Championing joined-up approaches to socio-ecological systems.

“Broadly, what I want to do,” says Dr Kerry Waylen when asked to describe her research, “is save the world!” More specifically, “I try to develop inclusive, holistic, and adaptive approaches to managing natural resources.”

Inclusive – embracing all stakeholders, holistic – achieving multiple goals, and adaptive, “because we are dealing with inherently complex systems which we can never completely understand nor control. We have to act in the face of uncertainty,” she explains. She cites water, an area in which she has worked extensively and considers Scotland to be a global leader, as an exemplar. “There’s a long tradition of catchment management, of thinking in terms of systems. But how we manage terrestrial biodiversity is still about individual species and specific places. I think there’s a lot we can learn by sharing knowledge among disciplines and across places.”

Galvanising change

“I’m really interested in knowledge,” Kerry divulges, “not just scientific knowledge, but all types of knowledge, how they interact, and what that means for decisions, plans, priorities.” Thinking about society, about policymakers, about businesses, “What kind of knowledge is needed to shift the balance, to cause a behaviour change, to unlock an investment decision, in favour of nature?”

Kerry’s latest project – a collaboration with the Thriving Rural Communities Capital Challenge Centre at Scotland’s Rural College – uses qualitative methods (such as interviews, surveys, workshops, document reviews and participant observation) to explore how the controversial concept of ‘natural capital’ could be used to influence decision-making in support of sustainability and a just transition to net zero, in both Government and corporate spheres.

Often, this means identifying complex and distributed barriers. “Unlocking, unblocking, motivating or even just generating interest, making natural capital a part of the conversation. I’m open to the answers – I’m not assuming that this will always work, but I’m keen to find out,” she says. “In general, if we understand more about decision-making processes, we become better able to influence them. It’s about exploring the lived reality, the processes, the messiness. Ecological systems are complex and messy, but – oh my goodness! – social systems are at least as much again,” she laughs.

Chasing the end of the rainbow

“I never had a plan to be an academic,” Kerry admits. Studying Natural Sciences at Cambridge University, she recalls a ‘wake-up moment’ during an ecology course, which brought home the connection between human activity and declining biodiversity. Citing Paul and Anne Ehrlich’s ‘rivet-popper’ analogy – we can only go on removing rivets (species) for so long before the entire aeroplane (ecosystem) falls out of the sky – and the impossibility of feeding the world’s population via a western, meat-rich diet, her response was immediate: “I became vegetarian!” But also, she says, “I just felt I had to have a shot at working in the conservation sector.”

A smiling woman in a field with a toddler on her back wearing a warm hat
Dr Kerry Waylen

Kerry worked with international conservation NGOs before enrolling on an MSc at Imperial College, London. “That was when I started to move into social science,” she explains, “Because while ecology helps us understand the scale of our problems, it doesn’t generally help fix them: problems are almost always caused by people.” Her masters research – published in Oryx – focused on changing attitudes to nature among communities involved in ‘ecotourism’ initiatives in Trinidad. Still not convinced that academia was for her, she returned to NGO work, before ‘bumping into’ her masters supervisor, who proposed a PhD project – studying the implications of local views and institutions for the outcomes of community-based conservation – which she couldn’t refuse. “And the rest is history,” Kerry jokes.

Today, she describes her research life rather poetically as ‘chasing the end of the rainbow.’ “I love discovering things I didn’t expect. As soon as I get one answer I move on to the new questions that were raised along the way.”

Part of a puzzle

Kerry sees Scotland as a stimulating place to work. “You’re rarely far from beautiful natural places.” Being in a relatively small country, she finds, helps with making contacts and building understanding across sectors: “if you want to create change in the real world, you need to know what’s going on outside academia.”

Looking forward to COP15, Kerry hopes to see attention widen from the climate to the biodiversity crisis. Currently, she believes, “Carbon often dominates decision-making, and it’s starting to shape land transactions. Biodiversity remains the poor relation – there’s a risk we are not valuing ecosystems for their multiple functions.” “I don’t know what the solution is, but it’s a big challenge, to get beyond carbon.”

She is under no illusion as to the level at which change has to be worked. “Too often in conservation, we expect small, short-term projects to save the world,” she laments. “But policymakers and larger organisations have considerable influence. We need to change the system.” Kerry’s work provides leaders with conceptual knowledge to change the framework of problems, give space for reflection, and help make connections that they might not otherwise have spotted. “I don’t always get it right … and often it’s hard to know whether you’ve even had an effect. We’re just part of a jigsaw-puzzle of influences,” she concludes.

Dr Kerry Waylen is a Senior Researcher in Social, Economic and Geographical Sciences at the James Hutton Institute. Her work is supported by the Scottish Government’s Rural and Environment Science and Analytical Services Division Strategic Research Programme. Find out more here.

This post is part of a series showcasing Scotland’s innovative, high-impact research supporting biodiversity conservation, in partnership with Scottish Government and NatureScot. Read the rest of the series here.

Further reading

Young, J.C., et al. 2014. Improving the science-policy dialogue to meet the challenges of biodiversity conservation: having a conversation rather than talking at one-another. Biodiversity and Conservation 23: 387—404.

Waylen, K.A., et al. 2015. How does legacy create sticking points for environmental management? Insights from challenges to implementation of the ecosystem approach. Ecology and Society 20(2): 21.

Nesshöver, C., et al. 2017. The science, policy and practice of nature-based solutions: an interdisciplinary perspective. Science of the Total Environment 579: 1215—1227.

Waylen, K.A. & Blackstock, K.L.2017. Monitoring for adaptive management or modernity: Lessons from recent initiatives for holistic environmental management. Environmental Policy and Governance 27: 311—324.

Tinch, R., et al. 2018. Science-policy interfaces for biodiversity: dynamic learning environments for successful impact. Biodiversity and Conservation 27: 1679—1702.

Waylen, K.A., et al. 2019. Policy-driven monitoring and evaluation: does it support adaptive management of socio-ecological systems? Science of the Total Environment 662: 373—384.