From a safe place to the 3rd Space

25 Nov 2015 - 13:45


By Sumetee Pahwa Gajjar

Our experience and interactions with climate scientists in India suggests that when new scientific analyses on past climate trends are produced or climate projections for a region or sub-region are generated, such information is shared in one of two ways:

  1. Firstly, via journal articles. These are generally read by audiences who are often from the same domain, and ensure that a body of knowledge is consistently strengthened, its rigor tested and maintained. They also help new entrants into the discipline to situate their research within ongoing work. Sometimes academic papers form the basis for presentations at scientific conferences, attended by domain experts.
  2. Secondly, via climate knowledge platforms. As participants at a recent winter school on climate science at UCT, we were exposed to a range of such online portals and it was apparent that most are not easy to navigate through, due to shortcomings in interface design, which is mostly knowledge supply driven.

I call these two forums for knowledge sharing “safe places”; the reason being that they do not require climate scientists to tread beyond their technical language, built over decades of disciplinary enquiry, in order to communicate with non-experts. Instead, scientists continue to use words that communicate little to the decision-makers who need to factor scientific knowledge into their strategies and long-term plans.

Sometimes climate research is commissioned by governments (as is the case with the writing of the IPCC Assessment Reports and the generation of National Communications to the UNFCCC), but these require significant re-working and summarising to become digestible to a non-scientific readership. However, the issue remains that most climate scientists are not trained to communicate their work to a broader range of stakeholders. This inability to move out of our “safe places”, whether as scientists, economists, or researchers, means that our knowledge remains cocooned within the walls of our core discipline. Responding effectively to climate change impacts over the medium- and long-term requires climate science information to be communicated in ways which increase the knowledge base of policy makers and community members, who form part of a broad spectrum of societal stakeholders impacted by climate change.

The place where “experts” and “non-experts”, scientists and non-scientists, gurus and lay-people come together to understand the concerns and contributions of each individual is called the 3rd Space.

It is a place where technical “jargon” is not only abandoned, but where the power that is conventionally attributed to technical knowledge, is denied. The 3rd Space is neither safe nor unsafe. It is where power dynamics are disrupted and scientists might consider the societal value of calculations, model-building and simulations. It is a soft landing spot for those who choose to descend from their scientific ivory towers. The 3rd Space has the potential to be a creative space, where new ideas can be tested with those who may become co-applicators, where old ideas can be revisited with fresh insights and where a new language can be created that allows research to flow into practice. We hope to create such 3rd Spaces in the regional research phase of the ASSAR programme in India.