Conclusion: pluralising the imagery of Icarus

For background on this 3-part series, see the introductory post “Many Cool Heads for a Hot and Unequal World: Reflections on adaptation research and the social sciences“ which reflects on a Global Environmental Change editorial by Arun Agrawal and others. Here is Part 1Part 2; Part 3.

The “Cool heads for a hot world – Social sciences under a changing sky” editorial ends on an evocative note, using the familiar yet cautionary tale of Icarus who flies too close to the sun and when his wax wings melt, falls to his death. The authors ask, did Icarus falter because of an overconfidence in his wings (a technical solution as the editorial highlights) or his outsized ambitions (a psychological failure)? Or perhaps it was the moral failure of not listening to his father’s caution. They end that perhaps a ‘well-adapted’ solution, a parachute, could have helped Icarus land, singed and perhaps bruised, but alive nonetheless.

As I look back to the editorial from the vantage point of today, I think the adaptation research community, of which I count myself a part of, has made progress on many fronts. And yet, we have some big questions unanswered. We know the outlines of what effective adaptation could and should look like but the specifics of it remain elusive, the mechanics of getting to it even more so. We continue to stumble on foundational definitions, for example, adaptive capacity and adaptation are routinely used interchangeably (it’s my favourite nerdy pet peeve) and practical delineations between adaptation and development remain. We have too much data on some things (think community-based adaptation, studies comparing perceived and observed risk) and negligible data on others (empirical evidence of maladaptation, of transformation adaptation). Finally, the psychology of adaptation needs more attention and will shape how we can incentivise and enable adaptation.

More critically, I think the imagery of Icarus holds, with one caveat. In today’s unequal world, there are many Icarus – some with synthetic, solar-powered wings, flying towards the sun and burning the world in their wake; others with parachutes to soften the blow; a few Icarus have energy bars to keep them going, they have rudimentary face shields, perhaps, donated by a wealthy IcarusTM. Some Icarus have migrated to the moon, while others have pooled money to build a cheap airship (it’s promising but needs more funds and ‘technical transfers’). And then there’s a vast sea of Icarus that watch their skies clouded with fliers but are unable to fly themselves. They clean the debris of the fallen solar wings, they sweep away the fallen Icarus, and they continue to live flightless lives**. 

* A Siders’ new paper “Deciding how to make climate change adaptation decisions” looks particularly promising here. I am, as I suspect know we all are, woefully behind on all academic reading.

** This last bit draws on what I believe has been one of the biggest ‘waves’ in recent adaptation scholarship – a serious engagement with issues of justice and equity. My go to reading on this is Scholsberg’s 2011 Climate Justice, Vulnerability, and Adaptation: A Capabilities Approach; Tim Forsyth’s frank ‘Climate justice is not just ice’; and my aspirational read is this new Coggins et al. paper.

Part 3 On adaptation decision-making, whither psychology?

For background on this 3-part series, see “Many Cool Heads for a Hot and Unequal World: Reflections on adaptation research and the social sciences“. And here is Part 1; Part 2.

“…social scientists can productively study and inform decision-making and policy processes. Social science efforts form part of a global conversation that includes citizens around the world, activists and social movements, and a variety of institutions and organizations ranging from communities to nations to international organizations. In addition to operating in empirical and theoretical registers, social science scholars of climate change can also undertake concrete engagements, seeking to inform adaptation policies, especially in less-developed regions.” (Agrawal et al. 2011, p. 330)

The social sciences have informed adaptation decision-making and policy in multiple ways: there is a large empirical body of work on governing adaptation (at multiple scales, across different sectors, traversing natural resource management in villages and cities, to transboundary risk management). There is deep work on the political economy of adaptation in various geographies. And there is emerging work on the politics of adaptation planning and investment, though this literature continues to focus on the unequal and inadequate landscape of adaptation investment without robust entry points for ameliorative action.

