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Partnering with non-scientists: It’s not all or nothing

Recently, A Science Careers story by Susan Gaidos profiled several researchers who have pioneered methods for gathering data with the help of non-scientists. Of course, not all contacts between scientists and knowledgeable non-scientists are as well coordinated as those. In fact, serendipitous, fleeting encounters can still be quite rewarding for researchers, both scientifically and personally.

An example comes from plant ecologist Andrea Lloyd of Middlebury College in Vermont. About 10 years ago, she was starting a project to study Arctic tree-line expansion on the Seward Peninsula in Alaska. The Arctic tree line is a latitudinal version of mountaintop tree lines — if you go far enough north, the trees disappear. As the planet warms, Lloyd hypothesized, that tree line should move northward. She planned to study this using tree rings.

One of her first orders of business was to buy topographical maps in a store in Nome. There, an elderly local man — an Inupiat subsistence hunter she came to know as Mr. Johnson — asked her what she was doing. When she told him about her research question, he replied, “Well, you’ve come to the right place. I can tell you,” Lloyd recalled during a discussion with journalists in Fairbanks last month. “It turns out he’d been driving this road past my study sites to his fishing camp every year for 40 or 50 years.” He took the maps she had just bought and marked how the tree line had moved over those decades.

This chance encounter gave Lloyd a surprising reality check, not only on the question of tree-line expansion but on changes in the Arctic as a whole. “It was really striking to realize that what I thought of as this subtle change was something that people living in this landscape were seeing,” she said. “Alaska is changing faster than we can study it in some ways.”

It also started her thinking about the value of local people’s knowledge, she told me later by e-mail. “I was really impressed by the precision of his observations — not just a generic ‘things are changing,’ but precise details on how much and when. … Science is a tremendously powerful tool for understanding the world, but local residents have the ability to make observations in a really different way than do scientists. For one thing, they’re living in the landscape all year long, and thus see processes playing out over all of the seasons. I fly in at the start of the summer, spend a few weeks, and go home — so I miss most of the important parts of the year. For another thing, local residents (and here I’m speaking generally about anyone living in a landscape, not just Alaskans), particularly those who are engaging in subsistence activities like hunting, fishing, gathering berries, tend to be looking more holistically at landscape change, and may thus see connections that I might miss, in my focus on whatever it is I’m studying.”

Lloyd also began thinking about how to access this knowledge in a way that’s not “extractive” — just taking and not giving. For Lloyd, “it boils down to three R’s: respect (for local residents and the knowledge they have worked hard to build over generations), relationships (between individual scientists and individual local residents, as well as between broader communities of scientists and local residents), and reciprocity.”

Ideally, she says, scientists would take the time to build relationships over time, as the scientists in Gaidos’ story did. But that’s not possible for most scientists, including her. It is possible, however, to follow those principles even in short-lived partnerships, like the one with Mr. Johnson. For example, when a reporter called Lloyd about her work, she suggested that the reporter contact Mr. Johnson, “so that he retained control over his observations,” she explained. “They weren’t mine to share with the newspaper; they were his.” The reporter followed her suggestion and featured Mr. Johnson in a story in the Anchorage Daily News.

To cap off her work, the next summer Lloyd sent a student to the Seward Peninsula to discuss the research with local teachers so that the information she gathered could be shared with the communities that were most directly affected.

Lloyd’s work in the Seward Peninsula left her wanting more and deeper collaborations with local communities. She’s now developing programs in Vermont, where she lives. But she hopes that her experience will encourage young scientists to connect with non-scientists, even if they only have a limited amount of time. “I wouldn’t want young investigators to feel like the only way to work effectively with local communities is to move [there],” she writes. “It’s not all or nothing.”