Tuesday, July 28, 2020

Author Contributions? Epic Fail, or Relational Success

By Kai Chan for CHANS Lab Views

This is (an extra) part of a series, How to Write a Winning Proposal—in 10 Hard Steps (why Author Contributions at the proposal stage? Because you need to think about these issues early: read on!)

Who did what? Who deserves the real credit, and who came along for the ride? Who contributed what %?

Author Contributions statements for papers, theses, and tenure files are far more important than they might seem. Writing these little statements well is also far more difficult than it appears. I learned this the hard way, with an epic fail at one of the most important junctures of my professional career.

This difficulty isn’t helped by understandable but mistaken notions that these statements are about the ‘real credit’ or percent contributions.

I was going up for promotion—a crucial moment in an academic’s career. My director, who had to write the crucial departmental letter that would accompany my file to the higher levels at the university, was also a coauthor on one of the articles I submitted. I was directed to write a statement clarifying my contributions to the papers. I interpreted it as “Show that this was mostly your work—that you brought the key ingredients, not your coauthors”. Error #1.

My director/coauthor flagged a concern. Ouch. I reread the statement to understand. It started with my contributions, and followed with my coauthor’s, almost as if these were an afterthought barely worth mentioning. I also averaged-up—that is, if I felt I did most of a task (e.g., designing the analysis), I assigned it to myself. E.g., “I designed and executed the analysis, I wrote the paper. My coauthor edited.” Now imagining my coauthor’s perspective, my heart surged, my face flushed, and shame and disgust washed over me.

The irony was palpable. I had already become excited about relational values (preferences, principles and virtues associated with human relationships involving nature; see also here), and I had been consciously thinking relationally in general. That is, I had been thinking first about how actions reflected and built appropriate relationships, and only second how they yielded positive or negative consequences. Here, I clearly failed: I had unconsciously treated the authorship statement as a means to the end of impressing reviewers, entirely missing their crucial contributions to building or eroding the relationships I sought with cherished colleagues.


One might think, following such a teachable moment of shame, that I would have written flawless Author Contributions statements ever since. I wish I could say that were true. I don’t normally make the same mistake twice, but Author Contribution statements are full of ways to fail.

If we think of the hours spent directly on the manuscript,
we may think like this. But that doesn't tell the full story.

More recently, the same cherished coauthor and I were wrapping up a paper many years in the making (almost a decade). Finally, it was time to write an author contributions statement. I was conscious to err on the side of generosity. I listed our contributions together (not mine first). I emphasized shared contributions to tasks wherever it seemed appropriate. But by my recollection, I had approached my coauthor with the idea, and indeed, with a draft of what I felt we needed to say, and she had responded to that. So, I wrote something like, “KC wrote the first draft.”

It was déjà vu when my coauthor responded with edits and comments, with the recollection that we co-wrote the first draft. My coauthor pointed out that it had been her idea to include an empirical component at all. I had started counting ‘first draft’ from even before there had been an empirical component (which was now the central identity of the paper). The paper sure was different back then, without its central contribution. Point taken, absolutely we co-wrote the first draft.

Worse, though, my mind full of the many hundreds of hours that I spent coding papers and refining the analysis without troubling my coauthor, I claimed credit for designing the analysis. She contested that, politely and respectfully, as always. When I wrote the statement, I didn’t even remember that it had been my coauthor’s idea to do the analysis, and indeed that we had discussed the major codes right at the outset. I think because it wasn’t a long, involved or contentious conversation, it didn’t even spring to mind. But it clearly structured everything that followed.

Double ugh.

This time, I had been thinking consciously with the lessons from last time. I had thought I was being generous. But my thinking was skewed by my memory, which was rooted in hours spent and emotion-laden moments as indicators of contributions. Key structural conversations from many years ago were overlooked.

It’s so much easier to remember one’s own contributions than others. I think in our own minds, others’ contributions often become momentary guidance in a journey that we travelled mostly solo.

I wasn’t consciously thinking about percent contributions as hours spent on the paper. I had consciously brought my coauthor on board because I knew that she would leverage countless hours of her reading and thinking of different but complementary literatures into a focused contribution on the manuscript. And I knew that this focused contribution might enable the paper to be rich and beautiful.

