February 29, 2012

Brisbane 2011: Living with Floods and Dancing with Dugongs: Part 15- Questions from the Seminar

QUESTION: One of the things we have been noticing through the Healthy Country project is there has been a complete lack of people coming up through the system that have the skills and the capacity actually, more or less, to do what we needed. Your advice that it is necessary for us to make this change to be involved in the engineering or softer engineering, as you suggested. Is there a change in the U.S. in relation to this? Are you finding that more students are coming to Maryland? Because we need to do something here in Australia to get these people not to go into the mines, but rather to stay working in the environment.

Long room customs house

This seminar by Bill Dennison was presented in the long room in the historic customs house in Brisbane, QLD.

BILL: Good point Simon [Warner]. One of the things with the Healthy Waterways program that I was involved with was that some of the people had a little checklist. They had this checklist and they checked off “Thou shall have a communication strategy; Thou shall have various structures”, and they made boxes of those. They never quite got it, because it really is all about the people and the political leadership they instill. It’s about political leadership, scientific leadership; it’s leadership of the community. I think, what you are really asking is, how do we foster that kind of leadership? One of the things that the University of Maryland a center for Environmental Science has done, and I know that Paul [Greenfield] is doing at the University of Queensland as well, is redefining scholarship. Instead of teaching, service and research, we call it discovery, integration, application and teaching. Paul calls integration and application ‘engagement’ at the University of Queensland. The point is scientists can’t just sit and document the decline in excruciating detail. We have to reach out, figure out the solutions. We need better solutions for restoration. We need to use science to do more than just document these declines. So I’m convinced that when you give young people the opportunity they respond and rise to the challenge, and do really fantastic jobs. So, I think it’s a matter of creating opportunities that foster the solution science, rather than the documentation of the declines. It’s a bit of a change because there are different reward systems. So, instead of prolific peer review publications maybe we should measure, also, science communication products like those colorful books or pamphlets or websites or other public engagement that can try and send science into the community. It’s a good question; I don’t think there are any particularly better approaches in the U.S. than in Australia as far as governance strategies. We’re both working on that front.

QUESTION: You did have a focus very briefly on the model of organization of worldwide Seagrass-Watch. I’d like to know what your thoughts are in regards to citizen science, and recognition. One particular movement sort of lost its mojo, and that is Water Watch. So the world of citizen science, has it lost its charisma? And what is its impact from here on?

BILL: I do think that citizen science has a very important role. We use citizen science for the Great Barrier Reef report card and we use Seagrass Watch data. We’re using citizen scientists in Chesapeake Bay, where we have the big report card with fifteen reporting regions, and one hundred and sixty six sites. That is as many sites we can have with the money given to us by the government. In the Chester River, one of the tributaries of the Chesapeake Bay, there is a group of citizen scientists that call themselves the ‘Chester Testers‘. They were using these little chemical kits; then we got money donated to get them dissolved oxygen sensors. We got their nutrients analyzed at a good laboratory and we used the data to fill out the Chester River report card and it gets much more geographic coverage and detail, with on the ground coverage. Eighty to a hundred of these citizen scientists contributed, most of them high school students or retirees. There is a lot of energy nonetheless. So we started piggybacking them, and now we have dozens of the tributaries with citizen science groups. Each group that joined had creative funding solutions; the license plate fund for the scientific analysis, where if you buy a license plate with a blue heron on it, twenty bucks would go to the fund. We’re using a benefactor to supply the catchment coordinator role (we call them Riverkeepers and Waterkeepers). We’re using a philanthropic investment to fund that one salary to coordinate the citizen scientists. So you need coordination, you need to see that quality assurance is brought in. Now were posting a whole swag of regional report cards using this army of citizen scientists. I think that the real solutions come this way because they can start saying, “That creek there has got a problem, and I can see the problem, and that’s Joe Blogs. I know him. His kids go to my kid’s school. I’ll talk to the guy and solve the problem without going to government.” So, I’m really stoked on the idea of using citizen scientists, constrained in doing a good and constructive job, and I am really inspired. Some of you might have seen the guy from Cornell [Steve Kelling] who came over a couple months ago, talking about this eBird project. They have twenty million data points at the end of the year on their website–all volunteers, and their data integration capacity is massive. They’re looking at migration patterns in fantastic detail, with this richness of detail. So, basically, they have moved out of citizen science, and into crowd sourcing, which is a kind of a ‘wiki’ approach. So I think there’s some real optimism we need to grow, because the government isn’t going to be able to have the resources to do that.