There is a remarkably large and rich literature on adaptive governance that draws on social learning and environmental governance to synthesise lessons for governing over long time scales and under uncertainty. There is relatedly, a growing solutions-focussed literature on adaptation pathways, where scholars unpack how people, communities, countries make decisions under ‘deep uncertainty’; how certain choices may open up or close down certain ‘solution spaces’ and how the trade-offs and costs of these decisions can push us to new limits or open up new opportunities.

The one big gap that I believe receives inadequate attention is the behavioural aspects of adaptation, with the discipline of psychology remaining conscious by its almost veritable absence. In 2010, when I was starting out examining why, embedded in the same socio-ecological system, some farmers chose to adapt while others didn’t, I had a handful of papers to draw on: Torsten Grothmann and Anthony Patt’s foundational 2005 paper on human cognition, risk perception, and adaptation decision-making, Monique Sleger’s work on drought perception and adaptation behaviour, and Neeraj Vedwan’s 2005 work on how apple growers in India were perceiving and responding to changing rainfall and snow. There was a lot on risk perception but very little of it linked these perceptions to behaviours. The behavioural economics literature was all homo economicus (I couldn’t reconcile this rational, profit-maximising individual with any smallholder, subsistence farmer I met in the field) and in most adaptation literature, the ‘homo’ tended to be a man, in a male-headed household, ignoring the complex intra-household decision-making processes that feminist literature had been speaking of for multiple decades*.

From then, to a decade later, when we assessed the adaptation behaviour literature for the IPCC’s Special Report on 1.5C, I was disappointed to find not much had moved (see Anne van Valkengoed & Linda Steg’s review paper that highlights this gap). While Grothmann & Patt (2005) paved the way for a greater attention to the “importance of psycho-social factors as elements of adaptive capacity” (Mortreaux & Barnett 2017, p.4), the theoretical milestones in adaptation behaviour have been somewhat few and far between**. I believe, there is a substantial research gap on bringing together research on (1) psychosocial drivers of adaptation behaviour (i.e., the values, norms, memories and experiences that shape decision-making), (2) perceived and projected risk (climatic and non-climatic), and (3) personal and collective aspirations that people/communities/countries have as they negotiate these changing risk regimes.

* This topic alone, the erasure/overlooking of feminist literature from climate adaptation research, deserves a series of blogs but for now, I leave you with six key pieces: Diane Wolf’s 1990 paper Daughters, Decisions and Domination; Seema Arora-Johnsson’s 2011 paper questioning the women as vulnerable vs. virtuous caricature; Farhana Sultana’s 2014 foundational Gendering Climate Change; Kaijser & Kronsell’s careful analysis linking climate vulnerability and intersectionality; Houria Djoudi’s 2016 paper; and Mary Thompson-Hall et al.’s 2016 work on intersectionality and adaptation. And for more recent work on gender and climate adaptation, this open access book “Engendering Climate Change“.

** There are notable papers of course, but they are drowned in the big literature of adaptation. Some papers I repeatedly go back to are Gifford’s “The dragons of inaction”; Swim et al’s “Psychology’s Contributions to Understanding and Addressing Global Climate Change“; and two recent papers by Anne van Valkengoed and Linda Steg “The Psychology of Climate Change Adaptation” and “Meta-analyses of factors motivating climate change adaptation behaviour“.

Part 2 Adaptation research has a small(er) methodology problem

For background on this 3-part series, see the introductory post “Many Cool Heads for a Hot and Unequal World: Reflections on adaptation research and the social sciences“ which reflects on a Global Environmental Change editorial by Arun Agrawal and others. Here is Part 1Part 2Part 3; and the conclusion.

