Gradon has a curious mind, he has always questioned the world around him. Now he is a geographer working as a social science researcher at Manaaki Whenua—Landcare Research. He is passionate about communicating solutions to social and environmental issues in an accessible way.
Q: Did you always know you’d get into research?
A: No not really. I wasn’t one of those people who went straight through their education and had a clear sense that they wanted to be in research. I’ve just kind of explored opportunities as they arose, and pursued things that interested me. I was always interested in questions though, so in retrospect, research probably is a good fit.
Q: What got you started into your research?
A: Hmm that’s a tricky question! I grew up a young queer kid in a relatively conservative religious environment. The contrast between what I knew to be true for myself, and what was expected of me really highlighted the socially constructed nature of everything around me.
This experience was probably what sparked my interest in social science, specifically how societies organise themselves, what they consider right, wrong and acceptable, not acceptable, and who suffers or benefits from these arrangements. I’m also from a farming family, so as I grew older I was always interested in environmental issues, particularly around food production.
Q: Was there an expectation you would pursue a future in farming?
A: No not really. My parents were very supportive of their kids doing whatever they were interested in. My extended family (particularly my grandmother) would sometimes suggest I should get a job on the farm, and get out of the ‘big city’, but this was mainly joking around rather than serious pressure or expectation that I would get into farming.
Q: What barriers have you overcome?
A: No major ones. I’ve felt pretty lucky throughout my career to work with great people, and have generally felt supported by colleagues, managers and research partners.
It was a big personal financial sacrifice to quit a well-paid job and start a self-funded PhD when I was 30. I’m not sure I’d make the decision again. But money is only one (limited) way of measuring the worth of something.
I suppose one barrier that I’ve experienced is not necessarily personal, but more structural. My research is informed by feminist and community development perspectives. In some circles (particularly science) these approaches are not necessarily seen as ‘robust’ or ‘valid’ as quantitative social science approaches. I’ve had my research described as nothing more than ‘journalism’, as ‘biased’, and as ‘too political’. These kinds of barriers are ones I share with many other people who do this work. So it’s not exactly an individualised barrier I’ve had to overcome, but more about learning how to work with like-minded colleagues to effectively communicate the value of the perspectives that inform our research.
Q: Do you think there is a good amount of representation in the research community? If not, how would do you change this?
A: In some parts of the research community there is, but definitely not everywhere. For example, currently there is only one woman who is the CE of a CRI (AgResearch) and she was only appointed this year. While leadership positions are only one measure of representation, this reflects back to us the fact that white men are over-represented nearly everywhere that power exists.
The stats are also terrible, and have not improved for Māori and Pasifika researchers. Improving diversity and representation is the research community is complex and efforts need to begin at the early stages of our education sector and flow through up into the tertiary sector.
A key principle for me is ‘you gotta see it to be it’. So if we don’t see people like ourselves in roles, then many of us (particularly if we are from minority or historically marginalised groups) don’t even think that say a career in say research, is for possible for us. And if we did want to do it, what would the personal cost be?
One way to address this is through cohort approaches, so people don’t feel so individualised and isolated (ie. the only woman in a class full of men, or the’ only gay in the village’). There are some great researchers exploring these very questions, such as Sereana Naepi (who is also co-chair of the ECR forum).
Q: Why do you do what you do?
A: To contribute and help build evidence for positive social and environmental practices in our society. I’m not really interested in research or knowledge for its own sake. I’m more interested in using research and knowledge for change and action - to help transform our society, to become more environmentally sustainable and equitable.
Q: What projects are you currently working on?
A: I'm currently exploring the outcomes and impacts of citizen science on people’s wellbeing, connection with nature, and cognitive learning.
I'm also using locally relevant scenarios to help people think about adaptation to climate change and I'm exploring how place-based circular economic practices can improve people’s wellbeing and create more resilient infrastructure.
Q: What are your career highlights so far?
A: Working with great people, being inspired by research participants, and constantly being challenged in my work.
Q: Why is your research important?
A: We currently face huge environmental and social issues – from climate change, plastic pollution, and biodiversity loss to rising inequalities, eco-anxiety and societal polarisation. Many of us instinctively know we need to change our social and economic systems, but we are unsure what and how to change. This includes being unsure what to invest our time and energy in.
Eco-psychologists and others have pointed out that the onslaught of bad environmental and social news creates anxiety, can fuel denial and repression, create conflict, and ultimately hopelessness for our collective future.
My research seeks to highlight the existing knowledge, skills and practices that are already happening in our communities that address pressing environmental and social issues. In doing so, colleagues and I illustrate how people are already negotiating ethical questions around access, use, and distribution of resources in more equitable ways.
So in effect my research is about documenting the good stuff that is already happening, providing a framework that accounts for the value of it (beyond just measuring things in terms of money), and translating this into language policy/government people and others can understand and use to inform decision making and investment.
Q: Why is research important?
A: Research is about curiosity and discovery and increasing our understanding of the world, other people, and often ourselves. But it is also a way of reflecting back to society and communities what we collectively value.
If we resource research it basically says we value or care about something. This can be especially important for those people and groups who’s experiences, worldviews and knowledge haven’t been valued. So research (particularly social research) can be an important part of creating more just and equitable societies.
Q: If you had to choose a single word to identify with, what would it be?
I’m not really interested in research or knowledge for its own sake. I’m more interested in using research and knowledge for change and action.