I’ve also had experiences on the other side, of course, because I think it’s hardest for students to see their supervisor’s contributions because they structure what follows. One wonderful student had joined me to do a project that I had envisioned well before the student’s degree. He had first written about my contributions as the same as other coauthors (e.g., editing drafts). These other coauthors were ones I had suggested as committee members, while helping this student envision what the project could look like and how it could make a great contribution to the literature and to problems that we both seemed to care about (based on his Critical Ingredients document). He didn’t mean to diminish my contributions, they just weren’t that visible to him, because they were so structural as to be part of the context.

I had another student—among the most principled, fairest people I know—who wrote that she ‘wrote the paper’. The paper was a Google doc with a bunch of notes when she invited myself and a coauthor in to give it structure, direction, themes, and relevant literatures. Yes, she typed most of the words, and of course she led the project and clearly deserves first authorship. But for me, ‘wrote the paper’ now means ‘gave shape to the main ideas in a complete good draft’.

The whole notion of percent contributions makes zero sense to me, even though it’s explicitly requested by some journals and grant agencies (others are more progressive, e.g., CRediT, the Contributor Roles Taxonomy). There is no single dimension by which one can measure author contributions on a paper. A paper should be more than the sum of the parts; coauthorship shouldn’t replace work, but rather shape the whole paper.

Coauthorship therefore shouldn’t be measured in time spent, but our memories lead us that way.

Good notes are crucial here, to record others’ contributions along the way. Then can we write Author Contribution statements that reflect how a paper is a beautiful symphony of ideas from a team.

A great strategy, which can avoid a lot of awkwardness, is to discuss or specify the responsibilities at the outset. Personally, I generally avoid pre-structuring contributions so as to maintain an organic adaptive process, but it’s great to discuss the options.

Then we can write statements that depict research as a deeply relational process, and which further build these collaborative relationships as being of more than instrumental value.

Next Up: Why You Need a Theory of Change [LINK to come]

Previous: Why Some PhD Courses Shouldn't Have Grades

The Intro to this series: How to Write a Winning Proposal—in 10 Hard Steps

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CHANS Lab Views by Kai Chan's lab is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.
Based on a work at https://chanslabviews.blogspot.com.

Friday, July 24, 2020

Distilling and discussing the IPBES levers & leverage points for transformative change

14 months ago 132 nations agreed upon the pathways to sustainability. 

   These are the Levers and Leverage Points of the @IPBES #GlobalAssessment 

   They are far more provocative than they seem. This new paper in People and Nature explains why: https://besjournals.onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1002/pan3.10124


Several accompanying pieces make different points:

  1. Our blog response to Peter Bridgewater, handling editor at PaN.
  2. My story in The Conversation
  3. An IPBES podcast, which just aired on Wed.


Please share with potentially interested parties. If we’re going to re-orient societal efforts towards transformative change and sustainability, we will need agreement on how, and that it’s needed.


Why is this in People and Nature? As a Lead Editor, I have seen firsthand the excellent work done by my colleagues there. We are collectively working towards transformative change in academic publishing. It offers precisely what my coauthors and I sought: deep interdisciplinarity and consistently thoughtful reviewing and editing. Peter’s blog (above) offers a glimpse of how we were pushed in all kinds of productive ways. In a few weeks, I’ll also share a paper Terre Satterfield and I have been working on for 8 years, also in PaN.

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CHANS Lab Views by Kai Chan's lab is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.
Based on a work at https://chanslabviews.blogspot.com.

Monday, July 6, 2020

Why Some PhD Courses Shouldn't Have Grades

Kai Chan for CHANS Lab Views

This is part of a series, How to Write a Winning Proposal—in 10 Hard Steps

This past semester, I had the great pleasure to re-design and teach our program’s core PhD course (RES 602; see Intro to this series). I bucked many years of history with my reimagined grading policy for the course, which is to effectively replace grading with  individualized feedback. I told the students that they would all receive ‘A’s if they did the work and put in a genuine effort. Here’s why.

First, some context: in this course on “Interdisciplinary Research Design for Sustainability Impact”, the whole purpose is to coach students to become rigorous, insightful, impactful researchers. Thus, students’ and their own work are at the centre. And these are diverse students: all interdisciplinary to some degree, but in vastly different ways. Some primarily in the physical or natural sciences, some in the social sciences and humanities. Some do largely qualitative work, while most do some quantitative research. They straddle different epistemologies, and they adhere to radically different theories of change [LINK to come].

In a nutshell, there are six classes of reasons for my grading policy that ‘A’ is the default.

1. The students are all on their own journeys, doing radically different kinds of research in different academic traditions, with different standards of evaluation. Some of these I know well, others I’m still just learning. → I can’t equally judge them all.

