We need to flip science on its head

Rosalind Cornforth Climate Change

In her opening speech at the Resilient Solutions symposium Professor Rosalind Cornforth, Director of the Walker Institute, challenged the development community to make science fit for purpose by taking it out of the laboratory and into the field. Here is a summary of the speech.

As a third year doctorate student in African meteorology I travelled to Senegal for my first conference. I was keen to make a good first impression as I headed to the podium to present my research. Giving details of the climate model used, the meteorologists in the room became bogged down in the minutiae of the convection schemes. Then during the Q&A someone commented:

“Thank you for sharing your models and results. To be honest though, I don’t really care about how you go about increasing the skill of your models through these convection schemes […] I just need to understand the range, so I can put in place the right systems to manage the chronic meningitis epidemics that hit this region.”

That was my ‘Damascus’ moment. Science is not for science’s sake, science is for society.

How can we make science fit for purpose?

We need to flip research on its head and take a different approach. We have to stop assuming that research designed by climate scientists automatically yields results for those impacted by climate change. If we don’t go out there and roll up our sleeves, we won’t understand real people’s needs.

Take Climate Information Services (CIS), which must connect to critical development sectors, combining scientific knowledge with local knowledge to develop sustainable solutions. Have we, as a society and a scientific community, benefitted fully from the ‘S’ in CIS? I don’t think we can say we have. This is because we haven’t been able to tell compelling narratives of how CIS in Africa can support development.

Getting out of the lab

We need to start listening to what people need and put them at the core of what we do.
We need to start listening to what people need and put them at the core of what we do. It is hugely important to bring climate science and decision-making closer together.

Realising we must have people at the core of all we do means leaving the safety of the laboratory, walking outside the community in the conference hall and working in a new way, living in a new stretch zone, far beyond my own personal comfort zone.

This new way of working poses challenges to common scientific practices. Instead of assuming what is needed from our work in the laboratory, we are building equitable partnerships with users in the design, testing, evaluation and redesign of climate applications.

Instead of assuming what is needed from our work in the laboratory, we are building equitable partnerships with users
Three months ago I found myself in a new climate space that had not been penetrated by donors or scientists from Europe. In Burkina Faso the government, local NGOs and academic institutions came together to design and build a national early warning system, owned and shaped by the communities. My role was to support technically as requested and take notes on outstanding issues. So rather than coming in with the research, I left with a series of tick boxes set up by the Burkina Faso government for the people and communities.

Being out ‘in the field’ means completely rewriting our research views.

‘I am what I am because of who we all are’ – Ubuntu philosophy

Developing climate services is one piece of a bigger system in which climate change is just one driver. We need to act locally and enable different solutions for different communities.

Resilience-building needs to extend beyond thinking about socio-economic systems. We are all of equal value. Our interconnections and interactions add value and we all have something to teach and something to learn. What affects one, affects us all, and we all benefit from the sharing and mutual respect.

Read more blog posts from the Resilient Solutions Symposium

Claire Spoors

Claire Spoors is Advocacy Adviser – UK Inequality at Oxfam GB