“We need also to make better use of the broad arsenal of social theory and methodological approaches. Indeed, adequately addressing the social complexities of vulnerability and adaptation associated with differences in scales, regions, and sectors requires different kinds of knowledge from and across the social science disciplines, recourse to different analytical frameworks, and even borrowings from the biological and physical sciences.” (Agrawal et al. 2012, p. 330)

The methods used in climate change vulnerability and adaptation research draw on a range of disciplines from ecology and environmental science, geography and development studies, to history and anthropology, and more recently, media and digital humanities. This, I believe, is a recent change and we only have to look to Mike Hulme’s 2011 Nature Climate Change commentary, ‘Meet the Humanities’ to remember how the climate change literature (and hence the IPCC) was “heavily dominated by natural science disciplines, especially the Earth sciences, while the minority social science content was heavily dominated by economics. Literature from the humanities was virtually absent” (p. 177). Of course, while things have changed (dare I say improved?) since then, it is also an incomplete change, and the need for SHAPE (Social sciences, humanities and the arts for people and the economy) to tackle global problems is more relevant than ever before (see Hetan Shah’s eloquent argument in Global problems need social science).

Despite these gaps, I do believe that current adaptation research is seeing innovative combinations of methodological approaches and conceptual leanings, giving adaptation science a rich empirical base and pluralising analytical frameworks by forefronting issues of (in)equity, intersectionality, temporality, and translocality, to mention a few*. So to come back to the call Agrawal et al. make, while we have somewhat drawn on “different kinds of knowledge from and across the social science disciplines, recourse to different analytical frameworks”**, I believe we have met the goal of “borrowings from the biological and physical sciences” somewhat less enthusiastically.

If I take the example of the (rather meteoric) rise of the nature-based solutions scholarship, two distinct camps emerge (I name them here as caricatures, they are of course not as binary as I present) – the ‘natural science camp’ where ecosystem services and ecological benefits of NbS are examined through a range of tools (e.g., willingness to way for greenery in cities; hydrological modelling of how wetlands manage stormwater runoff and mitigate flood risks). This camp uses diverse methodologies, tracks past trends and charts possible futures, and sometimes engages with the ‘social science camp’ through ‘participatory’ scenario building and stakeholder engagements. The second discernible ‘camp’ is the ‘social science camp’, which has charted subjective wellbeing benefits of green cover, examined how NbS can provide multidimensional solutions but also concentrate intersectional vulnerability, and analysed the socio-economic and governance barriers and enablers of NbS. This camp examines conflict and cooperation, values and benefits of NbS but wrestles with cross-scalar feedbacks, and how natural resource flows and limits interact with social systems. These two camps in my opinion, exceptionally important in their own right, have failed to speak to one another, providing an incomplete picture of the values and pitfalls of NbS***.

As the adaptation endeavour grows, sub-fields and buzzwords will balloon and contract; that is the (somewhat aggravating, yet humbling?) nature of knowledge creation and progress. As a community keen to understand and implement ways to reduce vulnerability and enable adaptation, we must pay close attention to how we create adaptation knowledge, what concepts and methods we privilege, and be somewhat creative with interdisciplinary experiments****. 

* we’d assessed some of this disciplinary and methodological plurality in this paper.

** of course, this endeavour is not complete (and never can be, given how new conceptual and methodological approaches grow, merge, bifurcate, and spawn)

*** there are multiple interdisciplinary teams examining NbS, and I happen to be co-leading one of them on urban agriculture, but the point I’m making is even in these teams, the ‘natural science’ and ‘social science’ outputs tend to be siloed, the recommendations and impacts flowing from such research tend to be remain bound in disciplines and methodologies, and breaking away from these remains challenging.

**** For related thinking around whose voice gets heard, I turn to Prof Farhana Sultan’s work on epistemological marginalisation (Political Ecology: From the Margins to the Centre) and Prof Harini Nagendra’s work on how knowledge production on urban sustainability is terribly skewed (The urban south and the predicament of global sustainability).

Part 1: Adaptation science has a big data, disparate theory problem

For background on this 3-part series, see the introductory post “Many Cool Heads for a Hot and Unequal World: Reflections on adaptation research and the social sciences“ which reflects on a Global Environmental Change editorial by Arun Agrawal and others. Here is Part 2; Part 3; Conclusion.