2. I have my own positionality in all of this. I’m more excited by some kinds of questions and approaches than others. → It’s therefore key to decouple my feedback from measures of performance that will go on students’ records.

3. The spectre of having to provide defensible grades to all would substantially shift my teaching towards a different set of uniform assignments. By their uniformity, such assignments could never properly equip a diverse class of students to do their own projects. Moreover, assigning (and justifying) numeric grades is time-consuming and detracts from the time I can spend giving tailored feedback. → Freedom from grades enables me to make different contributions to different students.

4. We don’t actually need grades for any real purpose at this stage. They simply serve to let people know that students are on track (or not). Other times, what students really need is a letter of recommendation. I can write a detailed letter for all of the students without needing to rely on grades. → Why perpetuate an ill-fitting tradition?

5. Grades exist partly to motivate students when other motivations aren’t sufficient. This also doesn’t apply here. If I’m not giving students assignments that are clearly meaningful to their programs and later careers, or if those things aren’t sufficiently motivating (I’m sure they are), then we’ve got bigger problems. → Self-determined motivations are superior to externally imposed ones (i.e. grades) (Gagné & Deci 2005).

6. You don’t need grades to provide hard-hitting feedback. Many times, my comments pointed to the lack of some element (e.g. “You’ve specified a great set of real-world implications. But what about the academic ones? How will your project contribute to a broader understanding of similar problems in different contexts?”). Even without grades, comments like this are hard to take, but at least there’s a decent chance students will receive them as purely constructive, a growth area. Accompanied by a 3 / 5 grade, which suggests that students should have already known this, I imagine such comments would feel like a smack-down. Meanwhile, boosting feelings of competence is key for intrinsic motivation (Ryan & Deci 2000). → Grades add salt to wounds.

7. Grades (or their absence) fundamentally change the relationship between professor and student. From judge and jury, professors without grades can be a source of guidance and assistance on the student’s journey towards being an independent researcher. That’s what I want. → Grades don’t put the relationship first, and the relationship should come first.

Now clearly I didn’t do everything right in this brand new course. I’m sure I bungled all kinds of things (hopefully small). But in the last class, in the feedback session, students said two things that earned many thumbs up on Zoom, and which were music to my ears.

First, students noted how appreciative they were for the opportunity to receive highly tailored and detailed feedback about how their thinking was developing. Providing individualized feedback to students provides a clear roadmap for change in their own context, and without differentiated grades, this is unencumbered by my notion of how much better they could have been. In the words of one student during our in-class debrief, “In the tradeoff between grades and feedback, I’ll take feedback any day! And you provided extensive, thoughtful feedback every single week.”

Students also commented that they appreciated having a safe and honest space to delve into the messy truths of research design. This “safe-to-fail” approach extended to both in-class discussions and weekly assignments. For assignments, I permitted students to re-imagine the instructions in order to suit their own research project. “Because of that [flexibility],” one student commented, “we all got what we really needed out of the assignments, not just what was expected of us”. When coupled with detailed and tailored feedback, this empowered students to imagine and construct robust research plans based on honest feedback from me, and from their peers. Additionally, weekly informal discussions about how the class was going for folks provided an opportunity to be nimble and adapt weekly assignments on the fly based on the actual real-time needs of students. “You made it safe to make mistakes,” one said, “And that’s what we needed.”

Next up: Author Contributions: Epic Fail, or Relational Success? (extra)

Previous: How to Find a Grad Project That Fulfills You. Step 1: Identify Your Critical Ingredients

The Intro to this series: How to Write a Winning Proposal—in 10 Hard Steps


Gagné, M. and E. L. Deci (2005). "Self-determination theory and work motivation." Journal of Organizational Behavior 26(4): 331-362. https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/abs/10.1002/job.322

Ryan, R. M. and E. L. Deci (2000). "Self-determination theory and the facilitation of intrinsic motivation, social development, and well-being." American Psychologist 55(1): 68-78. 

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CHANS Lab Views by Kai Chan's lab is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.
Based on a work at https://chanslabviews.blogspot.com.

Monday, June 29, 2020

How to Find a Grad Project That Fulfills You. Step 1: Identify Your Critical Ingredients

By Kai Chan

This is part of a series, How to Write a Winning Proposal—in 10 Hard Steps

Many students find their graduate projects by being handed one by a supervisor. Many continue on with research from their previous degree, with small variations. After years as Graduate Advisor for our program’s 100+ PhD and Master’s students and a decade as supervisor for more than twenty of my own brilliant students, I know that—if not intentionally chosen—both strategies risk regret, resentment, and/or student-supervisor relationship breakdown.

