Seminar at University of Santo Tomas, Philippines

I was priviliged to speak at the 2021 Science-Technology-Society Seminar, hosted by the Department of Biological Sciences at the University of Santo Tomas in Manila, Philippines. I spoke about the role of applied social science in supporting efforts to conserve biodiversity and One Health.

You can watch the video at the link below. My talk starts at 44:00

https://www.facebook.com/ustgalingscience/videos/926237931661131

PhD thesis: Improving environmental interventions by understanding social networks

I have now officially completed my PhD! My thesis, completed under the wonderful supervision of Dr Aidan Keane (Edinburgh) and Prof E.J. Milner-Gulland (Oxford), was entitled ‘Improving environmental interventions by understanding social networks’. A full copy can be found HERE. Scroll down to read the abstract and a lay summary.

Cover page of my thesis

Lay Summary

Consider some of the major factors causing deforestation or the extinction of wildlife; clearing of forests for agriculture, over-hunting of wildlife, or logging for wood. All these factors result from people’s actions. So, to conserve habitats and wildlife, we need to understand why people behave as they do. One of the most important influences on people’s behaviour is the behaviour of the people they communicate and interact with on a regular basis – their social networks. Understanding social networks – how and from whom people get information on different topics – can therefore help us to more effectively influence their behaviour, such as by working with influential ‘opinion leaders’ who are connected to many people. In this thesis, I explore how this might work in a conservation context.

I started by reviewing the published literature from other disciplines, such as public health and sociology, and considered the relevance of the approaches they use to conservation. Then, in the rest of the thesis I looked at the role of social networks in an intervention aiming to reduce wildlife poisoning in Cambodia. First, I used a variety of research methods to better understand wildlife poisoning. I found that some residents are poisoning wildlife for food, particularly young men, and some children. But most residents in the area are strongly against wildlife poisoning. To help local efforts against poisoning, I therefore worked with a local NGO, WCS Cambodia, to develop and test a strategy for promoting the use of a hotline for reporting poisoning in one village.

To look at how the village social network might affect the success of these efforts, I used a survey to gather information from everyone in the village about their social relations, enabling me to map the social network in the village. I then used surveys to measure residents’ behaviour and knowledge at three time points, before and after the intervention. I used dynamic network models to determine how these changes relate to the social network. WCS invited a group of 41 people to the promotion event, but I found that information from the event spread through the village, so at least 144 people had received some information after six months. Most of this spread occurred within households. After two weeks, people throughout the village reported being more likely to report poisoning. But this was not a result of them learning about the hotline. Instead, it seems they were influenced by their peers who attended the event. After six months, this peer influence also played a role in people reverting to their previous level of behaviour.

With information about the social network, WCS may be able to better spread information about the hotline, or target people who can persuade others to use it. I use computer simulations to see how information about the hotline, or intention to use the hotline, might spread through the network depending on who WCS targets to receive information. I find that targeting individuals that are highly connected in the network is much more effective than targeting people based on other characteristics, such as wealthy people or those in leadership positions. However, this increase in effectiveness is not large enough to justify the costs of collecting and analysing network data. It would be more cost-effective to target a greater number of randomly chosen people. If WCS are promoting the hotline in many villages, they might be able to analyse the social network of one village to identify some rules-of-thumb about what sorts of people are well connected, which they can then apply elsewhere. For example, perhaps wealthy households tend to be better connected. But I find that rules-of-thumb identified in other studies do not apply here and are probably quite context-specific.

Overall, this thesis highlights how important it is to take social networks into account when designing a behaviour-change strategy. We find that social relationships can help to spread information but can also reinforce existing behaviours and prevent behaviour change. Understanding the structure of a social network can suggest targeting strategies that could overcome this barrier, and interventions should try to use social influences wherever possible. For example, once some residents adopt a new behaviour, they can be a valuable resource for influencing others.  

