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Bringing the “Magic” of Collaboration to Science

By Ethan Noel, Masters Student, Wildlife Ecology & Conservation Dept. 

By 2030, the world population will exceed 8.5 billion people. During this time, Florida’s population will have increased by 5 million. Unfortunately, this rapid growth will put tremendous pressure on already dwindling natural resources. With so many people, there are many competing interests about what to do with these resources. In fact, most tensions around the world can be traced to conflicts over natural resources. It is a sobering thought.

Despite all this, Jon Dain is hopeful. Described as “the best facilitator doing conflict mediation,” Mr. Dain came in to discuss his own brand of “mediation magic” at the WEC seminar on November 16th. Mr. Dain is a professional facilitator, trainer, and educator working through the Tropical Conservation & Development Program in the School for Natural Resources and the Environment (SNRE), as well as the Director for the Florida Natural Resources Leadership Institute (NRLI – rhymes with early). His optimistic vision for the future of science and natural resource management emphasizes collaboration.

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A typical NRLI collaborative session.

NRLI is an Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences(IFAS) extension program through the University of Florida designed to encourage sharing and collaboration between people from a variety of fields and backgrounds. Traditionally, extension has not gone beyond education, however NRLI is trying to build a model for bringing people together to facilitate the exchange of ideas and perspectives. NRLI was founded in 1998 in recognition of the need for leaders who can effectively build trust and promote collaboration among competing interests for natural resources. NRLI brings together professionals from sectors that impact or are impacted by natural resource issues to develop the skills required to work toward collaborative solutions.

At its core, NRLI is an innovative training program for natural resource management professionals. This 8-month professional development program aims to hone a variety of key skills including conflict management, collaborative leadership, public engagement, communication, and negotiation. The NRLI program consists of a series of monthly sessions where participants get together for three days in different parts of the state to discuss a . The typical NRLI session takes a 5-pronged approach:

  1. Seeing and experiencing the resource through field trips
  2. Hearing from recognized experts
  3. Meeting with stakeholders with different perspectives
  4. Experiential training in skills, concepts, and strategies
  5. Debriefing with cohorts from diverse sectors
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Field trips are a great way for NRLI participants to see and experience real issues.

In addition to skill development, NRLI is an excellent source of expertise, offering training, advising, mediation, and access to an ever-expanding network of rising and established leaders in the natural resource community. Over 255 fellows from 95 organizations have taken part in NRLI, including professionals from the federal, state, and local governments, NGOs, community organizations, academia, and extension. According to Mr. Dain, the secret is providing a really intense experience to people that do not normally interact, but that have an impact on the same resource. He believes it is important for natural resource professionals to experience interacting with people that are using the natural resources or that have different views on how to use those resources. The end goal of this intense, interactive experience is to encourage people with conflicting viewpoints to see each other as people and not just adversaries.

NRLI is currently recruiting for next year’s Class XVI. Because NRLI is currently aimed at working professionals, there are not many opportunities for students. However, Mr. Dain encourages students to start learning to become good scientists and to develop collaborative skills now. Mr. Dain offers two graduate level courses aimed at developing these skills: LAS 6291 Conflict and Collaboration Management and LAS 6291 Facilitation Skills for Collaborative Management.