“we need to build databases, produce case studies, design robust quantitative and qualitative analytical approaches, and compare across the rich library of studies available in the literature focusing on local adaptation so as to build theoretical generalizations that are useful across geographies, cultures, and political systems and also relevant to more specific studies interested in individual contexts.” (Agrawal et al. 2012, p. 329)

As three recent papers show (Nalau & Verrall 2021, Vincent & Cundill 2021, Sietsma et al. 2021), the adaptation community really took this call (to produce research) to heart, and how. Working on the IPCC’s 1.5C Special Report we found that the adaptation literature has burgeoned, more than doubling from 2008-2011 (Bassett and Fogelman 2013) and growing by 150% from 2011-2014 (Webber 2016). This is the ‘big literature’ challenge in adaptation where numerous place-based case studies have proliferated (as they should) but synthesis and identifying entries for enabling effective adaptation implementation remain relatively underreported.

While collectively, these cases build a formidable database of “specific studies interested in individual contexts”, I believe we have somewhat failed to make sense of them to “build theoretical generalizations that are useful across geographies, cultures, and political systems”. For example, we continue debating the links between adaptation and development (as an indication, follow Wilbanks et al. 2004 to Yohe et al. 2007 in the IPCC’s AR4 to McGray et al. 2007 to Schipper et al. 2021). We continue to ask how we should delineate adaptation as beyond business-as-usual development? Or do we mainstream adaptation at the cost of diluting it? Or do we look for ‘triple wins’ and ‘co-benefits’? Does climate-compatible development capture the multiple trade-offs and decisions people, households, cities and countries face as they try to cope and adapt or do climate-resilient development pathways better capture the inequities and path dependencies we must negotiate?

Building on Maria Lemos’s framing of generic vs. specific capacities, I have argued, with colleagues, that in places where development delivery remains a gap, building a bedrock of development is essential to nurture adaptive capacity but insufficient to deliver adaptation to climatic risks. But we all are partial to particular frames and indicators, and in the multiplicity of cases and ‘recommendations’, I find adaptation implementers, funders, and researchers find themselves at sea. Theoretical plurality is a sign of debate, of a growing field but it can paralyse and confuse; and “the apparent lack of critical reflection upon the robustness of these (adaptation) heuristics for diverse contexts may contribute to potential cognitive bias with respect to the framing of adaptation by both researchers and practitioners” Preston et al. (2017, p. 467).

Combing through Agrawal et al.’s call further, one begins to ask, who should build these (adaptation) databases (and towards what end), what processes and funding mechanisms are needed to store, manage and update them, and how do we share this burden especially in countries facing multiple, compounding risks (of which climate impacts may be one of many)? The current UNFCCC reporting system which focuses more on climate ambition, has proved inadequate and uneven in reporting adaptation action. Research teams have tried to develop databases (e.g. Olazabal et al. 2021 on urban adaptation across Europe; the unfunded, organic Global Adaptation Mapping Initiative (GAMI) led by Lea Berrang-Ford and others capturing the breadth of adaptation research across continents, sectors, and scales) but these remain early, incomplete exercises, often curtailed by language, focus on peer-reviewed research, and particular search criteria.

More critically, as we think of developing adaptation databases, underlying resource and financial inequities come to the fore. We only have to look at successive IPCC Assessment Reports to see that the sections on ‘knowledge gaps’ repeatedly highlight particular geographies: within Asia, West and Central Asia are the usual suspects, in Europe, it is Eastern European countries. How are we plugging these geographical gaps as we move towards building (adaptation) datasets and producing case studies? More critically, as we move ahead with savvier tools of machine learning and AI-dependent data mining, we need to carefully consider what knowledge these adaptation databases are including/excluding, who is holding and using this data, and how information is/can be weaponised to fund and perpetuate unequal research and practice relationships.