QUESTION: Bill, I think we went through a renaissance of the river, but we also went through a renaissance with science in Southeast Queensland, and I see that science waning a little bit in the region, and we’ve moved into focusing on implementation. We’ve already done the science. For me, being in the field and understanding it, there are still these known unknowns and unknown unknowns. The issue for me, I still think is that we need another renaissance of science to understand and to actually go out and solve these problems that we’re seeing now. Is that something that you’ve observed coming back after being away for a while?

BILL: I addressed Simon’s question of attracting the next generation of promising scientists, and I think there is a tendency in environmental movements to do a lot of science, and then step back and focus on implementation. That’s doing science and then implementation in series. I really think there should be a parallel science and implementation effort. You always should have science feed into implementation for a lot of reasons: better restoration; prioritization; monitoring; effective feedback. I remember during the early days of Healthy Waterways. An engineer said “We’re going to build a pipe out a kilometer or more, and you need to tell us what to do.” I responded, “We just got the money so that we can do a study to answer that question.” I said “We’re going to produce a fantastic model and we’re going to get you some answers with drifters, dyes and tracers. We’re going to do it with these indicators; this is going to be fast. Usually it takes 5 years before the science sees the light of day, but we’re going to do it in a year.” They said, “Bill, you don’t understand. I’m going to decide tomorrow. So what do you think I should do?” That’s when I realized that we’re going to do the science as the policy and decisions are made, and we’re going to tic-tac back and forth. I think you’re describing the typical ‘What are we going to do about the Chesapeake Bay?’ ‘How do we fund research?’ What we have is a bunch of researchers doing the science, but it will take dragging them back to applied questions for a change. I think we’ve got a few different ways to keep science being able to feed management and policy. Science can be a very powerful tool throughout every stage.

QUESTION: My observation is that politicians generally like good news, rather than bad news, which ours probably falls in the bad news category. From your experience, can you give us a little guidance as to how we convert that flood event into a good news story.

BILL: I think one thing that Southeast Queensland does better than the U.S. is celebration. You have the festival of the rivers. I was here in Customs House a month ago with the River Rhapsodies, which is music and culture blending with science. It’s fantastic. I think the other thing we do well in Southeast Queensland is the Healthy Waterways awards. It is a wonderful evening of celebrating great practices and exciting stories in places you never have been. So those are really positive things, and they help balance the bad news. You should balance the good news and the bad news. You do need the bitter pills. Some of these areas are bad and getting worse and you need to figure out why. I think what we need to do is consider the messaging as well as the message. It’s like the report cards: We would get phone calls a week before, “How’d I do?” “C-” “What can I do for extra credit?” So they can get the message and then start converting their mind to what that message is going to be. It’s bad, but we’re fixing it. So I think that’s part of it. The other part is to celebrate those small successes in a big way. I think it’s not just all bad news, and one of the things that we had been doing for years in the Chesapeake Bay is that we had one report card for the whole bay, but nobody really owned the bay, they owned creeks and rivers that were a part of the bay – one number for the whole Bay comes out negative, but if you break it into smaller bits there are hopeful signs and places that are doing well. We can celebrate these, we can emulate these, and we can focus on these as well as the negatives. So, we’re getting the balance right, it isn’t just ‘happy talk’. The perfect storm of Hurricane Isabel in 2003 was accompanied by a couple of other events including a book called Chesapeake Bay Blues, which discounted ‘happy talk’ that was going on. They weren’t actually measuring anything. They were being positive and they felt like they were doing a lot, which they were, but not enough to change things. So I think it’s critical to have a balance of good and bad news, and package them together, and communicating that critically and effectively.

This blog post was created from a presentation by Bill Dennison, delivered at the historic Customs House in Brisbane, Australia on 8 July, 2011 (see previous blog posts). The full powerpoint presentation can be accessed on IAN Press.


About the author
Dr Bill Dennison is a Professor of Marine Science and Vice President for Science Applications at the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science (UMCES). Dr Dennison’s primary mission within UMCES is to coordinate the Integration and Application Network.
Website: http://ian.umces.edu/people/Bill_Dennison/
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