Our commons need both practitioners and academics. I am keen that the International Association for the Study of the Commons (IASC) should embrace both. Up to now it has been more of an academic organisation than a practical one.
The commons (in the broadest sense of shared resources, global and local) are a fruitful source of study but they are also under threat. Academics and practitioners (or campaigners—but this term is not widely understood) need to work together to make the best case for protecting the commons. I have argued this at every IASC conference I have attended.
I was on the organising committee for this year’s conference in Edmonton and was pleased to find that fellow members agreed on the importance of involving practitioners. Not only was there a good showing from the First Nations, and plenary talks from people on the ground, but there were also sessions which brought practitioners and scholars together. I called the first-ever practitioners’ meeting: it was short notice and there were lots of competing activities so I was delighted that 15 people came, representing a broad geographical spread, and more have since asked to be added to the list.
The organisations represented included the Consultative Group for International Agricultural Research (CGIAR), Namati (a global organisation championing legal advocates at the grassroots) and India’s Foundation for Ecological Security (FES) which works for the ecological restoration and conservation of land and water.
In a 30 minute brainstorm we came up with a number of ideas to encourage IASC to recognise the value of practitioners, from having specific days at the biennial conference when academics and practitioners focus on a theme, to including impact stories on IASC website, materials for practitioners and a facebook page for communication. I was encouraged by the enthusiasm for action and look forward to working with the group in the coming months.
Much of the conference is taken up with parallel 90-minute sessions in which a number of scholars present their papers at speed with limited time for discussion. However, the committee worked some variety into the programme, and I was pleased to join a workshop, run by Kinga Boennig of the Leibniz Institute of Agricultural Development in Transition Economies (IAMO). The workshop was called ‘research for academia, for, or with, practice?’ Only a few came but we filled the 90 minutes. I was the only person who was pure practitioner (which meant I had to work quite hard!); the others were academics who wanted their work to be useful to communities, to bring about change, and some undertook a mixture of research and practical work.
Kinga presented three formulae for producing academic work:
1. the loading-dock approach: the research is put out and anyone can take it, but there’s not much interaction. This leads to frustration because science produces knowledge but the knowledge is not of practical use.
2. transfer and interaction model: academics consider the transfer and translation of academic results, making an effort to bring it to practitioners, but with little direct interaction between scientist and users.
3. co-production of knowledge: scientists and practitioners bring expertise and knowledge together from the start, they are intertwined.
Obviously the third is what practitioners most want and need. We agreed that the current barriers to practitioners using academic work is that they don’t want to have to trawl through journals, the language is difficult, there is the cost of gaining access and it is difficult to know what is available.
I argued that practitioners need readily to be able to commission work from academics, to provide independent evidence to support their campaigns. I had in mind how the Ramblers have initiated research on the benefits of walking to the economy, and the effects of freedom to roam on bird populations. There was a hollow laugh: did I really believe that research was objective? I guess it sounds naïve, but I firmly believe that backing a campaign with research helps to win credibility and respect.
There was a frustration among those present that their work was not necessarily being useful on the ground: ‘How can we move from policy to livelihoods?’ ‘Is it right to do research on funeral customs when people are hungry?’ ‘My boss doesn’t care about the reality in the field, he only cares about research papers.’ Many academics work with communities; they want to make a difference.
All these are issues which IASC can help to address, by bringing practitioners and academics together, giving them opportunities to discuss, debate and learn, face to face and online. I am excited that the practitioners’ group is getting going.
I am working with the Countryside and Community Research Institute at the University of Gloucestershire (CCRI) to produce an international online course on defending the commons, starting in September. Watch for announcements CCRI.