It’s a very white world out there. Co-authorship of 60 leading adaptation authors with at least 10 publications and 500 citations. Source: Nalau & Verrall (2021)

Many cool heads for a hot and unequal world: reflections on adaptation research and the social sciences

In a 2012 editorial in Global Environmental Change “Cool heads for a hot world – Social sciences under a changing sky“, Arun Agrawal, Maria Lemos, Ben Orlove, and Jesse Ribot delineated three spaces for the social sciences to contribute to climate change research and action (theorise, problematize, inform policy).

The year they wrote this, I was wrestling with my PhD data on differential vulnerability, climate variability, and farmer adaptation in rural Rajasthan. I was trained in Botany and Natural Resource Management and was now negotiating peoples’ memories and experiences of water scarcity, having long conversations on drought management, changing rural livelihoods, and the vagaries of smallholder soyabean cultivation. And all of it, against the backdrop of climate variability and change in the wettest part of India’s driest state. The editorial with its three ‘summons’ and focus on interdisciplinary enquiries was heartening to read. As an environmental social scientist, it signalled to me the importance of grounded, longitudinal adaptation research.

Today, in 2021, almost a decade later, we stand at another crucial juncture. We are five years past the Paris Agreement, a momentous juncture in global climate governance, which finally recognised the scale and inequity of climate impacts and risks, and proposed funding adaptation more proactively. The Paris Agreement also titillated and confused with a global goal on adaptation – exasperatingly difficult to define and hence, inconveniently mirage-like. Just when you think you have a metric to assess adaptation progress and effectiveness, a new one pops up, most often with a whole new slew of indicators and ideas, and governments, civil society, and funders scramble to catch up. The Paris Agreement also articulated periodic checks and balances to ascertain how we’re moving towards the elusive goal(s) – the five-year Global Stocktakes, the first one scheduled for 2023.

As one looks ahead to the stocktakes and looks back to the decades of adaptation scholarship, it seems timely to revisit the ‘Cool heads for a hot world’ editorial. Did the adaptation research community take on any of the provocations it laid out? Where did we go and where are we now? Whose solutions got picked up and whose were silenced? Did we do better on understanding vulnerability let alone reducing it? I think we progressed on some and not so much on others. In a series of three blogs, I lay out how recent papers have helped answer some questions while in other spaces, we’re still asking the same questions asked in the early 2000s.

Link Pack #14: Kerala, poverty pathways, and coping strategies


In the Field, a promising development podcast from India (do check them out in case you haven’t already), open their second season with a great episode on Kerala – the poster child of development in India and where it is today. Includes discussions on

  • how Kerala’s development trajectory has meant different things for men and women (differences in expectations, women still seen as conduits of ‘economic outflows’ despite being key sources of remittances – think Malayalee nurses).   
  • the 2018 floods and whether Kerala’s development has come at the cost of its environmental security. 
  • future development pathways for Kerala (a knowledge economy? but what of changing aspirations?)


There is a new special issue in Environment and Development Economics, which has a series of papers examining the links between poverty and climate change. In the introduction to the special issue, Hallegatte et al. (open access) highlight how climate change can push people into poverty (e.g. through direct losses such as floods eroding assets) and can also block people escaping poverty (e.g. a drought undermining farm incomes). We have known these linkages for some time now but given the scale of the data presented in the papers and the current ‘moment of opportunity’ climate change research is witnessing, makes reiterating some of these findings. I found particularly interesting, Angelsen & Dokken’s paper examining role of environmental income (income from products extracted from non-cultivated (wild) areas) in coping with shocks. They find:

“Among the income-generating coping strategies, extracting more environmental resources ranks second to seeking wage labor. The poorest in dry regions also experience the highest forest loss, undermining the opportunities to to cope with future climate shocks.”

Angelsen, A. & Dokken, T. (2018:257)

What this means is that while natural resource extraction is detrimental to dealing with climate shocks, poor people continue to do so because it generates income. Sobering and something we continuously see whether in competitive groundwater extraction across South India, or the degradation of pasturelands in dryland areas. 