Because grad research can set the course for your career to a degree far greater than most first jobs, your* choice of project is absolutely crucial. It has got to be your* intentional choice.

But even when students find themselves with the freedom to choose a project, with a supportive supervisor and flexible funding, it still often goes awry. I know, because I was just such a blessed but unwitting PhD student.

I went to Princeton to study conservation ecology with Simon Levin. I wanted to study something that related to global resource use by a burgeoning human population and the underpinnings of the unfolding ecological crisis. But I got sidetracked by a collaboration with my good friend Brian Moore on mathematical models for the process of species diversification.

Icing. Not a cake, despite initial intentions. Pikrepo

I didn’t appreciate at the time how doing so would strongly set the course for my career. I had weekly requests for help with the phylogenetic-tree-symmetry software I developed. I had job opportunities in evolution but had lots of trouble selling my skills to conservation NGOs, for whom the next five million years of evolution was at best a distant consideration. For me, given my fundamental objective to contribute to meaningful ecological change now, this was a rut I had to break.

As a candy and icing-loving young adult, a metaphor came to mind. I had set out to bake an amazing multi-layered cake, but in the 11th hour when the cake needed to be mixed and baked, I found myself only with chocolate ganache, butter-cream icing, marzipan, and sprinkles.

Point is: my cake/PhD lacked substance—of the kind that mattered most to me. I'm still proud of it, but it didn't fulfil me.

From my experience supervising and advising students, I know I’m far from the only one who has troubles like this. A PhD is a daunting multi-year project that requires foresight, insight, strategy and execution to dedicate oneself despite innumerable distractions. Even thinking just about academic ones, there’s the lure of ‘sexy’ but insubstantial problems, fun collaborators, high-impact and easy papers, etc. True success means steering away from those distractions sometimes, if they take you away from what really matters.

What really matters takes many forms. Some people are committed to particular fields of study, perhaps because of shared values and epistemological approaches. Some are drawn to particular communities of practice, disciplines, methods, geographies, or even specific overarching research questions. For others, most of these dimensions don’t matter, but they are wholly committed to a specific theory of change. We all have our own visions and goals for our future careers.

Step 1 to finding a fulfilling project, then, is to know thyself**.

So the task is to identify as early as possible the constituents of a fulfilling project, considering its implications for your future career. These are your critical ingredients (the bolded elements above, plus more).

To help students identify these, I developed what I call “The Critical Ingredients Document”. The first class of students in RES 602 found this challenging, but insightful. Many struggled to identify their own theories of change, mostly because these theories about how their work might contribute to real-world change were entirely implicit. Others found that their project aligned with a theory of change that they didn’t wholly believe (e.g., that providing evidence to decision-makers would improve decision-making towards more just and sustainable processes and outcomes). Yet others realized, as we proceeded through the rest of the course by referring back to their critical ingredients, that their project didn’t mesh with their visions for themselves and their scholarly identities. I hope their supervisors won’t hold it against me….

If this document sounds like it will be helpful to you, you can find it here. All I ask is that you let me know (kai.chan@ubc.ca), that you give credit, and that you ask the same of anyone with whom you share it.

The main sections are as follows, very briefly:

Vision (how you'd like to see yourself)

Goals (relevant aspirational statements of what you seek in life)

Theories of Change (your notion of how change happens and how it might happen, particularly in the context of your contribution through your project and broader career—more to come)

Strengths and Limitations (your own endowments and bits that hold you back)

Fields (that you're committed to)

Disciplines (that are central to your identity)

Methodological/Analytical Tools (that you're particularly drawn to learn and use)

Geographical Study Areas (places you feel you must study)

Professional Networks (people you're committed to connecting with)

Professional Activities/Skills (activities and skills beyond research that are core to your identity)

Overarching Research Questions (particular questions you're committed to better understand)

Do you have a story to tell of a cakeless-cake? Do you have any additional ‘critical ingredients’ that I didn’t include? I’d love to hear from you in the comments below.

*Here I mean students. In this series in general, students are my primary audience, although I hope that professors also will have a genuine interest in their students feeling fulfilled, and that they will find this series useful towards that end.

**This echoes Steve Schneider’s guidance about science communication.

Next up: Why Some PhD Courses Shouldn't Have Grades

Previous: Understand How Others Go about Research. Step 0: Let Experts Reveal Their Messy Realities

The Intro to this series: How to Write a Winning Proposal—in 10 Hard Steps

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CHANS Lab Views by Kai Chan's lab is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.
Based on a work at https://chanslabviews.blogspot.com.

