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'Ecologists should step out of their traditional roles and actively help in building a liveable future for all living creatures' | Selen Eren

05 February 2024
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Selen Eren. Photo: Marco in 't Veldt
Interview: Marco in 't Veldt

Selen Eren is about to complete her Ph.D. on 'something about godwits.' You might think that an interview with her would focus on migratory birds, but during the interview, it becomes clear that it's quite different.

'No, I don't study birds myself. I'm a social scientist who studies scientists and scientific knowledge production processes. My focus is on how we know what we know about biodiversity loss. Overall, my work is about the politics of environmental scientific knowledge. More specifically it is on the assumptions, decisions, conventions, and interactions behind biodiversity monitoring processes and tools.

I focus on these practices because scientific knowledge is not produced solely by scientists in a completely controlled vacuum but in multiple negotiations between scientists, institutions, tools, animals, and society. I study these practices with the aim of improving the kinds of knowledge needed to take action on today’s environmental problems. In the case of my Ph.D. project, I focused on the knowledge production processes around the rapid disappearance of godwits and their habitats. So, I observed the observers.'

Black-tailed Godwits
Black-tailed Godwit. Photo: Wikipedia

National species

'There is no bird species for which the Netherlands plays such an essential role in the national sentiment as the godwit.

For a long time, no less than 80% of the European population bred on Dutch grasslands, but in recent decades, the number of breeding godwits in the Netherlands has declined dramatically. Ecologists hope that their research can help reverse this trend. With my research, I want to help create effective and fair knowledge that people can use in practice to deal with the specific type of biodiversity loss we're looking at.'

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Endangered Black-tailed Godwits in barren landscapes

Black-tailed Godwits are migratory birds ‘wintering’ in West Africa and breeding every spring in northern Europe, mostly in the Netherlands. However, in recent decades, the godwit population has dramatically declined. This has multiple causes, including the introduction of ryegrass and pesticides, turning Dutch meadows into barren landscapes where nothing but ryegrass, by the Dutch commonly referred to as ‘grassphalt,’ grows.

Around 1960, there were approximately 120-140 thousand pairs of godwits breeding in the Netherlands annually. In 2021, this number had dropped to around 25,000.

Ecologists from the University of Groningen have been conducting research on migratory birds like godwits for a long time. The goal is to understand how godwits live and how to protect them.

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How did you start your research?

'I began my doctoral research with questions like: How do bird ecologists produce scientific knowledge about endangered species like godwits, and how can we improve the practices and outcomes to better address the issue in practice?

I developed the sub-questions for each chapter based on my readings, observations, and discussions with the group. So, they are not some questions written behind a desk but they arise from my ethnographic research practice, as I studied this group through participant observation and interviews. 

If you ask me why this group of ecologists… Well, in the literature, there are a lot of promises about how new data collection and analysis techniques can help better address biodiversity loss. But in the same literature, there are also warnings about tensions, or challenges, that such techniques can create, leading to outcomes that may be unfair and less effective in practice.

Prof. Anne Beaulieu, who is my main supervisor, already had good connections with a group of bird ecologists, whose work she thought could be an excellent case study to work on such tensions, because this group works closely with different societal actors, by using both long-standing and new data collection and analysis techniques.

Anne Beaulieu holds the Aletta Jacobs Chair of Knowledge Infrastructures at Campus Fryslan, University of Groningen. Her research and teaching provide insights into how data is created, synthesized, and transformed into evidence.'

Bird watcher. Photo: Marco in 't Veldt

How large was the group of researchers you studied?

'It is not fixed because there is a constant turnover of Ph.D. students and postdocs over time, but it's generally about ten to twenty people.

What is your most important finding?

The most important finding, I would say, is the call for ecologists to move beyond their traditional roles and comfort zones to actively participate in building multispecies liveable futures. And they can do this not only by diagnosing the environmental problems but also by changing their research practices to better guide action in the field.

By the traditional role of the scientists, I mean the role of a detached observer, distant from both the object of study and from solutions for biodiversity loss, focusing mainly on representing the issue as robustly as possible. Unfortunately, we see more and more that this role could not really change the course of events that have brought about today’s various forms of environmental crises. 

I argue that ecologists are already implicated in the data and the kinds of knowledge they produce. In my case, these are the tensions that the ecologists experience around the godwits they study, some concepts they work with, and the societal knowledge actors they collaborate with.

These tensions, or rather how scientists deal with these tensions, shape their data and knowledge claims. For this reason, the dissertation has challenged the ecologists to acknowledge their unavoidable impact on their results, and then to participate more purposefully in shaping their research conditions, and thus their results.

Instead of ridiculing, refusing, or forcefully ‘solving’ the tensions they experience, as the traditional role of the scientist gives them the authority to do, I challenge them to mobilize these tensions. By mobilizing, I mean acting on the tensions to address them, or acting through these tensions with an awareness of their existence when it is not really possible to resolve them.'

'Tensions' is an important word in your dissertation.

'Yes, during my research, I observed that many of them arise in the study of godwits. While some are overlooked or even swept under the rug, others are ridiculed or attempted to be resolved in ways that only scientists see fit.

And I argue that the way they deal with these tensions complicates not only the robustness of their results, and the fairness of their practices to the birds, but also the practical effectiveness and acceptance of their results and practices by the stakeholders. So, I wanted to understand where these tensions come from and what can be done about them differently.'

