After interacting with coastal farming communities who experienced sea level rise and other direct impacts of climate change, Research Scientist Kripa Jagannathan recognized that environmental problems are livelihood issues for many communities around the world. This led her to EESA working as a social scientist, helping to facilitate the co-production of knowledge–a type of research method that brings together researchers and the community to create actionable science. She also conducts research on how scientists and community members should engage with one another in order to effectively and ethically co-produce science and knowledge.
What made you initially interested in the environmental sciences?
Even when I was very young, I was determined to pursue a career that benefited society. I remember being fascinated with big disasters, whether man-made or climate related, and wondered what we could do to prevent loss.
I studied ecology at an all girls college in India during my undergrad, and we had a lot of field visits to diverse ecosystems. I was taught by powerful women professors who were always fashionably dressed in their sarees and matching bangles, hair in a neat low bun, but yet would get into a ditch without an ounce of hesitation to collect algae, fungi and other specimens. Sometimes, they weren’t even in sneakers! Seeing these strong women who were so inspired and excited about what they do motivated me to pursue something that I was really passionate about.
This led me to pursue a Master’s in environmental studies, after which I worked in a renewable energy company in their climate division. A lot of my work was also managing stakeholder interactions and I would often have to go into rural villages that were experiencing disturbances, like drought or floods. The real driving force that I will never forget was talking to people who were living and working in severely climate impacted regions. Hearing their stories of how they actually experience climate change is different from when you’re not really impacted by climate change in your day-to-day life. Just talking to these resilient people led me to my career path now.
As one of the few social scientists in EESA, what kind of work do you do?
Being trained as an interdisciplinary scientist, I see environmental problems as being closely intertwined with humans. Solutions to environmental challenges need to be driven by humans, and as such, society is at the center of this challenge. This means that using social science research methods and studying the human aspect of the problem is also a critical piece of this immense puzzle.
The projects I work on are what we call “co-production of actionable science.” Co-production is a research method that brings scientists together with community members, policy makers or decision makers to collaboratively develop research. For example, in the DOE funded the HyperFacets project, where we bring together water, energy, and land resource managers across the U.S to work together with climate scientists to ensure that the climate modeling produces results that are useful for the resource managers. In the California Energy Commission funded Cal-Adapt Analytics Engine project, we bring together electric utilities, energy policy and regulatory agencies and other partners to work together with climate scientists and software tool developers and co-produce a climate data platform and decision-support tools. My specific role is to design and facilitate engagements that actually make this co-production happen. This involves first identifying the right practitioner partners for different research topics (e.g. the right experts to support wildfire research in California or hurricane research in South Florida). Following this, we facilitate workshops and regular focused group discussions over time where the scientists iterate with the practitioners to first identify practitioners’ scientific information needs and then develop specific research questions, methodological approaches, results, and data products that are relevant for their applications. For example, in these discussions the scientists and practitioners identify the specific climate impacts, events or metrics that are of value to different planning or management decisions, and the modeling or data gaps within those that need to be addressed. The eventual scientific results, data and tools that are being developed through these co-production projects are now being used by various resource managers and decision-makers to make crucial climate adaptation and resilience decisions.
In addition to this hands-on aspect of facilitating these engagements, my research focuses on systematically analyzing the data from these co-production engagements to better understand how to do co-production effectively. For example, my work answers questions on what kinds of engagement practices work or don’t work, and what are pathways through which science becomes actionable and finally used in solutions to environmental challenges.
What is your involvement in AGU’s Science and Society Section?
AGU or the American Geophysical Union is the primary professional society for a lot of us environmental scientists. AGU has different sections like biogeosciences, atmospheric sciences, and geohealth. About 4 years ago, a new “Science and Society” section was created, since a lot of cutting-edge geosciences research and practical work was being done on topics concerning science-society interactions such as science-policy interface, co-production and citizen science. I have been an active member of this new section since the beginning, and now am President-Elect of the section serving on the AGU Council. Often people tend to assume that societal engagement is outreach and just developing better skills – but societal interaction is also a science. There are decades of experience on community engagement, communicating science, and conducting citizen science. We are bringing artists, practitioners, decision makers, policy makers and community members into AGU–all people who are all integral parts of the environmental sciences. They’re not just stakeholders, they’re knowledge holders. People who hold knowledge that can help us solve these complex and wicked environmental problems.
What is something that has reinforced your passion for your work?
I was always reflective about what my life’s work should be about. Earlier, this question used to be, “What do I want to do to fufill my ambitions of making a difference in society?” But after the pandemic, somehow my perspectives have shifted. It’s not what do I want to do, but instead the question has become, “What do I have to uniquely offer to society that can be beneficial?” I’ve done this work for almost 20 years now, engaging non-academic partners in climate science, and I am now seeing that a lot of other scientists in EESA want to do such engagement work too – many have communicated to me that they wish they could talk to decision-makers or practitioners to receive their feedback on their research.
I got an early career development grant about two years ago to interview EESA leadership on their interest in such engaged and actionable sciences work, and also what support and capacity development they think will enable them to do this kind of work. Through this grant, I got to talk with EESA leadership scientists one-on-one, ask them questions on what their personal and professional motivations are for their work and got to know people in a very different way. It’s so inspiring to see all of these leaders, at this level of achievement, want to do something more for society. Since I do have some experience in such societal engagement, I felt really inspired to connect my skills that complement researchers’ and community members experience and expertise, and find ways to support their engagement with societal partners. I found their willingness to learn and do new things very inspiring, and I am really trying to take that to heart.