New Project: Recovery with Dignity

I’m starting a new project called ‘Recovery with Dignity‘ with a great set of researchers at the University of East Anglia and IIHS. We’re examining processes and impacts of representation and memorialisation in post-disaster recovery processes, with case studies in Odisha, Tamil Nadu and Kerala. As the project takes shape, the team is thinking and writing about post-disaster representation (who represents whom and what, when and why) and how perhaps pluralising representation can make it more inclusive.
We’re building on previous experiences in Odisha and Tamil Nadu where we found that short-term humanitarian assistance tends to overlook longer-term development impacts. In Chennai for example, we found relocation and resettlement are common ‘tools’ of disaster recovery but have longer-term social, economic, and intangible impacts on resettled lives and livelihoods. They also forefront multiple agendas – a removal of slums in the city, the thrust to vacate expensive real estate, the imperatives of reducing peoples’ hazard exposure, and in all of this, the daily lives and livelihoods of vulnerable populations.

We aim to use creative methodological approaches to capture representation and memorialisation which I am particularly looking forward to. Watch this space for updates on the project and fieldwork!

Rising high, sinking low. Relocated households often find themselves in multi-floor housing like those pictured above, very different from the spaces of communal living they come from. Public spaces and parks, though planed for, are flooded because the buildings stood on low-lying marshlands. Many reported safety issues because in a colony of resettelers, there is no ‘community’ let alone cohesion. Chennai 2017. 

Link Pack #13: A great paper on vulnerability

The paper closes on a positive note with directions for future research, practice, and funding. The authors call for methodological development (something we have been trying to do within the ASSAR project through life history interviews), expanding future scenarios work that is predominantly quantitative and focussed on biophysical aspects, reimagining case studies to draw on their rich empirics but feed into broader meta-analyses, and revisiting past research to inform present concerns and gaps. All of this of course points towards a reorientation of how vulnerability funding is given, both in terms of duration and topics of focus.  

For more insights, do read the paper! Suggest reading with McDowell et al. 2016 which also focusses on advances and gaps in vulnerability research but restricts itself to the community scale (both papers are open access).


Are you a vulnerability researcher? There’s a great new paper by James Ford and others reviewing vulnerability research and defining a forward-looking research agenda. From a review of 587 papers, they identify seven concerns in vulnerability research from 1990 to 2016. They are: neglect of social drivers, promotion of a static under- standing of human-environment interactions, vagueness about the concept of vulnerability, neglect of cross-scale interactions, passive and negative framing, limited influence on decision-making, and limited collaboration across disciplines. 

Most usefully, the paper crosschecks if each concern is substantiated by the literature. For example, they find the concern that social drivers of vulnerability are neglected has limited supporting evidence since foundational work in vulnerability (such as Watts and Bohle’s work on famine and vulnerability, Blaikie and Wisner’s foundational work on the political economy of risk, and Jesse Ribot’s thesis that vulnerability does not fall from the sky) have been discussing non-climatic drivers of vulnerability since the late 1980s.

“While there still remains little consensus about its precise meaning— and the success of studies seeking to bring clarity to vulnerability research is debatable—there is agreement that vulnerability denotes susceptibility to harm, and is composed of exposure, sensitivity, and adaptive capacity… In this view, rather than striving for a unified approach to vulnerability, researchers should be aware of the diverse approaches that exist, and be explicit about the concepts they use.”

Ford et al. (2019:194)

One big takeaway for me from the paper was that the authors found an absence of studies evaluating whether vulnerability research is informing decision-making. Given the amount of funds going into vulnerability alleviation projects, this appears to be a critical gap to filled, and one that can be addressed with an eye on the IPCC’s AR6, which is just kicking off.

Bigfoot: On being a climate scientist that flies

Flying around the globe to attend climate change conferences that discuss the importance of flying less has got to be one of the most ironical parts of my job. On the one hand, the research world is moving towards being more connected. We’re in an age of multi-country studies and collaborative, international research teams; North-South and South-South partnerships; and shrinking timelines to build those partnerships. On the other hand, there is a growing call for climate change researchers to introspect on their own carbon footprint from flying.