Vogelaars. Photo Marco in 't Veldt
Bird watchers. Photo: Marco in 't Veldt

Can you give me an example from your project? 

'Sure. I can talk more about the part of the project I conducted with the PhD grant I received from the Rudolf Agricola School. 

For instance, there are strained relationships with some societal stakeholders. Not all farmers allow ecologists to enter their fields, even though ecologists need to enter these fields to study godwits because they mostly breed on agricultural fields. Ecologists work hard to maintain good relationships with farmers, of course, but it doesn't always work. So, I tried to understand why some farmers don't let ecologists in.

To study this, I interviewed not only farmers, but also other societal stakeholders involved in the issue, such as nazorgers (Frisian birdwatchers), nature monitoring organizations, nature reserve managers, and policymakers at regional and national levels.'

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'What I found was that almost all the farmers I spoke to were actually very supportive of scientific research. They just had a problem with the kind of knowledge the researchers produce and how they do it. The tension is over what constitutes relevant scientific knowledge needed to tackle the rapid disappearance of godwits and their habitat in practice. Stakeholders have a different understanding than the researchers.

The farmers and nazorgers, I spoke to, say, 'We understand what's going on – intensive agriculture is bad for the birds – but we want to know what we can do to reverse the trends. Help us!’

The scientists, on the other hand, say that, even after 20 years of research, we still do not know enough.They think they need to be more precise about what is happening to godwits and why exactly their numbers are declining. While scientists seek certainty before action, some stakeholders think that godwits cannot wait until we know everything about what is happening to them and that we need to take action now. 

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My conclusion is that the current scientific system is very much focused on producing descriptive robust knowledge to fill all the knowledge gaps before intervention. But what we need in times of crisis is different. It is not only a different kind of scientific knowledge and research project but also more sensitivity to different expectations about the relation between time and knowledge.

We need projects that try to describe and intervene in the issue at the same time. Especially when it comes to the scientific knowledge production process on and for endangered species and disturbed habitats, whose stakes are much more time-sensitive, we need more projects that allow for learning and doing at the same time, rather than sequential projects that always say first knowledge, then action.

For this to happen, scientists first need to acknowledge that even when they only observe to describe what is happening, their assumptions and decisions as well as their interactions with institutions, tools, animals, and societal stakeholders, still shape their results. They shape the results in ways that are not always helpful in guiding action in practice.

I say scientists need to take responsibility for these assumptions, decisions, and interactions (or their research landscape) by shaping them more purposefully. But since they are not alone in producing knowledge in real life, they should not forget that in shaping their research landscape, they need to negotiate with the stakeholders about desired futures and the paths to such futures. 

That’s why I challenge ecologists to take seriously the tensions that are almost inherent to such negotiations and to participate in the construction of new scientific practices and projects by acting on or through such tensions together with the stakeholders.'

Have you shared your findings with the group of ecologists?

'I regularly shared my preliminary analysis with the group through various presentations I gave to them. The feedback and the questions I got during these meetings were quite helpful in evaluating my understanding of their work and also in repositioning my work. '

Godwith. Photo: Unsplash, Vincent van Zalinge

Were they surprised?

'Sometimes yes, but sometimes they were like, ‘Oh you gave me a concept to be able to talk about what I have been feeling so far’. Also, my work sparked lively conversations and discussions between us, and they were sometimes puzzled or critical of my analysis. And I would say those were the highlights of my Ph.D. research.

That said, I haven't shared the final arguments with them yet, but I am organizing a seminar right after my Ph.D. defense so that we can discuss the outcomes together in detail. For me, these are not really one-sided moments where ‘tell them what to do’, but rather co-learning moments for all involved. And I find these exchanges quite important as they feed my work and hopefully their work as well.' 

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Selen Eren. Photo: Marco in 't Veldt

Selen Eren is an interdisciplinary environmental social scientist who studies scientists and scientific knowledge production processes.

She earned her bachelor's degree at the University of Galatasaray, Istanbul, in 2016 with a double major in Political Science and Sociology. She then obtained her master's degree in Philosophy of Science, Technology, and Society at the University of Twente, Netherlands, in the summer of 2018.

At the end of 2023, she started her postdoctoral position on microbial bioeconomy transition at the University of Oulu, Finland. She will be working there for 15 months. There, she studies scientists working in microbiology.

'Globally, efforts are being made to replace fossil fuels. With the latest scientific techniques, such as genetic manipulation, it is possible to modify bacteria to 'do things we want them to do.' Ways are being explored to use bacteria to produce fuels, for example. Various stakeholders are involved in this process, including scientists, companies, entrepreneurs, and politicians. Finland is a pioneer in this field.'

In Groningen, she recently completed her dissertation 'Mobilizing tensions for action: How to reconfigure knowledge infrastructures of data-centric ecology in a time of crises.'

Her dissertation 'Mobilizing tensions for action: How to reconfigure knowledge infrastructures of data-centric ecology in a time of crises' will be defended in Groningen on March 14, 2024. 

Her supervisor(s) are: Prof. J.A. Beaulieu Prof. A.J. Zwitter Assessment Committee Dr. M.J.J.E. Loonen Prof. E. Turnhout Prof. T. Nadeem

This is an interview in our series 'Sustainability Science in Progress.' You'll find all the interviews in this series here
Last modified:26 February 2024 4.06 p.m.

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