September 23–27, 2004: Mountain Culture at The Banff Centre hosted “Interdisciplinary Research and Management in Mountain Areas (IRMMA)” in Banff, Alberta, Canada. It was the fourth conference in a five-part series examining topics relevant to mountain communities worldwide.
Participants came from 8 countries and represented disciplines ranging from wildlife biology to anthropology, history and plant ecology. Together, 95 delegates explored the best ways of planning, scoping, defining, running, and implementing interdisciplinary projects in mountain areas.
The conference revealed a number of ideas shared by many delegates. Speakers including David Mattson, Hans Schreier, Bruno Messerli and others emphasized the role that interdisciplinary research could, and must, play in finding practical solutions to “real-world” problems.
Yet defining these problems means consulting with local stakeholders. “The time to include locals is from the very beginning,” said one delegate. Several speakers noted that stakeholder involvement requires more time and money but results in more meaningful knowledge exchange and richer research results, particularly where traditional knowledge is concerned. P.S. Ramakrishnan argued that scientists could build on traditional knowledge. For example cropping systems are traditional, but upon closer inspection, may maintain soil fertility.
Working successfully with multiple disciplines and stakeholders requires sophisticated “soft skills,” pointed out Georg Grabherr, David Mattson, and Bruno Messerli. Skills such as communication, transparency, charismatic leadership, mutual respect, flexibility, clearly defined responsibilities, dispersed finances, respect for different epistemological beliefs, and building positive, informal relationships among all project participants. “We are often dealing with politicization of science around conflicted issues. Build communication. Build trust. Build common ground,” said one speaker.
But some of the most provocative statements during the conference were made by regional and national decision-makers, and representatives of indigenous communities. They called for greater consensus-building, but also encouraged private citizens to speak passionately and trust their own knowledge and expertise. “As a decision-maker, if I had to decide between speaking with an organized lobbyist or one passionate resident, I would always choose the latter,” said one representative.
Personal involvement in any issue, including mountain issues, can make decision-making and research a murky task. But several speakers pointed out that all stakeholders, including researchers themselves, bring subjective assumptions and values to any project. Said David Mattson, “Problem solving means reflecting on the baggage you bring and understanding context and perspectives. Understand the complex processes involved in decision-making and address the needs of all the actors involved—science is not enough.”
Finally, speakers such as Daniel Fagre and Georg Grabherr asserted that the most pressing problems in mountain areas, such as global change, are usually so complex they cannot be addressed solely with a disciplinary approach. Yet they, and other delegates, felt that existing structures and institutions support and reward work within disciplines, and that few existing structures reward interdisciplinarity. Said one speaker, “What we need is a revolution.”
At the end of the conference, participants synthesized key points in break-off groups then reported back in a closing plenary session. Many conference participants asked for the rough notes so that they could implement them immediately. Conference proceedings will be produced, and discussions are currently underway about creating a book from the event.
Interdisciplinary Research and Management in Mountain Areas was sponsored by Parks Canada and Natural Resources Canada, in collaboration with the Mountain Research Initiative, and with assistance from the North American Mountain Forum and IUCN.