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Researchers apply social science methods to coral reef research

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Curtin coral reef scientist Dr Nicola Browne has co-created a complex system model that is being used to understand coral reefs, bringing a social science approach to the natural world.

White color of hard corals is coral bleaching. The main cause of coral bleaching is heat stress resulting from high sea temperatures.

Working with Dr Katie Moon from the University of New South Wales Canberra, the ARC DECRA-funded project brings together expertise from a variety of disciplines including ecology, geology, chemistry, physics and climatology.

“The primary aim of the project was to determine the effects of climate change on coral reefs and their associated low lying reef islands, which are under threat from sea level rise and increased storm activity,” Browne says.

But, says Moon, “Scientists within these disciplines often describe the system in different ways, because of differences in their own knowledge, values, beliefs and goals.

“So, we needed a method that was going to allow us to access and integrate these different knowledges, but no existing method was available. We needed to develop our own.”

Complex systems models can reveal how a system will adapt to changing conditions or interventions and can assist in defining relationships, interdependencies, and networks.

However, they are not often used in research or policy because they are very difficult to produce.

“One of the big challenges is taking account of the assumptions associated with each and every variable and relationship within a model,” Moon says.

“Often we find large gaps in the knowledge base of complex systems, which are not always accounted for within modelling processes.”

Applying this method to coral reef research required a modular approach, in which the complex system is broken down into smaller sub-systems.

While each expert did not have the overarching knowledge of each variable and relationship within the complex system, they were able to contribute to their individual sub-system.

“Our modular approach enabled each individual to have confidence in their model by reducing the overall complexity, Browne says.

“The data was put into a matrix table that allowed us to quantify all of the relationships they identified.”

Aspects of the individual models that were common across the sub-systems were identified to determine the extent of similarity between models, as well as the areas of difference.

The final step involved bringing experts together in a collaborative environment where the sub-system modules were combined to create the complex system model.

“One of the biggest challenges is that modelling is actually a social process,” Moon says.

“Developing complex system models takes place not within the natural world, but within the social world, by people. In developing the model, people need to accept, modify or reject knowledge within the group. It is these social processes that give rise to many of the challenges associated with modelling.”

“Developing complex system models takes place not within the natural world, but within the social world, by people. In developing the model, people need to accept, modify or reject knowledge within the group. It is these social processes that give rise to many of the challenges associated with modelling.”

And what did the system model reveal about coral reefs?

“That they’re really complex and we don’t know much about them,” Browne says.

“That we need more money to study them, more innovation and technology. For example, we know that a particle of sand goes from a reef to a beach, but how do we track that movement effectively over time?”

Dr Moon said it’s not just about what the model tells us, but rather what it doesn’t or can’t tell us.

“What are our knowledge gaps and how might we be able to fill them?” she says.

“To assist with understanding our existing knowledge, we created a database of peer-reviewed literature that includes evidence of each relationship. Making that database publicly available, as we have done, can assist with improving our knowledge of this system.”

The method has been devised so that it can be applied to any field, from ecology to economics.

“It’s a method for sharing knowledge about a complex system, and so it’s applicable to any complex system that has relationships and connections and influences,” Moon says.

“It’s a method for sharing knowledge about a complex system, and so it’s applicable to any complex system that has relationships and connections and influences”

She explains that complex systems have a lot of moving parts, from biological to chemical, physical to social, and a person can’t be an expert in all of these disciplines.

“It is essential that people can come together to co-produce a shared model,” she says.

“This method enables those social processes and provides clear pathways to articulating the important variables and relationships within complex systems.”

Hear more on The Future Of podcast

The Future Of is the Curtin University podcast where experts share their vision of the future and how their work is helping shape it for the better. In 2019, we spoke with Dr Zoe Richards about the future of coral reefs.

Subscribe to The Future Of on your favourite app or read other articles inspired by the podcast.

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