Bringing diversity to decision-making: Profile of Dr Natalie Jones

My research combines my love for the natural world and fascination with human diversity. I describe myself as an applied social scientist interested in human–environment interactions. As a kid, my weekends were typically spent outdoors, often exploring bushland around our family home south of Brisbane. This was my happy place where I felt alive, free and full of wonder.

Unfortunately, as an eight-year-old I experienced the strong emotion of what it feels like when a place that is special to you is lost or destroyed, particularly a natural place. I remember setting out on our adventure one morning only to find our world had come crashing down, literally. A large swathe of bushland had been flattened. The big, beautiful eucalypts, and everything in between, had been knocked over and pushed into huge bundles that separated the remaining bush and the new clearing – a divide which my eight-year-old self struggled to reconcile. “Why on Earth would someone do such a thing?” I remember how shocked I felt at how quickly things can change: one week a woodland brimming with life, the next cut to the ground.

In the months that followed, more and more areas were cleared to make way for a new housing estate. The bush bike tracks  that once carried my brother and me further from home and closer to nature had become smooth bitumen roads. The tall native grasses that brushed our legs with early morning dew were replaced with orderly lawns. Our temporary cubbies were now three-bedroom brick veneers, and the strong, proud eucalypts that were at the heart of our magical place were pushed into the background.

A profound early lesson

Over the years, I watched families move into the new development and the community thrive. I now realise that was my first lesson in what it means to make trade-offs in environmental management. Decisions that determine how the environment is used and managed typically lead to both benefits and losses. This experience of witnessing the power of humans to transform landscapes so  rapidly, and observing how these changes affect people and nature had a profound impact in shaping my research interests in environmental management.

Another significant influence was the time I spent travelling overseas in my early 20s. As soon as I finished high school, I was itching to leave suburbia and explore the wider world. I saved enough money for a round-the-world plane ticket and enough cash to explore Asia for a few months, before travelling to London to take up a working holiday visa. Visiting countries spanning three continents, I became fascinated by the similarities and differences in the way people live and give meaning to their world. “Same, same but different” was a phrase I heard early on in my travels, and pretty much summed up my interpretation of the cultures I encountered as a young 20-something.

On returning to Australia, I continued to feed this curiosity by studying a Bachelor of Arts (double major in Anthropology) at The University of Queensland. This course taught me both the value of finding common ground in our shared human experience, as well as the importance and beauty of engaging with diversity.

Places of wonder

I was fortunate during my undergraduate years to get the opportunity join a research team doing archaeological fieldwork with Traditional Owners in northern Queensland to locate and document rock art. We camped in the bush, stayed on a cattle station and visited a fishing shack only accessible by boat. Our aim was to rediscover rock art that had been lost over the years. This was truly one of the most memorable times of my life. The people I met and the places we went were just incredible.

I then went on to enrol in a Master of Applied Anthropology and Participatory Development degree at the Australian National University (ANU), where I gained the “know-how” to apply anthropological concepts and modes of inquiry to solve real-world problems. This led to a sixmonth stint volunteering for an NGO on the Tibetan Plateau, working with nomadic yak-herding communities on livelihood and environmental issues – another experience I am hugely grateful for.

My first research position was at the ANU immediately following my trip to Tibet. I worked with an international team of multi-disciplinary researchers from CIRAD (the French Agricultural Research Centre for International Development) and other research institutions to advance knowledge and practice of participatory modelling, focusing on an approach known as Companion Modelling. This approach combines computer simulation with roleplaying games in a participatory research setting. It is used to establish common ground among diverse stakeholders and support them in engaging in collective decision-making by exploring similarities  and differences in knowledge and understanding. Through this work I gained a deep appreciation for the importance of bringing diverse voices to the decision-making table and creating a space for constructive dialogue; a space for trade-offs to be negotiated and new knowledge created.

Purpose in challenging times

This research led me to undertake a PhD at UQ on mental models which represent people’s cognitive understanding of how an environmental system works. My interest in cognitive constructs continued through my postdoctoral research, where I studied values which represent what is important and meaningful to people, and are also highly influential in environmental decision-making. This research focused on identifying the diverse ways in which people value waterways in south-east Queensland, including both freshwater and marine ecosystems.

Most recently, my research has turned towards exploring social dimensions of agriculture, particularly the drivers, barriers and opportunities for transitioning towards more environmentally and socially sustainable food production systems. Ensuring global food security presents one of humanity’s greatest challenges. The stakes are high for both people and the environment, and the trade-offs are highly complex and uncertain. As I think about my career moving forward, it is important that my research has an applied purpose and contributes to navigating our way through the climate crisis, particularly in reversing trends that are having devastating effects on our planet, including biodiversity loss and unsustainable land use. Finding solutions to these issues, and future food security more broadly, will depend on interdisciplinary approaches and crosssector collaborations. This is the space where I find myself full of wonder today.


Teaser image: Photo by Robert Cobcroft

Image above: Small farms deliver a range of social and ecological benefits. Corn is an important cash crop for improving rural livelihoods in Laos. Photo by Natalie Jones

Project members

Dr Natalie Jones

School of Agriculture and Food Sustainability/School of the Environment