Julie Zähringer - Bringing the extremes together
Prix Schläfli 2019 in Geosciences
There is a small moment of confusion in our conversation with Julie Zähringer, which says a lot about her research and its particular challenges. She explained that she had done research "in an area" in which there was hardly any prior knowledge. By this, she did not mean a subject area, but a very concrete, physical one: Zähringer has worked on the margins of various nature reserves in Madagascar, where the local population is often caught in a mishmash of different national and international interests. So we are talking about geographical regions, and thus also about the people who live in them. We are therefore also talking about politics, local economies, and historically charged situations.
And now a young researcher with a great "spirit of discovery" and methodological openness comes along and throws herself into the middle of it - and has to leave some of what she has already learned behind her. She holds a Bachelor's degree in biology, a Master's degree in environmental sciences and is now working at the Centre for Development and Environment (CDE) at the University of Bern. Her current area of expertise is sustainability science. The connections between these fields have not become any simpler over the years, but complexity does not seem to discourage her; on the contrary, it only adds to the attraction. And she has developed her own means of dealing with it.
Although still at an early stage in her academic career, she has already got to know quite different research communities from the inside, ranging from hard quantitative empiricism to a more tentative approach influenced by sociology as opposed to a distanced, analytical strategy. This synthesis has also shaped the work for which she is now being honoured. She calls it connecting two "extremes". On the one hand, remote sensing using high-resolution satellite images and their quantitative evaluation. And, on the other hand, the sociological approach: "I wanted to better understand how land use and users relate." And that's not easy to do from a satellite perspective, you have to go to the people for that. So, during her field visit, she coordinated a large team of Malagasy and Swiss researchers in order to interview nearly 1200 families in 45 villages and map the detailed changes in land use. She has thus been able to show that the shifting cultivation practised in the region and the slash-and-burn practices associated with it are not diminishing, although many sustainability measures are working precisely towards this end. She sees the reason for this in economic constraints that had never before been studied in detail.
"To do research that is socially relevant and contributes to the changes that we so urgently need"
She knows she has a special role as a researcher, given that she's "so close" to the subject: as far as she is concerned, objective observation alone does not lead to the necessary changes towards greater sustainability; it must always be combined with a normative approach. If you work in this area, she says, you can't help but be an engaged researcher. For, as a researcher, she sees herself under an obligation not only to the taxpayer, but "to humanity in general": in other words, "to do research that is socially relevant and really contributes to the changes that we so urgently need". She considers it wrong to rely only on objectifiable observations (and correspondingly simplified solutions), even though the myth of the independent, neutral analyst can of course also open doors, with local governments being one example. You sense that a lot is happening in this "area", not only in terms of content but also methodologically, and that Zähringer has therefore probably landed in exactly the right place: in order to tackle the social and ecological challenges of the 21st century, science needs to reorient itself, somewhere between the generation of hard facts and political engagement. This requires flexible minds such as Zähringer, who are visibly opposed to thinking along conventional lines.