Balancing Platforms And Participation In Sustainability Research

Published on 26 January 2010 in Sustainability and Communities

Rural landscape


For some questions the appropriate way to get the true answer is obvious, for others, not.   Answering questions of the second type involves two tasks. We must first, work out how tackle the question, then set about getting the answer. The first task is one of developing a methodology, the second one of using it. Questions about the sustainability of farming systems fall into this two-task category of research questions.

Part of the solution to the methodological issue lies in being clear what the question is. With a subject like sustainability this can be difficult, and a well-framed and resolvable question may only emerge after several iterations of science-policy interaction. The work described here should be seen as a contribution to such interactions.   Using a case study of one research issue that has emerged during the current research programme, some pointers for framing future questions about sustainability, and similar issues such as those connected with ecosystem framework appraisal, are suggested. The pointers turn out to be quite intuitive and can be applied either in a qualitative, informal way, or, given suitable data, they could be applied quantitatively.

Key Points

The shortest description of the guidelines for framing questions about sustainability involves a little bit of technical jargon, but it is easily understood. They can be captured in the mnemonic, IOUORMI (I owe you or me) . In brief, the approach is, first, to Identify the Object that needs to be sustained, and then to Use Occam’s Razor and the principle of Methodological Individualism to guide the inclusion of sufficient explanatory detail without losing general applicability. Occam’s razor is the well-known principle of parsimony in constructing explanations. It enshrines the principle that, all other things being equal, the simplest explanation should always be favoured. 

Methodological individualism (MI), is a less widely known principle, but it gives us a way to direct Occam’s razor when studying things (such as farming systems) that have an obvious hierarchical structure. The principle of MI suggests that to understand a system, one should start with explanations that involve the major components of the system, before turning attention to things happening at the next scale down, and so on. In other words if your goal is to understand the sustainability of arable farming (nationally) start by studying processes at a farm scale and add more detailed, lower-scale processes only where explanations at the farm scale are not sufficient.

Research Undertaken

The research summarised here is part of the cross-cutting work undertaken at SAC between the Scottish Government research programmes on Sustainable and Profitable Agriculture - Plants, and Environment - Land Use and Rural Stewardship. The main methodological issue to be addressed is one of finding the optimum balance between detailed understanding of processes and coverage of variability over large spatial scales, given a fixed total research effort on sustainability.  As outlined above, the sustainability of any system depends on processes which occur within it, and differences in the way that the important processes vary between systems will determine their relative sustainabilities. The IOUORMI approach suggests that to understand, for example, the sustainability of arable farms at a national scale, we need to know about the processes within a farm (the detail), and also the variation in those processes among farms (the coverage).   

Broadly, research on the detail of processes is better carried out at research farms (or field research platforms), while research to inform us of larger scale, real-world variation is better carried out by surveys or using participatory methods on real farms. The tricky issue to resolve, and the one that really matters in relation to policy, is how much of each of these types of research is needed. Given a limiting availability of research resources, there is a trade-off between how much of each type of research can be undertaken. In economic terms, if we have to forego on-farm, participatory, “coverage” research for platform, experimental, “detail”, research (and vice versa), then each type can be thought of as the opportunity cost of the other.   A less formal way to capture the same idea is to do some thinking about counterfactual situations in which research effort is directed to different extents on detailed knowledge of processes, or wider scale understanding of system behaviour, and try to decide which would lead to better answers to our original questions about sustainability. The IOUORMI principles give a rationale for such an analysis. They suggest that the further the scale of interest of the research is from the scale at which the question matters, the less likely it is that the research will be useful to answering it. It is important to point out that this says nothing about the value of doing the research for the purpose of learning about the processes in and of themselves; that’s a different question altogether.  

Policy Implications

A possible approach to rational discussion of research priorities for large and complex issues, such as sustainability, has emerged from using analytical techniques from inside the research programme, reflectively, on the programme itself. As a result we have derived a prototype meta-decision support framework which can be used to help in the formulation of evidence-based policy for sustainability, and similar topics, in a transparent and objective way.


Dr Neil McRoberts


Sustainability and Communities

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