Abstract

Interventions to conserve biodiversity often aim to change human behaviour. Social relations and interactions, or social networks, have a strong influence on the information people receive and on their behaviour. Thus, the interactions between social networks and behaviour have been the subject of intense research effort in countless domains, and practitioners in fields such as public health have developed a range of strategies which account for relational processes in their interventions. This thesis seeks to integrate these insights into conservation and explore their practical implications. I begin by synthesising the literature and discussing the relevance of social network interventions for conservation. The remainder of the thesis examines the role of social networks in a case study intervention aiming to reduce wildlife poisoning in Northern Cambodia. I first use a mixed-method approach to better understand wildlife poisoning. I find that it is widespread, occurring in eight of the ten villages studied, but generally low prevalence, and often carried out by young men or children. However, most residents hold negative attitudes towards poisoning. With the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) Cambodia, I develop and pilot a social marketing intervention to promote the use of a hotline for reporting incidences of poisoning. I then use longitudinal data on behaviour and dynamic social network models to unpick the role of information flow and social influence in this intervention. I find that information from the intervention flowed widely through the village social networks, particularly within households, reaching an audience three-times larger than originally targeted. Having a knowledgeable household member doubled the probability that an individual would become knowledgeable. I also find that intention to report poisoning increases throughout the village in the short-term but returns to baseline levels in the long term. These changes are not driven by knowledge of the intervention. Instead, individuals are influenced by the intentions of network peers. One way to more effectively produce behavioural change that exploits these social influences is to target interventions at influential individuals identified using sociometric data. Using diffusion simulations, I explore the cost-effectiveness of these approaches within the study village. I find that network-informed targeting could result in uptake of the hotline more than double other targeting strategies, but that the relatively high cost of collecting network data makes it cost-ineffective. A more feasible strategy for large-scale interventions might be to conduct network research to identify general rules-of-thumb that can be used to select influential individuals. However, I find that rules-of-thumb identified in other contexts do not apply in Cambodia. Overall, my findings highlight the critical importance of social relations in shaping the outcomes of conservation interventions and illustrate some possible strategies for exploiting them in intervention.

A Gap Analysis of training resources for Conservation Social Science

A matrix showing identified gaps in available social science training resources. See the full report, here.

Conservationists increasingly recognise the necessity of robust social research for achieving their objectives. As the sector has traditionally been dominated by biologists, significant work is required to build the capacity for social science in conservation. The Conservation Social Science consortium of NGOs and research institutions tasked myself, Harriett Ibbett (Bangor) and Trisha Gupta (Oxford) with conducting a gap analysis of available training resources. We compiled a database of resources, which will be made freely available in an searchable online format, and our gap analysis report will be used to prioritise investment in future resources to meet conservationist’s needs.

Ethical considerations when conservation research involves people

In 2018, I was privileged to participate in the Interdisciplinary Conservation Network – a biennial workshop organised and run by early career researchers. My colleagues Stephanie Brittain and Harriet Ibbett facilitated an excellent discussion on the ethical challenges faced by early career researchers in conservation science. All social research has ethical challenges, but conservation is particularly fraught given it’s colonial history and the huge areas of contested land that conservation aims to manage. I found this to be a therapeutic venue to discuss ethical dilemnas I have encountered in the field, and I’m very proud of the paper we subsequently published in Conservation Biology.

Abstract

Social science is becoming increasingly important in conservation, with more studies involving methodologies that collect data from and about people. Conservation science is a normative and applied discipline designed to support and inform management and practice. Poor research practice risks harming participants, researchers, and can leave negative legacies. Often, those at the forefront of field‐based research are early‐career researchers, many of whom enter their first research experience ill‐prepared for the ethical conundrums they may face. Here, we draw on our own experiences as early‐career researchers to illuminate how ethical challenges arise during conservation research that involves human participants. Specifically, we discuss ethical review procedures, conflicts of values, and power relations, and provide broad recommendations on how to navigate ethical challenges when they arise during research. We encourage greater engagement with ethical review processes and highlight the pressing need to develop ethical guidelines for conservation research that involves human participants.

Explorer spotlight in Munich

The explorers at the 2019 Munich Sciencetelling bootcamp

As a National Geographic explorer (2018) I was priviliged to participate in a Sciencetelling bootcamp this week. I was put up in a nice hotel with many other young explorers, all passionate people working on fascinating projects, and we received training in media, communications, and public speaking. At the end of the week, we had the chance to showcase our work in a public presentation at an Explorer Spotlight, hosted at a local university. Here is the result:

Integrating models of human behaviour between the individual and population levels to inform conservation interventions

Abstract

The Open Access text is available here.

