Communicating Connectivity

Think-tank meeting WG 5

Communicating Connectivity

April 2015, Berlin, COST Action ES 1306

Participants: Carly Maynard, Anthony Parsons, Tamara Hochstrasser, Anna Smetanova, Jose Lopez, Eva Mueller, Tobias Krüger, Axel Bronstert, Wolfgang Schwanghart, Martin Welp, Maria Piquer-Rodriguez, Jaime R. Garcia Marquez, Gemma Carr (not able to come), Richard Brazier (not able to come)


We started our think-tank meeting with two assertions:

Communication problem 1:

“The multi-disciplinary and multi-methodological backgrounds of connectivity scientists are likely to cause communication problems.”

Communication problem 2:

“Connectivity scientists don’t want to talk to stakeholders ‒ and stakeholders are not interested to listen.”


To address these questions, the think-tank meeting on ‘Communicating Connectivity’ was held with members of WG 5, chairs and guests of WG 1, 2 and 4 together with the Panta Rhei Working Group ‘Transdisciplinarity’ of the IAHS (International Association of Hydrological Sciences) new scientific decade 2013–2022 called ‘Panta Rhei – Everything Flows’, which is dedicated to research activities on change in hydrology and Society.

Intro: Presentation on Communicating Connectivity

The working groups of the Connecteur Action involve scientists from the full range of environmental sciences including hydrology, ecology, soil science, geomorphology, geography, engineering, geology, agriculture sciences, remote sensing, sustainability studies and environmental management.


Figure 1: Real-world problems related to connectivity research

In the workshop we discussed problems of integrating research disciplines across the environmental spectrum (Stock and Burton, 2011):

  • The past gave many examples where integrating research disciplines in environmental sciences was far from unproblematic.
  • Integrated research projects begin with high expectations but often end with poor outcomes.
  • There is much recognition of the need for linkages between the eco/hydro/geomorphological, policy and social science communities, but it is easier to ‚talk the talk‘ than ‚walk the walk‘.
  • Successful integration is not merely a ‚nice‘ bonus to the research process.

Fundamental reasons are:

  • basic lack of interdisciplinary infrastructure (e.g. lack of researchers trained in integrated research),
  • lack of quality journals to publish in,
  • problems with the research approach itself (epistemological and ontological incompatibilities), and
  • language and communication as barriers.

It helps (Bracken and Oughton, 2006):

  • to show mutual respect towards different science disciplines,
  • to show complementarity and cooperation rather than competiveness,
  • to see knowledges as embedded in different cultural contexts,
  • to develop a shared language,
  • to develop mechanisms through which individual disciplinary knowledges can be appropriately ‚translated‘ in order to be ‚articulated‘, and
  • to develop a shared mental model on a research topic.

Communication within groups of the COST Action (several disciplines, one methodology)
To foster communication within each group including scientists from a wide spectrum of environmental sciences, we suggest moving towards sharing knowledge through the development of shared mental models of their respective research topics.
We introduced some concepts of sharing knowledge in a mixed-discipline group after Jones et al. 2011 and 2014: Mental models are internal representations of someone’s thought processes for how something works in the real world (cognitive representation of external reality). Our mental models shape our behaviour and define our approach to solving problems and carrying out our tasks. Elicitation is the process of inquiry to encourage a person to externalise a mental model. Mental models are elicited to explore the similarities AND differences in understanding of a specific concept to improve communication between group members.

Eliciting a greater number of concepts provides greater opportunity for identifying overlap and difference. It helps to identify and overcome knowledge limitations and misconceptions within a group, to integrate different perspectives to improve overall understanding of a system and to support learning processes and exchange of knowledge within a group.

Shared mental models refer to overlapping mental representation of knowledge by group members. Once we know overlaps and non-overlaps of knowledge we can share AND produce knowledge much more efficiently.

Shared Mental Models

Figure 2: Sharing knowledge through shared mental models

During the think-tank meeting we carried out a 1-hour trial on eliciting our mental model of ‘connectivity and communication’, which we will analyse and post here soon.

Communication between groups of the COST Action (several disciplines, several methodologies)
Ideally, the five working groups on connectivity theory, field studies, modelling, indices and society work in close collaboration with each other regarding the exchange of definitions, data and concepts. In reality, it will be difficult to find field sites, data sets, thematic foci and organisational overlaps that would ensure a full integration of the five methodologies. To overcome cross-methodological perception barriers, we suggests the following three actions to foster dialogue between the five working groups

  1. Setting-up of ‘hypothetical case studies’

We suggest to set up a plan of action for a ‘hypothetical connectivity case studies’ of a real-world problem for example related to reservoir sedimentation, nutrient leaching or landslides, which could be worked on in a 2-4 hour session in mixed groups with members of all five working groups. The hypothetical case studies could demonstrate how a full integration of all five connectivity methodologies could be achieved which is thought to be beneficial for the set-up of joint data collection for the measuring, modelling and indices group, combining the efforts of the modelling and indices application regarding water and land management options and scenarios, and involving affected or affecting stakeholders from the beginning in the research plan including their involvement in the set-up of sampling schemes and monitoring protocols, choice of modelling tools and their needs, requirements and potential interventions. Such an exercise might even result in the writing of novel, integrated research proposals, might give a guideline for the set-up of future field sites within the COST Action and could be used as an ideal test case to inform stakeholders from water and land authorities on how an inclusion of connectivity methods could improve their current monitoring, modelling and decision-making protocols.

