(by: Daniel Chrisendo)
There are so many important things in the world that are still unknown. How is the future of the earth? Is a bigger pandemic of infectious diseases coming soon? Can we really build an underwater settlement? Is it possible to eradicate poverty completely? Researchers have been conducting studies to answer so many questions affecting our lives. Sometimes they are successful, and sometimes they have to try again. Many even have to scrap the idea entirely just because of one thing: the data is unavailable.
Some researchers manage to collect primary data, be it from weather stations, farm households, or clinical patients. Some do systematic reviews and meta-analyses to extract information from existing research. Not satisfied with the difficulties of acquiring data, the data-sharing movement is currently more prominent than ever. It is further supported by academic journals requiring researchers to open the data publicly.
But what if the data we need to answer important questions are nowhere to be found? Should we give up right away and move on? Oh wait, do not rush! Perhaps there is still one more place where you might find them.
“They are in the experts’ brain,” Anna Chrysafi, a Water and Development Research Group researcher at Aalto University, revealed.
In their newly published paper, Anna and colleagues quantified the interactions of variables related to biodiversity, land-system change, biogeochemical flows, freshwater, and soil moisture, known as Earth system processes. They then linked this information with the possibility of producing food sustainably (Figure 1).
“Usually, previous studies investigate the links of food production and those earth variables separately, and the interactions of the latter were never quantified,” Anna explained. “Our paper is the first attempt to quantify them (albeit on local scale. Lade and colleagues did global scale analysis via literature review).”
Understanding that lives on earth are interconnected, it makes sense to analyze those variables together. Without quantifying the interactions, humans might overestimate what we can produce without harming the Earth systems, according to Anna.
Probably the reason why researchers were not able to quantify the Earth systems interactions was because of the limited data availability. But Anna, an expert in natural resources management, believes that experts know much more than they think. Therefore, she tried to squeeze researchers’ brains to extract this information through expert elicitation. The data is later used in research to create models, develop policy implications, and give decision-makers recommendations.
“Expert elicitation has been done a lot,” Anna said. “Many people have been building their career on expert elicitation.”
Fig 1 from the article Quantifying Earth system interactions for sustainable food production via expert elicitation
Expert elicitation is not a method based on subjectivity or someone’s feeling. Instead, it is a scientific consensus methodology with a credible protocol to follow. Experts must go through a series of questions, discussions, and brainstorming to answer specific topics and research questions. The protocol helps to reduce bias in experts’ views during the process because sometimes people are very confident and sure that their knowledge is the most correct one. However, there is no 100% guarantee that bias can be omitted entirely.
Anna initiated this study in January 2020. For a few months, she built an application that experts used to share what they knew related to the topic. Initially, she invited around 200 researchers worldwide to participate with similar characteristics: they are experts on Earth systems. They have recently published or most cited scientific articles on that topic. About 90 of them responded and showed a willingness to collaborate. However, there were many obstacles along the way.
Anna added that it was pretty challenging to build a user-friendly application. She felt she had a second job in customer service to answer people’s questions. It is even more complicated when all the contributors live in different time zones; it is impossible to put everybody in one Zoom room and explain everything. Synthesizing the brightest minds is certainly not a piece of cake, especially when people start doubting the process. One by one dropped out of the study and left Anna with 37 experts.
“Some of them lose their interest, and some are just unable to participate due to health issues or family matters,” Anna recollected her memory, admitting that it was a bit uncomfortable when it got too personal with someone she had never even met.
However, after 2.5 years, they reap what they sow. The paper “Quantifying earth system interactions for sustainable food production via expert elicitation” has been published in Nature Sustainability. Not only that, Anna and colleagues are delighted with the meaningful results that align with the literature.
Their main findings show that water available in the soil for plants and land use change strongly affect other Earth system processes, which eventually affects food systems. Meanwhile, biodiversity, especially the aquatic components that have never been explored before, is the most affected by other Earth system processes. Now policymakers should know what action to take and through what mechanisms when designing and implementing food production and agricultural policy.
“I thought it would be easy. I was so naïve in the beginning. But maybe it was good to be naïve, so I was not overwhelmed, even though I was still overwhelmed. But I am glad this is over.” Anna laughed. “When it was finally published, I said ‘no way’ to do it again. But now, maybe, I will do it again. And in the future, it is very likely I will do it again.”
Anna, who has done expert elicitation two times, shared one last piece of advice for those who want to do an expert elicitation: “Read a lot of literature, follow a tested and well-documented protocol. It will be easier to follow than do what you feel you want to do. Don’t forget to be patient.”
Read more of Anna’s article:
Read more about expert elicitation:
Anna Chrysafi holds a Ph.D. in Aquatic Sciences. She is affiliated with the Water and Development Research Group, Aalto University and the Aristotle University of Thessaloniki. Currently, she works as a project manager and consultant at Q-PLAN international, Greece working on EU projects related to natural resources use/sustainable development.