the peatlands.

In addition to the physical exhibition, a virtual gallery is housing the photographs and captions to provide online access to audiences near and far: www.peatlands.wp.st-andrews.ac.uk. The website is also available in Spanish and will be live beyond when the exhibition closes at the Botanic Gardens at the end of October 2021. When accessibility improves in Peru and COVID-cases stabilise, colleagues from IIAP plan to display a Spanish-language version of the exhibition in a National Reserve in the Amazonian region of Peru.

Peatlands are a distinctive type of ecosystem where the surface vegetation contributes to, and lives on top of, layers of accumulating peat. Peat is made up of leaves, roots and partially decomposed organic matter, which builds up when waterlogged, low-oxygen, low-nutrient conditions prevent decomposer organisms from recycling dead plant remains. Over hundreds to thousands of years, a thick layer of carbon-rich peat accumulates. With climate change a key challenge faced by global society, conserving the carbon stored in peatlands is becoming an international priority for mitigation efforts.

Peatlands make up over 20% of the land area in Scotland. The most common type of peatland is a blanket bog, where layers of peat carpet the bedrock, forming waterlogged, mossy and shrubby landscapes. In the Peruvian Amazon, peatlands look very different as they are generally forested and often flooded; they are the archetypal ‘swamp’. Over 80% of Scotland’s peatlands are thought to be degraded, whilst Peru’s peatlands are mostly still in an intact state.

Indigenous Urarina women harvesting Mauritia flexuosa palm shoots from a peatland palm swamp in the Peruvian Amazon. Credit: Lydia Cole.

Researchers at the University of St Andrews and other members of the Tropical Wetlands Consortium, are measuring and mapping the distribution of carbon within the Peruvian Amazon peatlands, the biodiversity they contain and their long-term dynamics, to understand how they develop over centuries to thousands of years. Other projects, as many of the photographs highlight, are exploring the value, meaning and cultural importance of the peatlands to the communities who live there. The photographs in the exhibition have been selected to provide an insight into not only these peatland ecosystems and the people who live in and around them, but also the experience of doing research in these carbon-rich environments. You can find out more about the different projects and team members at www.tropicalwetlands.wp.st-andrews.ac.uk.

If you do have a look at the exhibition and it leaves you with questions or comments, the curators would love to hear them. Please email Lydia Cole (lesc1@st-andrews.ac.uk) if you have any feedback.

The future of Southeast Asia’s tropical peatlands

Nine years, five jobs, four cities and three paper rejections….and I’ve finally got the ultimate chapter of my PhD published. It’s been a journey! There’s so much I could write here about haphazard directions, happenstance, failure, resilience, the importance of ice-cream, etc., but I won’t. I hope there’ll be time for any helpful reflections in non-Zoom person soon. For now, here is the article: The future of Southeast Asia’s tropical peatlands: Local and global perspectives, free to download for the next 50 days (thanks for the token, Elsevier). And thanks to all of those people, both acknowledged in it and not, who have been ‘there’ over the last nine+ years.

The “graphical abstract“.

And paper’s “highlights”:

  • People have occupied Sarawak’s coastal peatlands for c. 200 years.
  • In the last century deforestation & peatland conversion have been widespread.
  • Local stakeholders perceive few challenges & many opportunities in using peatlands.
  • This conflicts with the international community promoting peatland conservation.
  • Differences in knowledge between local & global communities need to be addressed.

If any one of you out there reading do actually read this overly wordy piece and have feedback to share, I would love to hear it.

Talking transdisciplinarity

Last December (2020), Alex Chausson and I ran a workshop at the British Ecological Society’s virtual Festival of Ecology. After running a workshop the previous year on interdisciplinarity, this seemed like a natural next step. I learnt a huge amount from the process, not least about how to increase the likelihood of “having impact” through research. Here is a short post Alex and I put together for the IIED blog, to share our key learnings from the event.

A word cloud from the event, demonstrating which words sprung to mind for participants at the end of the workshop when they thought about “transdisciplinarity”.

Tools of the interdisciplinary trade – the write-up!