Potential research questions for real-world case-studies:
a)     How can we quantify and minimise hot-spot erosion in headwater catchments in a meso-scale dryland catchment causing severe reservoir sedimentation (reservoir is used for power generation, drinking water supply and irrigation)?

b)     How can we quantify and minimise nutrient leaching in an intensively used agricultural lowland catchment (ground and surface water is used for drinking water, eutrophication of surface water is problematic)?

c)     In a steep mountainous area, frequent landslides are disrupting the transport network (streets, train lines) – how would this hazard be minimised?

  1. Panel discussion on the different meaning, quantification and implementation of ‘structural’ and ‘functional’ connectivity

Short presentations of members of working groups 1-4 showed that the terms ‘structural’ and ‘functional’ connectivity are employed or used slightly differently. The measuring group might sample structural connectivity patterns directly in the field, whereas the modelling group is more concerned on how to parameterise their models with input data resembling some structural connectivity. All groups do not directly measure or model but rather infer functional connectivity, but differences appear to exist regarding different ways of inference using sampling data, modelling structure and outcomes or indices calculations. A discussion on common usage and application of the terms structural and functional connectivity was thought to be beneficial for integrated thinking within the Action.

  1. Panel discussion on the time and space scales of the five working groups

The exchange of data and knowledge between the five working groups might expand if there is a mutual understanding which types of data are needed, collected, analysed, modelled and employed at which specific spatial and temporal scales. A graphical representation of the central scales might help to identify overlaps for joint case studies (e.g. for setting-up field sites to do combined monitoring and modelling campaigns) or gaps which might cause problems for shared data use or coordinated actions for complementing studies, for example for the monitoring and indices groups. The graphical representation could either be put together in a joint meeting of all working groups or extracted from the planned review articles of the individual working groups.

Communication between the COST Action and Society (several disciplines and actors, several methodologies)
Through pre-meeting consultation with leaders of all working group, it was established that societal interactions of the COST working groups was currently not on their agenda as part of the individual group work plans, apart from WG 4 on indices, who formulated several questions to be addressed including: what is the understanding of and expectation on connectivity indices of various groups of stakeholders and how should the interactions them an the working group be organised.

We suggest the following approaches to involve society across the scale of affected/affecting stakeholders including decision-makers, local-to-national water and land management authorities, farmers and the general public:

  1. Stakeholder questionnaire on the perceived relevance of connectivity issues

We agreed that we actually do not have a clear picture of the existing knowledge and perceived relevance of connectivity issues of stakeholders involved in real-world problems related to connectivity (see list above). To enable a realistic feedback between the COST Action and society at large regarding knowledge transfer, knowledge production, actual requirements of different types of stakeholders, and to enable a realistic perspective for our planned policy briefing, we developed a set of questions for semi-structured stakeholder interviews. We acknowledged that it will be virtually impossible to carry out interviews with all/many stakeholders in all/many EU countries which are involved in the COST Action on all real-world environmental problems as were defined above. Instead we developed a methodology for a questionnaire which will allow us to sample stakeholders involved in connectivity issues across the EU countries using a semi-random selection approach. It was decided that we would put out a call for a Short Term Scientific Mission opportunity for 2-4 months to work at the University of Potsdam / Humboldt University of Berlin to carry out and analyse the interviews and to derive a first understanding of the perceived relevance of connectivity of a wide range of stakeholders. Some preliminary testing of the proposed questionnaire has already taken place in May 2015.

  1. Planned outreach activities

Preparation of short articles for practitioners, governmental departments and water and land management authorities on connectivity theory, monitoring, modelling and indices in non-scientific writing suitable to address different types of readers (i.e. policy briefing, popular writing for a magazine, etc.) were discussed and possible publication portals identified (to be continued). A possible format and distribution approach could be the very successful Policy & Practice Note series by the Research Councils UK Rural Economy and Land Use (RELU) programme:

  1. Policy briefing – EU Commission

National and EU governmental departments across the environmental disciplines need to be better connected for a better, integrated management of water and land resources (just as we are trying to do with the disciplines involved in connectivity research). The Water Framework Directive gives a positive example, on how it became possible to encourage water resources management across state boundaries. A similar proposal for a Soil Framework Directive however was withdrawn in 2008. Connectivity issues across the water and soil domain appear to be inadequately addressed in current EU policies and a better representation of connectivity research in future policy adoptions is expected to lead to a more sustainable land and water management. We would like to work towards interacting with the European Commission (Directorate-General for Environment, Unit B1: Agriculture, Forests and Soil) to try to transfer results of present COST connectivity research on theory, modelling, monitoring and indices at an early stage into EU policy. One way of doing so could be a direct involvement with the future developments of the Soil Thematic Strategy of the EU commission.