Conservation takes place within social–ecological systems, and many conservation interventions aim to influence human behaviour in order to push these systems towards sustainability. Predictive models of human behaviour are potentially powerful tools to support these interventions. This is particularly true if the models can link the attributes and behaviour of individuals with the dynamics of the social and environmental systems within which they operate. Here we explore this potential by showing how combining two modelling approaches (social network analysis, SNA, and agent-based modelling, ABM) could lead to more robust insights into a particular type of conservation intervention. We use our simple model, which simulates knowledge of ranger patrols through a hunting community and is based on empirical data from a Cambodian protected area, to highlight the complex, context-dependent nature of outcomes of information-sharing interventions, depending both on the configuration of the network and the attributes of the agents. We conclude by reflecting that both SNA and ABM, and many other modelling tools, are still too compartmentalized in application, either in ecology or social science, despite the strong methodological and conceptual parallels between their uses in different disciplines. Even a greater sharing of methods between disciplines is insufficient, however; given the impact of conservation on both the social and ecological aspects of systems (and vice versa), a fully integrated approach is needed, combining both the modelling approaches and the disciplinary insights of ecology and social science.

Improving environmental interventions by understanding information flows

I’m very pleased to share our latest publication: a review on the role of information flows in conservation interventions, published in the journal Trends in Ecology & Evolution. The Open Access text is available here.

An animated summary of a figure from our paper

Abstract

Conservationists are increasingly interested in changing human behaviour. One understudied aspect of such interventions is information flow. Different patterns of interpersonal communica-tion and social structures within communities influence the adoption of behavioural changes through social influence and social reinforcement. Understanding the structure of information flow in a group, using tools such as social network analysis, can therefore offer important insights for interventions. For example, communications may be targeted to highly connected opinion leaders to leverage their influence, or communication may be facilitated between distinct subgroups to promote peer learning. Incorporating these approaches into conservationinterventions can promote more effective behaviour change. This review introduces conservation researchers and practitioners to key concepts underpinning information flows for interventions targeting networks of individuals.

Tackling wildlife poisoning in Cambodia

In parts of Cambodia, wildlife poisoning occurs as a method of hunting for meat consumption. Changing people’s behaviour is a challenge for conservation. This post was originally published on the Edinburgh Conservation Science website.

If we want to change people’s behaviour to conserve wildlife, we need to understand how and why people think and behave as they do. To do this we can use methods and tools from disciplines that have been dealing with these questions, such as social psychology. But how do we then make use this knowledge to design effective interventions? Once again, we can draw on the accumulated decades of experience and best-practice approaches that have been developed in other fields. One such approach that has become increasingly used in conservation, with positive results is social marketing.

In parts of Cambodia, wildlife poisoning occurs as a method of hunting for meat consumption

In 2017, I conducted fieldwork to try and understand the phenomenon of wildlife poisoning in Preah Vihear province Cambodia. What we learned is that wildlife poisoning occurs as a method of hunting for meat consumption, where pesticides are placed with bait at waterholes in the dry season. This is seen as a very effective and easy method, and it can catch a wide range of species, but it also risks affecting domestic animals, fish, and reduces water availability. Broadly, people in Preah Vihear are aware of and concerned by the risks of eating poisoned meat, but there are also widespread beliefs that removing the internal organs from an animal makes it safe to eat. People are also concerned about damage to the environment, their water, their cattle and dogs, so in some villages the chiefs have tried to act against poisoning, such as by organising meetings. Nevertheless, some groups continue to use poison, predominately younger men, but also kids as young as ten. Read more about this study here.

In 2018, I conducted a three-day workshop with NGO and government staff, and members of local communities. We developed a conceptual model, compiling all our respective knowledge about this problem into a diagram, and then identified possible interventions. Some of these interventions were recommendations for new regulations on the pesticides, or for altering the patrol routes of environment rangers, but some directly targeted the beliefs, attitudes, norms, and behaviours of local communities. We further developed these using the social marketing approach.

