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May 13, 2013

Before becoming a Sustainability Scientist and professor in the School of Sustainability, BurnSilver was a Peace Corps volunteer in Mali, West Africa. She received her doctoral degree in human ecology from Colorado State University. BurnSilver combines all facets of science—like common property theory, landscape ecology, conservation, and vulnerability—to provide useful research for decision-making. She co-authored a paper with researchers from Colorado State University and the International Livestock Research Institute in Kenya, Africa that describes a new model for conducting research. The model advises to include local people at the very beginning of the research process and then work with them to disseminate the results at a community level. The paper received Ecological Society of America’s Sustainability Science Award for 2012.

1. Describe the research you did that was recognized by the Ecological Society of America.

This is an award for a paper that epitomizes or represents some aspect of sustainability science. Anybody who’s worked as an anthropologist—someone who really works with people and really cares about outcomes in terms of poverty or power, or issues that have to do with people’s well-being—can’t help but begin to really think about what their research means. This research was an effort to think beyond the extractive research process and link to local communities.

The people we worked with, the Masaai, are very aware that scientists come and go and make their careers on the information that’s extracted from working with them. We made the effort to really design research together with the Masaai people and to very explicitly link with policymakers, local communities, and the facilitators that span the boundary between these two groups. From the beginning, we thought about the big picture and planned to include the Masaai people in our research process. The paper is really a reflection on a particular research project that brought like-minded people together and provided the resources to put some of that thinking in practice.

The science that comes out at the end is better science. The perspectives, the questions, and the knowledge of the people at the local level changes the way that the science is done. It is a co-production of knowledge that takes place through time.

2. What are the types of advantages all disciplines can gain through using local knowledge and community-based research?

You know when outcomes resonate with policymakers—when things make sense. You know that the questions you are posing are directly relevant to people on the ground. You have incredible buy-in from people at the local level so the quality of the data you are collecting is better. The process is so much more rewarding.

3. What does this ESA award mean to you?

The award is very nice validation of the work that has been done. It gives greater visibility for a side of science that is important but isn’t often recognized. The model is an invisible process that was made visible, based on this award.

4. What does the word “sustainability” mean to you?

It’s a process and an outcome. It’s very complex. In the context of this award, I think the tendency is to think sustainability as an outcome, and I think what this award says is that we need to also pay attention to the steps that you put in place in order to make a research project and its outcomes sustainable.

5. What is the global sustainability challenge that concerns you the most and why?

The challenge that concerns me the most is having an ongoing (and serious) dialogue regarding the meaning of human “progress.” In the context of my work, such a dialogue should engage people at all levels around issues of livelihood change, poverty, land use change, and cultural diversity so that whatever visions of sustainability emerge, we don't prioritize one criteria for measuring “progress” (e.g. economic) over another (e.g. cultural resilience).