Personally, this dilemma [wanting to fly and grab all the opportunities (!) vs. seriously confronting and addressing my Big(carbon)Foot problem] has troubled me for several years now. There is a growing online conversation on ways to solve this dilemma (see here, here and here). However, the articles I come across on flying less or no flying are often written by researchers in contexts far different from mine. The conversations I’ve had on low/no flying have often been with colleagues in Europe who have options of trains and buses to cross countries. You can’t attend a conference in Thailand (from India) by taking an overnight bus. Getting from one end of India to another by train itself takes 3 days! So when I heard of Peter Kalmus‘s amazing initiative ‘No Fly Climate Sci’, I decided to chime in with my experiences as someone who enjoys being part of a multi-country research project and is concerned about her carbon emissions.

My piece from the No Fly Climate Sci website

As a researcher examining the interface of climate change and livelihood transitions, reducing my carbon footprint is a professional and personal issue for me. I try to do so by walking to work, carpooling, recycling and eating less meat. However, these options are difficult to engage with when the systems and institutions in a country disincentivise them. For example, Indian cities are not particularly known for being walkable or having cycling tracks, making these options perilous (a few years ago, noted environmentalist, Sunita Narain was run over while cycling to work in Delhi).

Flying less is often put forth as a positive behavioural change with a large impact on individual emissions. I have consciously started flying less, either clubbing meetings to reduce multiple trips or taking the train if that is an option. However, again, being a researcher based in the global South, there are some challenges that are seldom recognised in narratives around ‘climate researchers must walk the talk’. First, with distances as large as they are in India, train rides can last well over 12-15 hours (and up to 24-36 hours if you are traversing the country). Taking such options might often mean travelling over the weekend, eating into time one reserves for family or self-care. Second, important conferences in my field are often held in America or Europe (e.g., the Adaptation Futures 2016 was in Rotterdam, the Cities and Climate Change Conference 2018 is in Edmonton). Getting to these and showcasing one’s work is usually only possible by flying, often at a large financial and physical cost.

An argument I hear often is to not attend these conferences at all, thus eliminating the need to travel completely. Often, such suggestions come well-established researchers, with strong networks and an extensive body of work. To young researchers in my team, many of whom will use conferences to travel abroad for the first time in their life, the pros of presenting their ideas to an international audience, getting feedback on their work, and experiencing a different culture, outweighs concerns of carbon emissions. This is why, while I applaud my European colleagues who choose to take the train instead of flying from say the Netherlands to Sweden or France to the UK, I am unable to provide similar stories of restraint.

I continue to make small amends – offsetting some of the miles, using social media and livestreaming to learn of new advances in my field, and sharing with my team, opportunities to present closer to home. And though I try to fly less, as a researcher based out of South Asia and presenting on international platforms, I find it hard to do.


In March this year, I was scheduled to travel to the IPCC Cities Conference in Edmonton. It would be the farthermost I’d have travelled, from my current base in Myanmar, with a large carbon footprint and great financial cost. It was an important conference in my field, would provide a great networking opportunity, and my panel on urban adaptation case studies across Asia, Africa and Latin America had been accepted and fully funded! In the end, I never got my Canadian visa on time and ended up presenting remotely. The thought of speaking through a computer to an audience far away wasn’t particularly exciting. But it worked! I pre-recorded the presentation to avoid hiccups and the panel managed audience questions brilliantly. Yes, I missed meeting colleagues and researchers in person, but Twitter helped update me on key presentations. As a first timer, I was pleasantly surprised with how easy remote-presenting can be and have since then taught classes remotely, slowly chipping away at my Bigfoot!

Further reading on flying less

Research for (Policy) Impact

Demonstrating policy impact of research is becoming increasingly important. In countries like the UK, the Research Excellence Framework ensures that incentives are tied to demonstrating impact. While we aren\’t there yet in India, spaces such as IIHS and CPR India are increasingly contributing to conversations at the research-policy interface.

