Karen Vella is an urban and environmental planner with two decades of research and practical experience in community engagement, governance evaluation, strategic planning, and exploration of the social aspects of environmental management and restoration problems.
Her work is multi-disciplinary and involves strong use of social science to identify innovative solutions to real world sustainability problems.
A/Prof Vella’s work has considerable influence on state and national policy within Australia and is recognised nationally and internationally in fields of science concerned with human and public policy dimensions of environmental decision-making that threaten sustainability.
My research expertise is around understanding how we can engage people more effectively in environmental sustainability and stewardship outcomes. I got involved in that research because I'm interested in sustainability and I'm interested in decision making and I really want to make a valuable contribution to helping to adapt our societies in decision making systems so that we are leading more sustainable lives. I was offered an opportunity to do a PhD through a Collaborative Research Centre. They wanted to know what they needed to do to adjust policy settings to get farmers to implement outcomes that government and scientists thought were good outcomes.
I actually came from the farming industry and I knew from my own experience that changing the rules wasn't really going to change the behaviour because there were social and cultural factors and other rules impacting on the way people make decisions. My PhD was a start really of me saying, “if we as a society want to address environmental decline then we can't just look at the policy settings and tinker with those. We have to fundamentally understand what impacts on decision making and then come up with strategies that actually work in those contexts if we want to get different outcomes”.
I was born and raised on a farm and was frustrated by the message I kept hearing in the media that farmers are being environmental vandals who just need to do things differently. With my implicit knowledge of how decisions get made on the land, I thought, this is really unfair, because farmers are responding to a whole bunch of conditions. Some of them are economic, some of them are environmental, some are regulatory or institutional around market access or being able to get your product to a processing area in particular timeframes. It’s unfair to just say, "well, there must be something wrong with them if they're not behaving in the way we expect them to”, rather than taking a grassroots view and trying to scale up what farmers know and why they're doing things the way they are, and how we can support adaptation.
After my PhD I had a short post-doctoral research fellowship. I felt like an imposter really because I was doing research, but I felt as though I needed practical experience. I left the academic world and worked for the Australian government and a not-for-profit organisation. I did that for six or seven years and also had a few children. I felt like I was able to bring some knowledge gained through my research into practical decision-making contexts. But it really taught me a lot about the practicalities of delivering government programmes and trying to work and meet all these multiple objectives.
After doing that for a few years though I became frustrated that the evidence base wasn't helping me advocate for different ways of doing things. In 2010, I took my first real academic position with the sole objective to actually do research, to bring an evidence base together that would allow industry and government to advocate for different funding programmes or doing things in ways that were more effective. That experience in government and out of government combined with my research finally put me in a position where I could start to have impact. So that was 10 years after I'd started my PhD.
My research has had quite significant impact on state and federal policy for environmental management. For example, the second phase of the National Landcare Program, which is a large program for all kinds of environmental matters, particularly as it relates to natural resource management, and also Queensland state programs for natural resource management. I think the impact that I'm having now is around high-level advice and programmatic alignment between things that are happening in disparate, almost separate areas where there's a high degree of complementarity and potential duplication or overlap. One of my roles now is to actually find smart ways of trying to bridge those gaps in effort and activity.
The term that's gaining prominence internationally is “human dimensions” of planning and management. As researchers, we’re trying to address the outcomes of decision-making, which is a human dimensions artefact. If we don't address the human dimensions factors underlying decision making, we have little chance of changing either the process or the outcomes.
I did my PhD and post-doctoral fellowship at CSIRO. At that time the metrics were all about impact and delivery rather than publication. And impact is what motivates me; that was my history working outside of academia. But when I got my first academic appointment, I had few publications and I didn't have any grants. I still feel now eight years later that I'm playing catch up for having had such a long break. My industry collaborators like working with me because I've got a great understanding of the context of the work that I do, and my networks are really strong. But if I have to compare myself with other academic researchers, I think my track record still looks weak.
Being a woman in an overwhelmingly male environment presents its challenges. I feel the tide is turning on that, which is long overdue. There's a lot more open recognition of the challenges facing women in these kinds of environments. A couple of years ago I put my hand up to sit on the university-wide Athena SWAN self-assessment team. I felt motivated to change things, even just by being in that network of people thinking about gender equality and how we can fix or stem the leaky pipeline. Just having other people around me who could say, you know, what's happening is not right, we recognise that, and we actually want to do something about it.
That was my first real networking opportunity across the university, and it's lead to a number of really positive things. The Science and Engineering Faculty has a positive culture working party which was established in July last year. I put my hand up to be on that, which has allowed me to engage in positive work culture practices thinking. And we're having impact. It’s made a difference not just to the women but to the whole faculty.
One of my students is now working in Cardiff as a lecturer at a really prestigious university, so I'm really proud of that. To think that myself, first in my family to go to university has actually now trained somebody who's working at a university in another country is something that I do feel quite proud about. I'm sitting on boards and I'm involved in reference panels.
I sit on a working group for the Queensland government, I'm now advising the Great Barrier Reef Foundation through one of their working groups, and I'm involved in a large reef restoration and adaptation project as a member of the core team. It’s nice to get some recognition for what I think is just persistence and attention to collaboration and principles of social justice - trying to get some of those principles into environmental decision-making and environmental policy.
Maybe I am the most proud of being part of a network of people who have been able to gain recognition for the importance of taking social and human dimensions factors into account in both research and environmental decision-making and policy-making systems. I’d really like my legacy to be around more sophisticated understandings of how we go about setting up, monitoring and evaluating a collaborative decision-making system. How do we adapt? How do we make decisions collaboratively in complex settings? How do we get knowledge about how well we're doing in that space and then how do we feed that back into adaptive processes?
Advice to Younger Researchers
Have more self-confidence. That's something I could probably give my 42-year-old self as well. The state school that I went to was at the highest level of socioeconomic disadvantage in Australia, and my high school guidance counsellor told me that I shouldn't go to university.
He said that I should stay home and look after my family. I totally ignored him. I studied at the University of Queensland and I might have been one of only two in my cohort that didn't go to private school. I always felt out of place and my whole career I've felt out of place. But that's okay because that means that I’m probably in the exact right place; I’ve got something different to bring.
Overall, I’d tell myself to be more confident and just rely more on intuition than second guessing. If the KPIs are around capital and grants, should I do that? Or should I keep doing what I think is important around impact and research partnerships?
Advice to New Women in STEM
As Mary Kelly who works here at QUT says, women are becoming a highly sought-after commodity in the STEM fields because universities are in a race to keep and promote women. I'm really hopeful for women coming through that they will have access to things like maternity leave and access to research assistants to keep research going, that this is going to make a difference for those women. So I would encourage women to be researchers. I think women can be great researchers and I think women can lead great research.
I would also encourage women to form good networks with other women because it's important for them and it's important for us in this middle patch of our careers and certainly for those above. It hasn't necessarily been an easy ride. Everyone can offer support to each other in that process: we can offer support to people coming through, but they can offer support to those that are already in the system.