Tuesday, June 23, 2020

Understand How Others Go about Research. Step 0: Let Experts Reveal Their Messy Realities

Kai Chan for CHANS Lab Views

This is part of a series, How to Write a Winning Proposal—in 10 Hard Steps

Listening to established researchers is absolutely key to learning how to do research, but not via regular research talks. Those teach you very little about the messy realities you’ll have to navigate.

Imagine: you’re sitting in a lecture hall (or these days, on Zoom), listening to a researcher you truly respect. Chances are, the talk seamlessly proceeds from a compelling statement of context through to research questions that spark your inner curiosity, innovative methods, interesting findings, and impactful implications for both academia and the broader world.

Sometimes life doesn’t go as planned. Plan for it, by understanding others’ messy realities.

Star-struck in your seat, you think, “It’s so easy for them.” And then you think either, (a) “I’ll do it just like that,” or (b) “I could never do that.” Thinking (a) is hubris, because the process of research is never that tidy. Thinking (b) is your imposter syndrome: you can do great work, but tidy talks won’t tell you how to get there.

Research design and execution—particularly in early stages—is sausage-making. Anyone who suggests that it’s a simple, straightforward process is afraid to reveal their sausage factory. For most of us, it’s the equivalent of pig lips and bums, blood and gore all over. Sorry to fellow animal-lovers for the imagery, but that’s the truth, metaphorically.

So, because there’s tremendous wisdom and insight in established researchers, particularly those who both do research and guide students through it, bring in the experts for their unique insights. But do it in a way that makes it abundantly clear that you don’t want the usual research seminar. You want some of that, but interspersed with the raw, ugly truths about the sometimes-bumbling, sometimes-lucky journey that got them there.

You want this because no matter how carefully you plan it out, you will have your own messy realities. You’ll have your own bumps in the road, where you realize that you need to stop and repair before you proceed. Or where you realize you’ve gone down the wrong track, and you have to retrace your steps to achieve what you set out to do.

It helps to provide some structure for your experts, though. ‘Messy realities’ and ‘sausage-making’ can mean many different things, so you won’t necessarily get what you seek in asking for that. It may help to provide what seems like a straightforward recipe for research design, and ask them to speak to how their research process navigated those steps. If your experts are like my brilliant and genuine colleagues, that will motivate them to uncover the many ways that things don’t go as planned, but nevertheless get you somewhere good.

Hearing from experts can take the form of guest lectures in a course. If there’s no such course, you might start one, even as a student. Or you can organize a series of student-led brown-bag seminars with professors (and maybe some graduating students or alumni).

Over the span of the posts in this series, I'm going to share my own messy realities and some of my colleagues' (with permission, of course), which pertain to the various weeks of the course. For the big picture, though, students were struck by the messy realities of our paths to our present. This was true not just for me (figure above), but also for Gunilla Öberg, who spoke of her transformation from environmental chlorine chemist to interdisciplinary scholar scrutinizing contrasting beliefs and ideological blinders associated with endocrine disrupting chemicals and sustainable sewage management (or "poo and pee as resources").

It helps to unveil the messy realities of research, even if to guard against the imposter syndrome. What false starts and dead-ends have you encountered on your way? Please comment below—that is, if you don’t mind sharing with strangers in this fully public forum….

Next up: How to Find a Grad Project That Fulfills You. Step 1: Identify Your Critical Ingredients

The Intro to this series

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CHANS Lab Views by Kai Chan's lab is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.
Based on a work at https://chanslabviews.blogspot.com.

How to Write a Winning Proposal—in 10 Hard Steps (a new series)

Kai Chan for CHANS Lab Views

There’s no cookbook recipe for a winning proposal in three ‘easy’ steps. For a parallel, imagine this recipe for an award-winning cake:

  1. Become a masterful chef

  2. Assemble all the needed ingredients (you choose, but make them special and top-notch)

  3. Bake a beautiful, delicious cake (in a novel and rigorous way).

Research proposals are similar: even once you know how to do research, writing a proposal for your own research requires innovation, higher level thinking, mastery of at least one academic field, and elegant writing in a compelling narrative arc. Moreover, it requires deep knowledge of yourself. After all, this work will define you, to some degree.