We began by selecting three priority behaviours that we aim to change. Obviously, this includes the practice of poisoning itself, but from our conceptual model we also realised that the behaviour of other members of the community would be key to influencing hunters. Specifically, we wanted to encourage community members to report observed poisoning to a hotline, and to be vigilant in refusing poisoned meat. For each of these behaviours, we then tried to characterise the different groups that would be targeted. For example, a key group of hunters is young children aged 10-15, and a key group we’d ask to be vigilant and report poisoning are the parents of these children. For each of these groups we then examined the costs and benefits of the current behaviour, and the costs and benefits of our desired behaviour, and used these to identify potential routes to change. For example, parents might not report poisoning because they are concerned it will upset others or provoke conflict, but doing so would keep their children, community, and animals safe, and could earn them respect from village leaders. Our messaging therefore focused on the idea that by reporting poisoning you are protecting your community, and that rather than be upset, your community will be thankful.

Our messaging focused on the idea that by reporting poisoning you are protecting your community

Earlier this year, in 2019, I supported WCS in implementing a small part of our planned campaign as a pilot. This served as a case study for my own research into how NGO communications influence behaviour, and how this is mediated by local social networks. For this pilot, we targeted parents with children between the ages of 10-15 and organised an event in cooperation with local government. The event started with short talks by government officials from the departments of health, environment, and agriculture, as well as NGO staff. These talks were intended to highlight all the various risks of pesticide misuse and contamination, explain the laws around pesticide use, and to increase the salience of this issue for our audience. We also had a powerful testimony of a farmer from a nearby village who had lost cattle to poisoning.

Next we screened a short film that was produced especially for this campaign, together with a filmmaker Phearun Yin. The film told the story of a boy, Chan, who discovers that his friends have been poisoned after bathing in a waterhole. He learns that Vibol, another boy, is responsible and decides to tell the parents of the sick children. There is much debate about what to do, but eventually the parents decide to speak to Vibol’s parents about the issue. She already knows that Vibol plays with poison but didn’t think to do anything about it. Eventually, the village chief persuades them that they should call the poisoning hotline, following which environment staff come to remove the contamination and poison. They reward the kids with a certificate for their bravery in reporting and thank everyone for their cooperation. Everyone lives happily ever after!

Every aspect of this story is drawn from interviews with community members and reflects our understanding of the situation.

Every aspect of this story is drawn from interviews with community members and reflects our understanding of the situation. The key elements are that kids are playing with pesticides as a fun way to catch wildlife, and that parents aren’t doing anything about it. Yes – we even interviewed some parents who told us about this. Obviously, the risks to both health and the environment are highlighted, and we have a scene showing that illness is keeping the kids from school – something which is very important to parents. Finally, it was important to show the process of discussion and deliberation, the uncertainty about the best course of action, and the potential for conflict. This reflected the real barriers that are faced by the audience. All this is eventually resolved, and their decision to act in the desired way results in a safer environment and a happy community. Working on this film, and shooting on location with the kids, has certainly been one of the most unexpected, but also most enjoyable parts of my PhD!

Working on this film, and shooting on location with the kids, has certainly been one of the most unexpected, but also most enjoyable parts of my PhD!

After the screening, WCS staff took time to give details about the poisoning hotline and explain how it works. For example, the costs of the call would be refunded, and anonymity was assured if requested. A discussion was then held where the audience was asked to reflect on the motivations and actions of the different characters. This way we hoped to come to a shared understanding of the film and forge a public consensus that reporting poisoning is the best course of action. For members of the audience who still felt hesitant, this could show them the rest of the audience was on board. By using an emotive film, we also hoped to help the audience overcome some of the emotional barriers to action, such as apathy, or the fear of conflict. Furthermore, we wanted this to be something the audience could continue to reflect on, and share with their children, so we distributed a coloured children’s book which told the same story. We also handed out attractive stickers, and calendar leaflets, which showed our campaign logo and the hotline phone number, so that it would always be close at hand, and never far from mind.

We closed our event with a ceremony and a small party. Mimicking the final scene of our film, we asked the audience to make a public pledge of ‘good citizenship’, promising to use pesticides responsibly, and to report contamination. Pledgees received a certificate (identical to that shown in the film) signed by the commune chief, and a big poster so they can proudly show their neighbours and friends that they are a good citizen. This is based on the idea that making a commitment publicly increases the likelihood that you’ll stick to it.

