This post is by Beth Brockett, winner of the Rachel Carson Prize 2019.

Beth Brockett, winner of the Rachel Carson Prize 2019.

Many thanks to People and Nature, firstly for publishing our paper and secondly for this award. I am really delighted to receive it. You can find a copy of the blog post which accompanies the original article here.  

I decided to use this post to give an overview what I do as an environmental social scientist. Also, what I don’t do, with a bit of myth-busting, and to explain what I’d like to do more of and my vision for what social science could further bring to nature conservation. As a passionate environmentalist I believe that nature conservation, indeed all environmental issues, needs to start and end with people. People as individuals, people as communities, as voters, users of technology, consumers, people in organizations and organized into systems. We can’t develop a vision of an ideal nature, a set of conservation goals, and just expect people to make it happen. It isn’t about explaining our vision and solutions louder, better, in more detail to more and diverse people. It is about involving those more and diverse people in our solution development and our vision, making sure we know why and how we got here and how positive change can happen. 

I am a Senior Specialist in Social Science at Natural England. Natural England is an interesting organization. We do all kinds of things. Our strapline is ‘We’re the government’s adviser for the natural environment in England, helping to protect England’s nature and landscapes for people to enjoy and for the services they provide.’ I am involved in providing this advice. As one of the organisation’s specialists I collate existing evidence and translate it into something useable by whoever needs it – a policy-maker, someone working on strategy, or maybe a farm adviser. I also get involved in research myself. Sometimes in primary research, for example in interviewing farmers about the social outcomes they obtain from engaging with agri-environment schemes (report coming soon). Sometimes secondary analysis, such as delving into the huge and intriguing Monitoring Engagement with the Natural Environment dataset to consider what more we can say about peoples’ relationship to nature.

Photo taken during Beth’s research. Credit: Anita Sedgewick, Ecosystems Knowledge Network.

Natural England also has other roles, one of which is delivery. Our Area Teams deliver many things, such as farm conservation advice; my first role in Natural England. As someone who trained in both ecology and social science I was able to use my ecological skills to obtain a role which, on the face of it is very natural-science based (“How do we get to this ecological end point?”) but actually turned out to be a role where practitioners need to hold a deep understanding of the communities that they work with.

As a Social Science Specialist I also get involved in training, provide expertise and insight for projects and programmes, manage commissioned work, contribute to cross-government networks, and work with others on interdisciplinary projects. Because we are a small team – four currently – we inevitably end up being generalists. ‘Social science’ in nature conservation is often used to describe anything people-related. In practice it can cover disciplines as diverse as behavioural psychology and anthropology to sociology and human geography. In my role I have to delve into many of the broad array of ‘people’ disciplines in order to fulfill expectations of what a social scientist can do for a nature conservation organisation. It makes life interesting, but it also explains the high levels of imposter syndrome I have felt and have heard reported by others in similar roles.  

So, what don’t I do? I’ll start this section by saying that I think social scientists are occasionally feared or distrusted as people who work to dilute ‘pure’ conservation objectives. For example, who will always want more people to be involved with the decision-in-hand; thereby making the decision-making process even more complex and unwieldly. Who just say “Ah, but it is more complicated than that”! I have heard such opinions and I think them unfair and largely untrue. I, and many other social science colleagues, hold a deep respect for the natural sciences, in fact a number of us started out in natural science fields but somewhere along the way we realized that people were the key to making our conservation aspirations a reality. That without understanding people, as the agents of change, we were always going to be frustrated environmentalists.

Photo taken during Beth’s research. Credit: Anita Sedgewick, Ecosystems Knowledge Network.

A few more myths to bust whilst I am here: Not all social scientists can or want to facilitate workshops; I am not a comms or marketing person (the people who do those jobs are trained in them and have a different skill set); nor is our purpose to ‘socialise’ natural science findings. Phew, got those off my chest!

So, now to the good stuff: What do I think social science can deliver for nature conservation? What more can we contribute? What do I want to do more of or do differently? This is not an exhaustive list but a few examples close to my heart.

Social scientists can help to drive more transformative research. Research that looks at the implementation of ‘universal’ solutions and how they can be adapted for local socio-ecological conditions[1]. We need to understand how change occurs, to work with different types of knowledge, and take into account “the real world of politics, values, and ethics that characterise societal change”[2].

Social scientists can help to unpick and work with seemingly intractable situations. Navigating conflict in conservation and working with different perspectives on what ‘good land management’ looks like are just two examples. We ‘change the frame’ and ask new questions of old problems[3].

We can paint a picture of the social context into which conservation solutions are placed and help develop solutions so they work with, enable, empower, and motivate the communities we inevitably need to engage with somewhere down the line. Before we reach that stage though, we can help to ensure that the solutions proposed are developed with the right people involved. Not just for reasons of environmental justice or as a way of democratizing science, but also because they will be better solutions if they do so. In order to do all of this we want to work with natural scientists and others from the beginning of the process more often. From the question formulation stage and not just to disseminate the findings.

I don’t think I am alone in wanting to ask more ‘uncomfortable’ questions within nature conservation, including at a system level about what we are sometimes unwittingly perpetuating. Questions about how organizational structures can constrain and shape behaviours. This includes asking questions about power and who holds it and what that means about how we prioritize the questions we ask, to whom, how, and what we report and take notice of. It also includes considering how the history of our sector prefigures the future of it.

This is an opinion piece but I want to understand if other social scientists working in the sector have had similar experiences and their vision of how social science can further benefit nature conservation. So, Dr Carol Morris and I are currently running an ESRC Impact Acceleration project called ‘Moving towards interdisciplinarity: integrating social and natural science in UK environmental organisations’.  We are asking a range of social scientists who work in the natural environment sector about their current role, what they do and don’t do, and what they’d like to be doing. For more details please contact me

Do you think nature conservation needs more social scientists? What is your vision for social science in nature conservation?

[1] See our article and also Fazey, Ioan, Niko Schäpke, Guido Caniglia, James Patterson, Johan Hultman, Barbara van Mierlo, Filippa Säwe, et al. “Ten Essentials for Action-Oriented and Second Order Energy Transitions, Transformations and Climate Change Research.” Energy Research & Social Science 40 (June 2018): 54–70.

[2] ibid p. 56

[3] For example, Bruno Latour’s “little exercise to make sure that, after the virus crisis, things don’t start again as they were before”