Blurring the Lines: Integrating Science and Policy

Julian Reyes, IGERT NSPIRE Fellow
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UCS | February 20, 2014, 3:09 pm EST
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When I was eleven, I would diligently watch The Weather Channel’s “Tropical Update” and carefully track movements of tropical storms. This segment had a cult following—me. Visiting my relatives one summer, they found it odd that I preferred The Weather Channel over cartoons on a Saturday morning. I excitedly explained the great power and destructive potential of hurricanes when questioned. I jabbered on and on about the lesser-known details of global weather patterns and naming conventions. I didn’t know it then, but I was already practicing how to effectively communicate my scientific interests (in this case, hurricanes) to broader audiences (like my relatives).

I should take a lesson from my younger self. When considering the complexity and specificity of my research, how do I explain my work to broader, non-academic audiences? Simply put: who cares? So what? Graduate programs in the sciences and engineering build PhD students’ depth in a particular subject, often neglecting or under-developing essential breadth of knowledge. Properly nurtured together, interdisciplinary training with effective communication of science will enable future scientists to tackle society’s most pressing problems.

Schematic of the nitrogen cycle. Photo credit: NSPIRE IGERT Program, Washington State University

Schematic of the nitrogen cycle. Photo credit: NSPIRE IGERT Program, Washington State University

Training our future scientists

Interdisciplinary education and research are prime foci in a broad discussion on improving PhD training. Complex problems require integrated solutions that span traditional disciplinary boundaries. The National Science Foundation supports interdisciplinary graduate education through their Integrative Graduate Education and Research Traineeship (IGERT) program.

I am a current student in one such IGERT at Washington State University (WSU) called Nitrogen systems: Policy-oriented Integrated Research and Education (NSPIRE).

NSPIRE students at the American Association for the Advancement of Science in Washington, DC. Photo credit: Julian Reyes.

NSPIRE students at the American Association for the Advancement of Science in Washington, DC. Photo credit: Julian Reyes.

NSPIRE attracts a wide range of graduate students from various science and engineering disciplines who are interested in working at the interface between science and policy, communicating their science effectively, and bridging the gaps between scientists, stakeholders, and decision-makers. Classes feature collaboration from faculty across academic departments to teach nitrogen science through linkages and components of the Earth system. The capstone of the NSPIRE program is a three-month fellowship at a policy-focused institution where students truly engage with decision-makers.

Modeling for stakeholder engagement

I consider myself a computational eco-hydrologist. I am using a process-based eco-hydrologic model that couples water, carbon, and nitrogen cycling to quantify the resilience of rangelands under a variety of management and climate scenarios. While this research has its merits in the academic community, others might not fully realize its importance.

Red Desert rangeland in Wyoming. Photo credit: Wikipedia.

Red Desert rangeland in Wyoming. Photo credit: Wikipedia.

My modeling work is part of a larger Earth systems modeling project called BioEarth. This integrated environmental modeling framework aims to investigate questions related to the management of our natural and agricultural resources. One major component of BioEarth is our stakeholder engagement. We hold workshops related to rangelands, forests, and air quality (among others) and gauge the important issues in these areas and how BioEarth can better address them.

My IGERT training has helped me frame my research in a way that is relevant to our stakeholders. By doing so, I can better learn what land managers and ranchers care about moving forward into the future and use this information in my research to address those concerns.

Putting it all together

I anticipate truly beginning to integrate my IGERT training in both science and policy, as well as my own research, this summer. As part of my policy training, I am working with the National Climate Assessment Indicators Group at the U.S. Global Change Research Program. The aims of the indicator system are to provide information on the both the current status and future trends of a particular system and to better communicate systemic changes to decision-makers and stakeholders. I will spend this summer in Washington, DC examining rangeland health indicators from various government agencies and non-governmental organizations, as well as providing support to the Indicators Group.

NSPIRE students at the U.S. Capitol in Washington, DC. Photo credit: Julian Reyes.

NSPIRE students at the U.S. Capitol in Washington, DC. Photo credit: Julian Reyes.

My IGERT training has helped me to engage fully in our stakeholder-involved modeling research and deepened my understanding of the intricacies of the relationship between science and policy. Not only do I have a better mechanistic understanding of the ecosystem processes occurring, but I also have a robust sense of the critical issues at bay. Soon I will understand how indicators can be used to succinctly communicate changes in environmental systems and which ones are important to my research domain.

My long-term career objective is to ensure accessible science through both effective communication and engagement with decision-makers. It is not only important to work with colleagues across traditional boundaries to solve complex problems, but also to produce decision-relevant output that is translatable and useful for policymakers, stakeholders, or concerned citizens.  I believe it is paramount that research answer fundamental questions about system processes and be both relevant and useful. What good is a paper that is not read or cited? I hope my fellow future scientists continue or start asking: so what? By doing so, both citizens and decision-makers are better informed on how science can help them.

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