Anyone selling a quick recipe for winning PhD proposals is selling smoke and mirrors. That said, there is a method to the madness of designing and describing impactful, innovative research that will fulfil you. You just won’t find it in the usual guidance that simply breaks down how to write each section. You might find it in guidance that lays out the messy, iterative process of learning to think like a researcher—and that’s what this series of posts seeks to offer.

Because “10 Hard Steps” could be dry reading without stories and/or humour, in this blog series I’m going to work these steps into a story about teaching a course at our world-leading interdisciplinary sustainability grad program at the University of British Columbia.

For years, at RES we have had a course intended to help students learn about proposal-writing and research design. It is RES 602, “Interdisciplinary Research Design for Sustainability Impact”. For more than a decade, it has taught students how to write proposals, with the bonus of actually developing their PhD proposal, and an added benefit of learning about research design from a range of perspectives alongside their diverse peers.

I had never taught it before. But I got stuck in that role by my director, who has the wise policy that every core course should rotate to be taught by a different faculty member every few years. It was my turn.

First, I put my ear to the ground. Actually first, I ran away screaming. I needed a new course to teach like I needed another hole in my head. Then I resigned myself to it, remembering that I cherish the process of helping students puzzle through their projects. But how to teach this?

I talked to students who had taken 602 in the past, and to students who were about to take it. And I recalled the many conversations I had with students about the course over the years, including as our program’s Graduate Advisor. The biggest takeaways from these conversations were this:

  1. Most students didn’t feel ready to take it. They felt like they needed to have their thinking more fully developed in order to write a proposal for their next few years of research.

  2. Most students felt that the course was designed for someone else. E.g., if they were a natural science student, they felt like it was designed for social scientists. If they were on the qualitative side, they saw it as for quantitative folks. But even some students who saw the course as more quantitatively inclined saw it as more useful for the qualitative folks, because they already knew much of the material.

Interestingly, the old syllabus didn’t sell itself as primarily helping students develop their own thesis research. Its primary purpose was learning generalized research design alongside peers. Sounds good, right? But in countless conversations, students nevertheless referred to 602 as “the proposal writing course” or “the course where you write your proposal”, and never once “the research design course”. For PhD students, courses orient entirely around their project. And so they should.

You can see why I didn’t want to teach it. I had thought I would teach it the same way that my colleagues had. But hearing this feedback, I realized I needed to redesign the course and put the students—and their journeys—front and centre. This series of posts tells the story of that course, and first, how you do soul-searching for graduate research.

All the following posts in this series: 

Understand How Others Go about Research. Step 0: Let Experts Reveal Their Messy Realities

How to Find a Grad Project That Fulfills You. Step 1: Identify Your Critical Ingredients

Why Some PhD Courses Shouldn't Have Grades

Why You Need a Theory of Change [LINK to come]

... (more to come)

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CHANS Lab Views by Kai Chan's lab is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.
Based on a work at https://chanslabviews.blogspot.com.

Thursday, June 18, 2020

IPBES—An Inside Take (the Series)

By Kai Chan, a Coordinating Lead Author for the Global Assessment, Chapter 5.

IPBES (the UN's Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services) is making waves in the arena of environmental science and policy, particularly that dealing with biodiversity conservation, ecosystem services, and the multiple values of nature. It is also somewhat of an enigma, especially for those who haven't participated yet in a formal role.

But if you work in environmental science and policy, you're sure to be confronted by a wide range of questions, including whether you should get involved in an assessment, task force or review process. You might also wonder how it works, how politics enters the process (or if it doesn't), what the assessments are useful for, and how to cite them.
The first IPBES Assessment was on pollination

This series of posts is based on an inside take from someone who has been involved in multiple work packages, starting with the Conceptual Framework, but also including the Global Assessment, and now also the Values Assessment and the (proposed) Transformative Change Assessment.

Let me be clear: this series of posts is not a set of advertisements for IPBES. I entered the Conceptual Framework process highly skeptical but wondering about the questions above, and how much value there is in engaging in this kind of international science-policy process. At the time (the beginning for IPBES), the only way for me to understand what IPBES was about was to get involved. I did, and I was not initially inspired to do more. In fact, I then figured it wasn't worth my while, but at least I knew why. But years later, as you'll learn in these posts, fate conspired to rope me in.

Moreover, I keep questioning deeply whether working with IPBES is the best use of my time (worth the opportunity costs), despite some important successes. Through no fault of the IPBES Secretariat (for whom I have tremendous respect), but rather due to the institutional constraints hard-wired into the organization, I'm still not sure if it is.

Here are the posts in chronological order: