Don’t Hate, Integrate!Brendan Campbell ·
By: Brendan Campbell
Do you remember that feeling of receiving a bad report card and knowing that you'd have to show the report to your parents? If you are anything like me, that feeling is all too familiar. Now imagine if your backyard was going to receive the same type of report card based on its ecological health (instead of how well it remembers the quadratic equation or the process of cell division). Would your backyard "pass"? This week's topic of discussion in our Environment and Society class was integrated assessment. More specifically, we discussed how environmental report cards can be used to integrate various metrics and create one, easy-to-understand statement regarding the natural and social health of an area.
This week we had the opportunity to talk with Heath Kelsey, the Program Director at the Integration and Application Network at the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science. Heath led the class through a discussion of the development and evolution of the report card process by talking about several published report cards, including the Moreton Bay, Chesapeake Bay, Mississippi River, and Orinoco River report cards. With each respective report card, new challenges were faced and refinements to the process were considered and applied. Respectively, each of these report cards had to consider larger spatial and temporal scales, where resources internally were used differently.1
To make the report cards more adaptable to a wide variety of environments, it is imperative that report card grades are assigned to each region based on the health and functionality of the ecosystem within the context of the particular region. To quantitatively measure the health of the system, report cards use indicators. Indicators are signs or signals that relay complex messages in numerical form.2 Specific indicators should be place-based and chosen depending on the structure and function of an environment in order to make the most accurate and meaningful assessment. This methodology allowed for assessments of larger systems such as the Mississippi River and Orinoco River, where these bodies of water span several states or countries.
As the popularity of report cards grows, there are plans to evolve report cards to include more social and cultural data, in addition to environmental data.3 Including social parameters in report cards is a way to connect natural systems with human systems and allows for more thorough and meaningful integrated assessment. Over the years, report cards have also adapted to changes in technology, methodology, and funding so that a report card in one area can be compared over time to show improvements or degradation in the surveyed region.
One of the key messages I took away from this lecture was that being honest and transparent about any uncertainty in data or elsewhere is crucial. Not every assessment is perfect, and it is important to be open about any gaps in the data or problems within the system. Honesty and transparency build trust within the community and leave spaces for improvements on future assessments. Another takeaway was just seeing how different stakeholders, as well as researchers from different backgrounds, were willing to come together to help make these assessments. This level of collaboration, where you have various teams working in unison towards a common goal, is a pretty powerful concept. No stone is left unturned and, at the end of the day, the assessments reflect this integration and become important collections of research.
As I conclude, I want to challenge everyone to think of ways that these integrated assessments can be used in your own work. One of the interesting parts of this class is the diversity in all of the students' and professors' backgrounds, so I am curious to see how these reports can be used among different scientific communities. One part of these assessments that are of interest to me is how environmental factors change over a spatial region and how those changes impact shellfish population and determine how suitable those areas are for aquaculture or restoration.
In summary, I also wanted to post some of the questions that were brought up in class, along with the responses or general conclusions that were made during our discussions.
Questions and answers from class:
How can you compare indicators that have intersecting dimensions?
It is not always a problem necessarily, but it is important to understand how indicators intersect when making an assessment
How do you approach using indicators that are strongly correlated with each other?
When two indicators have strong correlations, they create redundancy and often only one of the indicators are necessary. A combination of similar indicators is not optimal for an assessment.
How are report cards used to advance and improve the management of natural resources?
For example, one of the report cards resulted in a conference which had the goal of developing an action report that was then presented to congress. Another idea was to potentially use report card results alongside a system dynamics model to develop improvement scenarios based on different management practices and intensities.
What is the process behind integrating multiple report cards to summarize a large region?
Using a bottom-up approach has shown to work for places such as the Gulf of Mexico report card where, as funding comes in, it is possible to look at multiple small areas over time and then gradually expand the study region until enough work has been done to create a large-scale report.
Who uses the report cards?
Maryland's former governor Martin O'Malley used report card data in developing the BayStat website to monitor the environmental status of the Chesapeake Bay. Report card data was also used by the U.S. Corp of Engineers in their status report of the Florida Everglades. Another example of report card use is NOAA's use of report card data in their work on coral reef monitoring systems.
1. Carruthers, T., Carter, S., Lookingbill, T., Florkowski, L., Hawkey, J., & Dennison, W. (2012). A Habitat-Based Framework for Communicating Natural Resource Condition. International Scholarly Research Network: Ecology, 384892. https://doi.org/10.5402/2012/384892
2. Longstaff, B., Carruthers, T., Dennison, W., Lookingbill, T., Hawkey, J., Thomas, J., Wicks, E., & Woerner, J. (2010). Integrating and Applying Science: A Practical Handbook for Effective Coastal Ecosystem Assessment. IAN Press, Cambridge Maryland.
3. Pascoe, S., Tobin, R., Cannard, T., Marshall, N., Kabir, Z., & Flint, N. (2016). Developing a Social, Cultural and Economic Report Card for a Regional Industrial Harbor. Plos One. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0148271