Getting to work in the Cairngorms

Our visit to Scotland was primarily for research, so in this entry we re-focus on the actual work.

The methods

Collecting public surveys is not an easy task.  It takes a lot of initiative, a bit of “chutzpa” (a slightly unsatisfying Merriam-Webster definition is “supreme self-confidence: NERVE, GALL”), patience and determination.  And more important than anything else, one needs research assistants that have all of these characteristics when the primary researcher has naught. Take note of this and be sure to include funding for research assistants – preferably based locally – when writing a research grant for survey-based research.  Accordingly, this research trip was successful primarily due to the extraordinary work of Rachel (from the Cairngorms) and Roy (from just about everywhere else), who hit the ground running and who reached our lower goal of 200 completed surveys within 2.5 days.  Being from the area, Rachel’s added advantage was that she knows the local social and ecological terrain.  Jan was also particularly adept at this type of research.

Loch Morlich – store, cafe and bike shop. 4 to 5 completed surveys!

Often people don’t like to be bothered (certainly not for 15-20 minutes) by filling out surveys.  We overheard some respondents complaining that it was like going back to school.  People are on vacation.  People are busy at work. We offer some tips we’ve learned for successful survey collection:

  • Target people who are “loitering” and look like they want something to do.  On a rainy day, we went to an indoor play-park where Roy got a dozen parents to fill out surveys, while their kids jumped on the play castle and played games.  Also on a rainy day, Roy went through a campground, where campers’ plans for outdoor activities were delayed.  Many other respondents were caught waiting for buses or sitting in the park.  Despite my premonitions, some people were happy to do the surveys.
  • Leave surveys with store owners to be filled out during the “dead periods” of their business day. Pick them up the next day. Rachel and Roy got dozens of completed surveys this way.
  • Ask enthusiastic locals to “spread the word” by having their friends fill them out as well. A wonderful and talkative bookstore owner was a great advocate for our research goals. (But beware of generating responses from clusters of like-minded individuals.)
  • Special effort will have to be made to get specific groups.  For instance, we did not have access to farmers and foresters – two very important stakeholder groups.  So I hired another research assistant who had access to these groups, and she will be supplementing our surveys with additional surveys from farmers.
  • Hire research assistants who are adept at doing what you yourself cannot do… Did I already say that?

The other means of data collection

While I didn’t formally organize interviews ahead of time as I have done in my parallel research in Israel, some of the best bits of knowledge were gathered through conversations with various stakeholders. Considering that I prefer this type of social contact – all the more reason to include it!  Some people have a surprisingly good grasp of our research intent, and have equally good and challenging questions.

Ann of Balliefurth farm asked us during dinner an important and insightful question: How do we “weight” the opinion of particular respondents in the survey results when it is clear that some respondents have years of accumulated knowledge on the subject and some have almost no idea what we are talking about. We don’t weight our answers, and her concerns are well founded. Indeed some survey respondents obviously have far greater depth of knowledge regarding particular subjects, yet in a survey, their responses are simply added to the pile.  Their accumulated knowledge is given no more weight than, for example, a tourist unfamiliar with local environment or a store owner whose concerns and knowledge lie elsewhere.  However, some of these characteristics (years of education, length of time living in the Cairngorms, occupation) may turn out to be important independent variables once we get the data analyzed…

The cows of Balliefurth – refusal rate for surveys was exceedingly high among bovines.

A particularly precocious high-school student working in a boat rental shop had many comments for me when I came to pick up her completed survey.  “You know, this is a good way to get people thinking about the environment,” she noted.  With a half-smile, I concurred with her.  She was on to me: my understanding of ecosystem services is indeed that, aside from being a scientific concept, it is a tool for teaching the public about the importance of protecting the natural environment. By extension, this research is not only for learning, but also for teaching.  A bit of advocacy science, which is acceptable so long as I’m explicit about it!

Many survey respondents wanted to know what the research was for, who was funding it, why were we coming from Israel to research in Scotland, and what were the policy implications of our research.  Continuing the conversation with them was always rewarding insofar as we could gain further insights into people’s concerns, interests and opinions.

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