Scientist crowdsources questions to guide forest research

by Julie Mollins | @jmollins | CIFOR (Center for International Forestry Research)
Tuesday, 15 July 2014 07:37 GMT

Animals graze in Britain's New Forest. CIFOR/Julie Mollins

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CIFOR — For forest scientist Gabriel Hemery the term silvology plugs what was once a gaping hole in the English language, offering a succinct way to describe the study of forests and woods.

“No other term in the English language describes adequately this area of science,” he says. 

"For example, the word “dendrology” refers to the study of individual trees, not their interaction with forest ecosystems, and the term “silviculture” describes the culture of forests — how they are managed by humankind — not their study.”

Hemery, one of the founders of the Sylva Foundation, a UK-based charity that aims to promote sustainable environmental conservation for public good, always pushes the boundaries when it comes to forest research.

His current online crowdsourcing project T20Q, which stands for Top 20 Questions for Forestry and Landscapes, will shape its future.

T20Q encourages the forestry community to pose what they consider to be the key questions that should guide research and policy.

Once collected, Hemery will work with scientists from the Center for International Forestry Research (CIFOR) to develop future evidence-based research projects.

He shared his insights: 

Q: What inspired the T20Q project?

A: At its heart, the inspiration is to get everyone with an interest in forestry and landscapes to contribute towards research and policy agendas. This will ensure that research undertaken — at whatever level — is relevant and policy development reflects perceived priorities. To use “buzz words”, this is referred to as a participatory process that supports evidence-based policymaking.

Q: What is your background in relation to this work? 

A: About 15 years ago, I supervised a PhD student, Gillian Petrokofsky — who now works with CIFOR and the Biodiversity Institute at Oxford — at the University of Oxford, who included the first thorough evidence-based approach used in forestry in her work. It was inspired by approaches used in the medical world. Her studies applied to British forestry and gave rise to a project called T10Q, or the “Top 10 Questions for Forestry”. We received 1,600 questions, and distilled them down to a set of 10 key questions. Interestingly, many of these were slightly ahead of the curve, in that they raised the need for research in areas, which at the time had not really emerged as top priorities. For example, invasive pests and diseases were Number One, but at the time were certainly not a major subject either for research or in policy agendas.

The Sylva Foundation bases its work on evidence and has undertaken a number of projects in support of evidence-based decision-making. The foundation runs a think-tank called Forestry Horizons, which supported the original T10Q project.

Q: How does T20Q differ from T10Q? 

A: The new T20Q project aims to extend the same concept at global scale and to broaden the question areas from forestry to include landscape issues. It also extends Gill's research into methods that enhance the forestry evidence base, which CIFOR has picked up and implemented in its Evidence-Based Forestry (EBF) initiative. Some really interesting systematic reviews are being undertaken in that EBF program, and the T20Q work could potentially provide priority topics for future reviews. It’s ambitious in scale, but much needed.

Q: What do you hope to achieve?

A: We want to collect questions from stakeholders around the world about issues of importance. We’ll be able to view these at different geographic scales — or example, analysis of data by region or country. We hope that the project is one more step towards a change in how research agendas are developed, and how stakeholders are engaged effectively with policy. 

Q: How many questionnaires have you received to date?

A: In the first month we received about 1,000 separate questions, which is an encouraging start. The survey is available in three languages. At present, most received are in English, but we hope soon to receive more from French- and Spanish-speaking countries as the survey is promoted more widely.

Q: How many questions do you expect or want to receive?

A: It’s difficult to know how many we may attract but we are hoping for 5,000 questions or more. The more received, the better we will be able to compare and contrast issues between different regions of the world.

Q: From what sectors are you receiving the questions?

A: We do ask questions about a respondent’s sector and knowledge so we will be able to analyze this in detail. At present, from a cursory look, we seem to have coverage from people from a wide range of organizations and interests. We’re very excited to see the number of responses from members of the International Forestry Students' Association (IFSA) — the future is in their hands and they should have a real say in that future. We would love to hear from even more students of forestry and landscapes. 

Q: How long do you expect it will take to sift through the responses?

A: We’ll use an expert “coder” — who’s knowledgeable technically and multilingual — who will select up to three keywords from every question submitted. We’re also running a workshop at the upcoming International Union of Forest Research Organizations (IUFRO) 2014 World Forestry Congress in Salt Lake City, Utah, to help frame the responses. Ultimately we aim to complete our analysis and have the report drafted by December. We will provide regular updates on the project website.

Q: What do you expect to be the outcome?

A: A fascinating range of prioritized questions from around the world, some of which will surprise and challenge researchers and policy makers, and perhaps helps them refocus research priorities over the next five years or more. They will be able to quote the findings with some confidence as they will be analyzed thoroughly and published in a peer-review journal. 

Submit your questions here.