Science at the crossroads of data production and political engagement

CDE researcher Julie Zähringer has won the Prix Schläfli 2019 in Geosciences for her dissertation at the University of Bern. Drawing on satellite images and around 1,200 interviews, she analysed changes in land use around protected areas in Madagascar. Read this portrait of a scientist who believes researchers should strive for social relevance.

The school headmaster in the Malagasy village of Ambalafefy welcomes the researcher upon her arrival. Photo: Paul Clément Harimalala

Roland Fischer*

There is a small moment of confusion in our conversation with Julie Zähringer that says a lot about her research and its particular challenges. She explains that she has done research “in an area” in which there was hardly any prior knowledge. By this, she did not mean a subject area, but a very concrete, physical one: Zähringer has worked on the margins of various nature reserves in Madagascar, where the local population is often caught in a mishmash of different national and international interests.

A spirit of exploration and methodological openness

So we are talking about geographical regions, and thus also about the people who live in them. We are therefore also talking about politics, local economies, and historically charged situations. And now a young researcher with a great “spirit of discovery” and methodological openness comes along and throws herself into the middle of it – and has to part with some of what she has already learned.

Travelling around the study area of Analanjirofo in a pirogue. Photo: Davide Molinari

Handling complexity

She holds a Bachelor’s degree in biology and a Master’s degree in environmental sciences and is now working at the Centre for Development and Environment (CDE) at the University of Bern. Her current area of expertise is sustainability science. The interlinkages between her objects of study have not become any simpler over the years, but complexity does not seem to discourage her; on the contrary, it only adds to the attraction. And she has developed her own means of dealing with it.

Although still at an early stage in her academic career, she has already got to know quite different research communities from the inside, ranging from hard quantitative empiricism to a more tentative approach influenced by sociology as opposed to a distanced, analytical strategy.

The scientist draws up a “social map” with inhabitants of the study village of Mahafidina. Photo: Davide Molinari

Bridging disciplinary extremes

This synthesis has also shaped the work for which she is now being honoured. She calls it connecting two “extremes”. On the one hand, remote sensing using high-resolution satellite images and their quantitative evaluation. And, on the other hand, the sociological approach: “I wanted to better understand the interrelations between land use and users.” And that’s impossible to do from a satellite perspective; you have to go to the people for that.

So, during her field visit, she coordinated a large team of Malagasy and Swiss researchers in order to interview nearly 1,200 families in 45 villages and map detailed changes in land use. This enabled her to show that the shifting cultivation practised in the region and the slash-and-burn practices associated with it are not diminishing, although many sustainability measures are working precisely towards this end. She sees the reason for this in economic constraints that had never before been studied in detail.

Aerial view of a slash-and-burn clearing in the middle of intact forest in the Analanjirofo region. Photo: Julie Zähringer

She knows she has a special role as a researcher, given that she’s “so close” to the subject: As far as she is concerned, objective observation alone does not lead to the necessary changes towards greater sustainability; it must always be combined with a normative approach. If you work in this area, she says, you can’t help but be an engaged researcher. For, as a researcher, she sees herself under an obligation not only to the taxpayer, but “to humanity in general”: in other words, “to do research that is socially relevant and really contributes to the changes that we so urgently need”.

Flexible minds needed

She considers it wrong to rely only on objectifiable observations (and correspondingly simplified solutions), even though the myth of the independent, neutral analyst can of course also open doors, with local governments being one example. You sense that a lot is happening in this “area”, not only in terms of content but also methodologically, and that Zähringer has therefore probably landed in exactly the right place: In order to tackle the social and ecological challenges of the 21st century, science needs to reorient itself, somewhere between the generation of hard facts and political engagement. This requires flexible minds like Zähringer, who are visibly opposed to thinking along conventional lines.

* Roland Fischer is a research journalist and has written this contribution on behalf of SCNAT.

Press release of the Swiss Academy of Sciences, 21 May 2019

SCNAT honours the four best dissertations in sciences

Every year, the Swiss Academy of Sciences (SCNAT) awards the Prix Schläfli for the four best doctoral dissertations in the natural sciences. For 2019, the award in geosciences goes to Julie Zähringer (CDE, University of Bern), in chemistry to Murielle Delley (ETH Zurich), in physics to Matteo Fadel (University of Basel), and in biology to Rebekka Wild (University of Geneva).