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India with JDB – 4

Indian Conservation Scientists are (Becoming) Rock Stars

Often, you come into a situation expecting something, and after being there for a while, it turns out you were right, but not-right at the same time. The last week and a half that I have been working with the conservation researchers at the Applied Environmental Research Foundation in India has been like this. I have been right, and not-right, at the same time.

For the last few months, I have been meeting with several Indian conservation organizations, faculty and deans of several universities, several dozen Masters level students, and have done much reading of Indian scientific articles. The goal of all this work was to better understand how my time here as a Fulbright Specialist can best build capacity among Indian conservationists to do better and more informative science.

What emerged as a consensus right away from all the sources that I consulted, was that all agreed that students emerging from Indian educational institutions are not well trained in how to think inferentially. That is, they are amazing at designing studies, collecting much more data than we usually collect in North America, and then deftly summarizing it. What is under developed is the ability to take that data and test hypotheses and draw bigger conclusions. These larger conclusions have predictive power and are a core part of inferential science, which allows us to answer the deeper how and why questions of science.

I started working with the amazing researchers at AERF a week and a half ago. Immediately, it was clear that all the research that I had conducted and my conclusions were correct. To a person, the idea of asking explanatory and mechanistic inferential questions was a foreign concept. So, I was right. They did not have the capacity to do inferential science.

However, I was also clearly not-right. I had created a week and a half long training program that we just completed this morning to develop their abilities to do inferential science. At first, it was clear that they were not well trained in how to do this. However they took to it immediately and very quickly grasped this GIGANTIC and challenging concept. After a relatively short time of talking about the intricacies of inferential science, they got it, intrinsically! I expected that grasping this approach was going to be quite challenging for them, as they had not been exposed to it before.

Here is where I was not-right. With each of the two researcher groups, they each came up with fascinating questions, mutually-exclusive hypotheses, elegant experimental designs, great predictions as to likely outcomes, and were genuinely excited to test these hypotheses.

The researchers who are now burgeoning inferential scientists are going to do great things for science in India. They will be able to build upon the excellent descriptive science that they have been trained to do so well by also thinking about the larger questions. I will be working with them for at least the next two weeks to further develop this for the specific projects on which they are working.

I have rarely been so happy to be both right, and not-right. Life is often a paradox, and I’m learning to be comfortable with uncertainty and complexity. The next step in our approach that we are developing together (more in the next blog) may help to broaden this impact across the entire state of Maharashtra, and maybe even across the entire Indian subcontinent.

If the researchers I have been working with are representative of others like them, conservation is in good hands here in India – particularly with a bit of a capacity building of inferential science!

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