At risk of catastrophic failure: relying on others in urban research

Posted by Ellery McNaughton @EJ_McNaughton

Recently, in a conversation commiserating research woes, one of my colleagues described the main part of my project as a “huge risk”. My most memorable line of feedback from my first annual review stated that my project was in danger of “catastrophic failure”. Welcome to the risky but rewarding world of urban research. In my case, the portent of research doom was the fact that my project’s success is largely reliant on other parties.

My 18 month project is based around an initiative undertaken by a large, council-controlled organisation (Auckland Transport), and requires the cooperation of multiple individual volunteers. These supposed harbingers of failure are by no means only found in urban research, but one does frequently come across them when working in such a populated and people-centric environment. Part of the issue with relying on other parties is differing priorities and perspectives.

While a researcher who has spent an inordinate amount of time living, breathing and planning The Most Important Research Project of All Time™ may think their requests are reasonable, a large organisation may not share the same enthusiasm and sense of importance. From my experience, while these organisations can be very accommodating, informative and helpful, at the end of the day they are subject to financial and political pressures that a lowly researcher cannot hope to contend with.


A metaphor. Hint: the dog is the ecologist

At the other end of the scale is dealing with individuals. One of the rewarding aspects of my urban research is the incredibly generous people who volunteer their properties to use as study sites. Understandably, they too have their different priorities. In an ideal research world where everyone appreciated the momentousness of The Most Important Research Project of All Time™, study properties would remain in the same state as you found them. In the real world, trees are cut down, fences are erected, cats are bought, yards are remodelled, and houses are sold and renovated.

All of which is to say that reliance on other parties can lead to complicated stats at best and catastrophic failure at worst. However, when it goes right, it can lead to some fascinating research that would otherwise be unachievable – a result that is worth the risk.

Ellery McNaughton is a PhD student in the Centre of Biodiversity and Biosecurity, School of Biological Sciences, University of Auckland. Her project will investigate the effects of a city-wide changeover in streetlight technology on urban bird behaviour and ecosystem function. She is supervised by Margaret Stanley, Jacqueline Beggs, Kevin Gaston(University of Exeter, UK) and Darryl Jones (Griffith University, Australia).

One thought on “At risk of catastrophic failure: relying on others in urban research

  1. Whoa Ellery! What is this exceptional literality and clarity of thought, even when describing a potential catastrophe. Don’t you realise that science is all about terse, technical prose that is intentionally obtuse. Eshew obfuscation! But the point of the piece goes to why be an urban ecologist in the first place: people are by definition part of every component of our work, as assistants, volunteers, beaurocrats, decision-makers, decision-avoiders, meddlers, advocates and sceptical observers. But that means that when it works and we discover something significant, lots of people are affected. Yes, failure is always possible but thats why there must always be Plans B, C and X. Stay adaptive.

    Liked by 1 person

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