This event wasn’t perfect, but represents a start in getting conservationists to think beyond awareness raising, and to be a bit more nuanced in their engagement with communities. We didn’t have a great budget for the finishing party, and maybe weren’t able to create the buzz we would have liked for the pledging ceremony. We also abandoned earlier plans to work together with the local school and make it a real parent-pupil-teacher event. Instead, it was a sort of fancier version of the kinds of community meetings that NGOs call all the time. I’m convinced that those small details can make a world of difference, but time will tell whether this little pilot will have any impact. Walking through the village several weeks later I was encouraged to see several of our posters up on people’s front doors. Doing applied research in collaboration with a conservation NGO has meant opportunities but also obligations, and this was a particularly stressful field trip trying to bring all parties together, and design all our materials in a very short timeframe, But it has also been an immensely rich experience from which I have learned a lot. Let’s hope our evaluation data will be equally illuminating.

Dteu srok Khmer veng (Back to Cambodia)

An update on Emiel’s PhD research as he heads back out to Cambodia. This post was originally published on the Edinburgh Conservation Science website.

I’m on my way to Cambodia once again so it’s time to give an update! After I arrived back last November it took me a while to get back into the swing of things. I’d had a little accident driving my motorbike in Vietnam which left me with scars down one leg, and a foot that was swelling. I moved into a new flat, with new flatmates, and by the time I’d recovered, settled, and caught up with everyone and all my other hobbies, it was Christmas.

The New Year started on the right foot (no pun intended). My first act after returning to work was to make a pre-submission to a journal, hoping to persuade them to consider publishing the first paper of my PhD. The paper itself still needed some polishing so I spent quite a bit of time getting it into shape over the following months. Unfortunately, we still don’t know whether they want to take it, so the paper is just sat on my desktop waiting for a home. If you want to know what it’s about I’m afraid you’ll have to be as patient as I am trying to be!

In the meantime, I started talks with WCS about what comes next. When I left, I’d given them a brief presentation about what I was finding as I investigated poisoning in Preah Vihear. They then asked me to start thinking about interventions to reduce wildlife poisoning. Of course, this isn’t something I could do without significant input from WCS, but, as they were going through some staff changes, it took a while before we could seriously talk and start to make plans. As the plans did start to materialise, the amount of work I would have to do to ready those plans became clearer, and kicked me out of my post-Christmas complacency.

We’ll think about the different types of people that engage in wildlife poisoning, the behavioural change we want them to make, and the strategies or messages that could get them there.

So, what are the plans? Firstly, we’ll be organising a three-day intervention-planning workshop involving WCS staff, and facilitated by me. This will take a social marketing approach, and I’ve been fortunate to receive guidance from experienced social marketers like Diogo Verissimo, a colleague in Oxford. We’ll start by clearly identifying the problem of wildlife poisoning, the behaviours, motivations and other factors that contribute to this issue. Then, we’ll think about the different types of people that engage in wildlife poisoning, the behavioural change we want them to make, and the strategies or messages that could get them there. Of course, for this to work we need to have a clear understanding of wildlife poisoning, who does it, and why, as well as the social norms surrounding its use. This is where the data I collected last year comes in, and I’ve been working hard to write up a report to share with my WCS colleagues.

I want to know whether the villagers care about this information, whether they pass it on to their friends and family, and whether they can remember it after a while.

I’ll also be conducting another study while I’m in Preah Vihear. WCS runs awareness-raising workshops in villages across Preah Vihear, informing villagers about the endangered species that live around them, their importance, and the laws that protect them. I want to know whether the villagers care about this information, whether they pass it on to their friends and family, and whether they can remember it after a while. These things would all be necessary for awareness-raising workshops like this to have a conservation impact, but they’ve never been tested. WCS have kindly agreed to modify the workshop that they’ll run in my study village. Instead of inviting the whole village, we’ll just invite a few select individuals, on the basis of the social network data I collected last year. We’ll also simplify it and include a few key messages that we’ll be able to track, and test knowledge on.

But all that’s for later… stay tuned! The first thing I’ll do when I arrive is travel to Kampong Thom to take part in the wedding of a good friend of mine. We both started our work with WCS as young graduates back in 2016, and I’m honoured to be a groomsman. Photos to follow!