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Key features for more successful place-based sustainability research on social-ecological systems: a Programme on Ecosystem Change and Society (PECS) perspective

Patricia Balvanera, Instituto de Investigaciones en Ecosistemas y Sustentabilidad, Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México
Tim M Daw, Stockholm Resilience Centre, Stockholm University
Toby A Gardner, Stockholm Environment Institute
Berta Martín-López, Leuphana University of Lüneburg, Faculty of Sustainability, Institute of Ethics and Transdisciplinary Sustainability Research, Lüneburg, Germany
Albert V. Norström, Stockholm Resilience Centre, Stockholm University
Chinwe Ifejika Speranza, Department of Geography, University of Bonn, Germany; Centre for Development and Environment/Institute of Geography, University of Bern, Switzerland
Marja Spierenburg, Department of Anthropology and Development Studies, Radboud University Nijmegen, The Netherlands; Department of Sociology and Social Anthropology, Stellenbosch University, South Africa
Elena M Bennett, Department of Natural Resource Sciences, McGill University; McGill School of Environment, McGill University
Michelle Farfan, Departamento de Ingeniería Geomática e Hidráulica, Universidad de Guanajuato, Mexico
Maike Hamann, Stockholm Resilience Centre, Stockholm University; Centre for Complex Systems in Transition, Stellenbosch University, South Africa
John N Kittinger, Conservation International, Center for Oceans, Global Fisheries and Aquaculture Program, Honolulu, Hawaii, USA
Tobias Luthe, University of Applied Sciences HTW Chur, Switzerland; MonViso Institute, Ostana, Italy
Manuel Maass, Instituto de Investigaciones en Ecosistemas y Sustentabilidad (IIES), Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México (UNAM)
Garry D Peterson, Stockholm Resilience Centre, Stockholm University
Gustavo Perez-Verdin, Instituto Politécnico Nacional, CIIDIR Durango, Mexico


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The emerging discipline of sustainability science is focused explicitly on the dynamic interactions between nature and society and is committed to research that spans multiple scales and can support transitions toward greater sustainability. Because a growing body of place-based social-ecological sustainability research (PBSESR) has emerged in recent decades, there is a growing need to understand better how to maximize the effectiveness of this work. The Programme on Ecosystem Change and Society (PECS) provides a unique opportunity for synthesizing insights gained from this research community on key features that may contribute to the relative success of PBSESR. We surveyed the leaders of PECS-affiliated projects using a combination of open, closed, and semistructured questions to identify which features of a research project are perceived to contribute to successful research design and implementation. We assessed six types of research features: problem orientation, research team, and contextual, conceptual, methodological, and evaluative features. We examined the desirable and undesirable aspects of each feature, the enabling factors and obstacles associated with project implementation, and asked respondents to assess the performance of their own projects in relation to these features. Responses were obtained from 25 projects working in 42 social-ecological study cases within 25 countries. Factors that contribute to the overall success of PBSESR included: explicitly addressing integrated social-ecological systems; a focus on solution- and transformation-oriented research; adaptation of studies to their local context; trusted, long-term, and frequent engagement with stakeholders and partners; and an early definition of the purpose and scope of research. Factors that hindered the success of PBSESR included: the complexities inherent to social-ecological systems, the imposition of particular epistemologies and methods on the wider research group, the need for long periods of time to initiate and conduct this kind of research, and power asymmetries both within the research team and among stakeholders. In the self-assessment exercise, performance relating to team and context-related features was ranked higher than performance relating to methodological, evaluation, and problem orientation features. We discuss how these insights are relevant for balancing place-based and global perspectives in sustainability science, fostering more rapid progress toward inter- and transdisciplinary integration, redefining and measuring the success of PBSESR, and facing the challenges of academic and research funding institutions. These results highlight the valuable opportunity that the PECS community provides in helping build a community of practice for PBSESR.

Key words

interdisciplinarity; PECS; solutions; stakeholders; transdisciplinarity; transformations

Copyright © 2017 by the author(s). Published here under license by The Resilience Alliance. This article is under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License. You may share and adapt the work for noncommercial purposes provided the original author and source are credited, you indicate whether any changes were made, and you include a link to the license.

Ecology and Society. ISSN: 1708-3087