Podcast on research impact

In this context, I enjoyed listening to ANU’s recent Policy Forum Podcast episode on policy impact, which touches upon research impact, questioning one’s motives for doing research, and how to engage in meaningful research despite the neoliberalisation of higher education. Mark Reed, Professor of Social Innovation at Newcastle University and a research impact wiz, talks of his experiences of trying to ‘make a difference’. Few things from the podcast that really spoke to me:

  • Need more thought at proposal writing stages to consider the dangers of cobbling together ill-suited research/policy/practice partners to bid for trans- and inter-disciplinary research initiatives
  • Need more training on doing interdisciplinary research that often calls for working with people with different worldviews, methodological leanings, and crucially, different motivations
  • Doing a rapid stakeholder mapping to discover and forge new, non-research partnerships is useful ongoing exercise for researchers
  • Question your motives and ability to nurture relationships over time: “If you want to make a difference, you have to be in this for the long game. This (research impact) is fundamentally about relationships and it has to be two-way…there has to be humility in these relationships.”

Two papers on developing the skills, space for research impact

Also read two interesting articles on research impact and being an engaged, impactful researcher (thanks Georgina Cundill for the recommendation!):

Cvitanovic and Hobday (2018) Building optimism at the environmental science-policy-practice interface through the study of bright spots in Nature Communications

Evans and Cvitanovic (2018) An introduction to achieving policy impact for early career researchers in Palgrave Communications (here’s a blog post based on the paper)

 Cvitanovic and Hobday (2018) call for changing the terminology of ‘gaps’ across the science–policy–practice interfaces to a focus on ‘bright spots’. This is something that has struck me in climate change adaptation research as well where there is a focus on identifying, enumerating and finding solutions to ‘adaptation barriers’. Changing the narrative on this means finding leverage points and entry spaces where one learns from success AND failure instead of success stories OR examples of failure.   

The second paper refreshingly argues that being honest and humble researchers is key for impact. In my experience, humility and honesty are critical to strong, effective and inclusive research teams. I\’ve discussed the role of empathy in scenario planning exercises and find that creating a conducive environment as a first step of impactful research is still an under-acknowledged aspect of interdisciplinary work.   The two papers also discuss the need for understanding policy in practice before being able to influence it. This is critical, especially in countries such as India, where a lot of policy influencing is hidden and policy conversations and spaces are often closed off. During my PhD, being a young female researcher who had to engage with all-male irrigation department officials, was a challenging and sometimes dangerous part of data collection. I regularly faced inappropriate invitations to visit their homes, and although unofficial conversations would have helped building a rapport so crucial for policy impact, my gender and age sharply shaped my ability and experience to nurture beyond-research relationships.   

I think the messiness and informal nature of policy making is something researchers don’t appreciate fully. I look forward to reading (or perhaps writing?!) more about it, especially experiences of trying to achieve research impact in the Global South (where, I have a hunch things are messier and more closed off but that might just be a hunch). 

My own experience of research impact

In a bid to start thinking of making my own research more ‘impact-friendly’, earlier this year I helped collate eight farmer stories documenting bottom-up, policy-facing solutions in climate change adaptation in the agriculture sector in South India.

We collected these stories of change where farmers facing significant hardship such as growing water scarcity, small landholding, and market fluctuations have overcome them through a mix of personal innovation and ingenuity, and institutional support. We consciously decided not to publish a paper from it and instead launched a booklet in English and Kannada (the local language) and invited the farmers to speak about their experiences at the launch. Having government and civil society representatives at the launch (with whom we had built relationships over the past few years of our wider research project) made the event more meaningful. We\’ve already had had interest from popular media (Time of IndiaIndiaSpend, Business Standard covered our work) and NGOs beyond the region have ordered the open access booklet to learn from these farmer stories. Small steps, but important nonetheless.