Tuesday, 18 March 2014

Workshop Report: From Climate Science to Climate Services for Society

A couple of weeks ago (3rd - 6th March 2014) a diverse group of early career researchers, all interested in climatological services, met at the Townhouse Hotel in Cape Town for the British Council Researcher Links workshop, From Climate Science to Climate Services for Society. Kindly sponsored by the South African office of the British Council, and organised by Jane Strachan (Met Office) and Chris Reason (University of Cape Town) the meeting aimed, to bring together researchers from South Africa and the UK, to explore how knowledge exchange and collaboration across nations, research areas, and with end-users can bring valuable insight and drive innovative development of useful climate science and services.

The workshop programme promised a varied and interactive schedule, welcome in breaking up the monotony of 'the we talk you listen' format favoured by so many academic events. Wasting no time in getting us out of our seats, the organisers began with an ice-breaker exercise that got everyone discussing their research interests with each other, followed by the collective setting of aims and objectives for the week ahead.

Researcher connections between attendees, the result of the
opening ice-breaker exercise. 
After introductory presentations from the organisers and workshop mentors, and a lunch break during which I tried to absorb as much southern hemisphere sunshine as possible, the afternoon began with a speed networking session. Based on the apparently popular format for 'speed dating' the session paired UK researchers opposite SA based ones, and gave each 3 minutes to summarise their research before a bell signalled it was time to move on. The exercise was great for not only learning quickly what the other workshop attendees were interested in, but also in helping me refine and reflect on what it is exactly that I do myself!

I awoke on day two full of anticipation for a day of multi-disciplinary problem solving, not of hypothetical case-studies as so often is the case, but for actual live industry problems. We were split into small groups with related research themes and each given a brief from an end-user of climate services. Ours was the City of Cape Town, who were looking to improve the application of climate information they currently receive;  we had the morning to brainstorm, discuss and develop ideas, before meeting with officials from the municipality in the afternoon. Although no immediate research projects or new applied services came out of the meeting, the whole activity was hugely insightful. It gave us a great understanding of the restrictions civil agencies face in developing services that use climatic data to its maximum, and also really highlighted how humanities scholars can bridge a gap between pure scientific research and practitioners and end-users.

After the meetings we heard keynote presentations from Dr Linda Makuleni CEO of the South African Weather Service and Dr Chris Hewitt Head of Climate Services at the UK Met Office. Most pleasing to me, given my recent work on the Snow Scenes project, was Linda's assertion that there is:
"A lack of or insufficient efforts to integrate contemporary scientific knowledge with local indigenous/accumulated knowledge in communities."  
That evening, whilst I was still pondering thoughts about whether memories of old farmers in Cumbria can be considered analogous to indigenous tribal knowledge in southern Africa, all participants presented posters on their work to invited representatives from local government and industry.

Day three began with a field trip to North Link College, a multi-site technical college in Cape Town. The visit was an interesting insight into higher education in the area, and a welcome opportunity to get out of the conference centre and see some more of the beautiful, vibrant city of Cape Town! After lunch we played a game; a very interesting and important game. Developed by a group at the University of Cape Town, in partnership with the Red Cross, the activity pitted scientists against local decision makers. Those playing the role of scientists had to provide climatic predictions on the incidence of flooding and drought over the coming decade, whilst the decision makers had to decide how to use this, often conflicting advice, to influence their adaptation investments. The actual climate for each of the ten years was then played out, via the dropping of a cone of paper, each position it landed in representing different climatic outputs. The game clearly highlighted the disjuncture so often found between how climatologists develop climate services and how decision makers understand and apply them.

The final day focussed on personal career development and fostering research collaborations beyond the workshop. After a morning reflecting on individual progression and learning about the diverse funding opportunities in both South Africa and the UK, the group undertook an exercise to help develop emerging research ideas. In inter-disciplinary groups, teams were given ten minutes to come up with a research proposal that best utilised all of their individual skill-sets. Teams then had one minute to pitch their proposal to a research panel made up of the workshop mentors. The panel then selected two small grant and one large grant winners from each round of proposals. Whilst at the time I bemoaned the pressure of trying to come up with a well rounded research proposal in just ten minutes, on reflection I realise just how important this time element was in forcing the teams to think across their disciplinary boundaries quickly and with clarity. Out of the roughly 30-40 ideas put forward as part of the exercise, I can honestly say that perhaps only two or three, with further development would not have been feasible research proposals. The range and breadth of genuinely great ideas was astounding and I hope to see some of them come to fruition in the future!

The workshop was part of the
British Council's Researcher
Links programme
After a summarising session, a couple of hours to grab the obligatory souvenirs and see some final sights in the city I was whisked back to the airport to fly home. Sat waiting for boarding to begin, I reflected on a wonderful trip; I left South Africa not only with formative research ideas and collaborations bubbling away in my head, but also a renewed energy and enthusiasm for my own research. I look forward to the great work that will undoubtedly come out of the connections made throughout the week.

I’d just like to finish with a huge thank-you to all the organisers, in particular Jane Strachan at the Met Office, and Ayanda and Bennie at the British Council in South Africa.


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