When Does Synthesizing Begin? Contributing to Broader Theory During Early Career

 Aug 13, 2013    by Winslow Hansen

After getting my undergraduate degrees from the University of Montana, I moved to Alaska to work as a research technician. I was looking for a big adventure and I found it. I spent a year traveling around the state of Alaska to rural indigenous villages. I worked with a post doc interviewing subsistence hunters, documenting their ways of life, and how changing climate was influencing the availability of resources that hunters depended on. It was an opportunity to explore places where few people get to go and meet with people that live in truly unique settings.

I’ve never experienced anything in life like staring out at a frozen Arctic Ocean in the middle of winter. However, it was also an opportunity to observe some of the intricacies involved with managing natural resources, such as king salmon, that are simultaneously essential to human wellbeing in the region and are of severe conservation concern. Many think that changing climate is central to declining salmon populations.

The following year, I began my masters degree. My interests in human-environment interactions, and the influence of climate manifested itself in studying how spruce bark beetle outbreak in the 1990’s that occurred on the Kenai Peninsula has affected subsequent wildfire and how the occurrence of both wildfire and bark beetle outbreak has affected property values in the wildland urban interface. This research took me to a very different landscape of Alaska, one of the fastest growing and urbanizing regions. If you aren’t careful, you could perhaps confuse the location for some place like Colorado or western Montana. The increasing population density on the Kenai Peninsula has led to substantial challenges managing wildland fire to both maintain ecological integrity and protect people and their property.

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Both the subsistence community and wildfire projects have led to interesting individual results. There are a surprising number of similarities in how these fairly diverse systems are managed and the barriers that may be preventing systems from being managed in more optimal ways.  In both systems, a high level of ecological uncertainty made it very difficult to determine what the consequences may be that stem from altering management approaches. Further, in both settings institutional constraints barred folks from implementing innovative ideas. What are some of the broader challenges that managers face in the context of increasing human pressures on ecosystems and a changing climate? The happenstance of being able to compare these two disparate cases led me to consider the value of thinking more broadly than the individual research projects that we become enveloped in.  What is the role of synthesis in science? Can the lessons learned from synthesis help us manage a wide variety of systems under increasingly uncertain conditions?  When should we, as scientists, begin to think about synthesis and attempt it in our careers?  Over the next several blog posts, I’m going to write on the role of synthesis and its importance for early career climate researchers as well as it potential contribution to our social-ecological understanding of the world around us. I plan to discuss these topics in a series of blogs posts over the next few months, drawing on examples from my first attempt to write a synthesis piece, based on the two case studies previously mentioned. I’m hoping the series will be exploratory, allowing me to ponder my own questions and uncertainties on the topic of synthesizing and considering the broader implications as I undergo the process for the first time myself.

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