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Solving Eco-challenges With Today's Data

A new academic center at the University of Maryland promises to take undervalued research and synthesize it into answers for pressing environmental challenges.
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New academic centers usually bring the promise of spanking-new research, but a new entity at the University of Maryland promises to take undervalued existing research and synthesize it into answers for pressing environmental challenges.

The Socio-Environmental Synthesis Center, headed by entomologist Margaret Palmer, will focus entirely on the processing and better utilization of existing information.

The center's goal is to fill gaps between scholarship and public policy, and between environmental science and social science.

As Palmer explained to Miller-McCune, "The idea is that there is a huge amount of information already out there: a lot of data that has never been used, interesting theories and ideas, computer models that have not been adequately synthesized. If those were mined and brought together in novel ways, there are an awful lot of questions we could answer much more quickly than if we said, 'Oh, we have to spend 10 years collecting data.'" (The same sort of realization underlay the founding of Miller-McCune itself.)

Palmer and David Hawthorne, the director of education, are both professors of entomology at the University of Maryland. Palmer's recent work has included studying biophysical aspects of stream and river restoration science; she made a splash last year with an appearance on The Colbert Report to discuss the dangers of mountaintop-removal coal mining.

Her new venture won't be based in the obvious locations: the university's home of College Park or Washington, D.C. Rather, it's by the Chesapeake Bay in the state capital of Annapolis and will include many more voices in addition to faculty from the University of Maryland, among them environmental economists from Resources for the Future,  a Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit research organization. Major areas of the center are dedicated to "cyberinfrastructure" (referring to tools for the computation and visualization of data), and social science and policy.

The center's affiliated environmental scientists and social scientists, as well as engineers, economists, landscape designers and others, will receive funds, office space and support from the entity. Their collaboration is expected to not only produce better answers drawing on more knowledge from more fields but also from a broader perspective.

"There is a fundamental mismatch between the specialization required for research excellence and the integrated nature of today's global challenges," Palmer explained at the announcement of the center.

The National Science Foundation has put in a strong endorsement for the center's goals and methods, setting it up with a $27.5-million, five-year grant.

Another principle driving the center is to sit down at the outset with regulators, natural-resource managers, congressional committee members and NGO leaders to together determine the priorities or even the questions to ask, "instead of scientists just doing what they think is interesting."

This sort of approach, what Palmer refers to as "demand-driven science," may be what is needed for scientific work to have a real impact on the world. Currently, she said, "a great deal of the science is either not available in a form that gets to policymakers and regulators who can actually make a difference in how things are done on the ground, or it's not what they need."

As an example, Palmer described a project in which stakeholders such as anglers, commercial fishermen and regulators examined policies that could sustainably maintain a king mackerel fishery off the Atlantic coast.

The project was able to create a computer model that could take a policy option - Shorten the fishing season? Set a catch limit? - and forecast its effects on fish populations. Ultimately, the stakeholders themselves chose to recommend restricting their fishing even more than what had been sought by a government body.

The emphasis for future projects will be on answering questions that can lead to change. Some possibilities: How do you influence farmers to change their practices? What are the governance structures in developed and developing countries that deal with agricultural practices? Do particular kinds of structures lead to fewer environmental impacts?

As Hawthorne said, "In order to solve problems, it requires more than knowing the science. ... Science by itself has not been as effective as you'd think it would be because people have other things that are important to them. So, we're hoping that by bringing the social science into the discussion, we can come up with some different ways of solving some of these problems that may be more effective in the long run."

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