Outcomes from 2013 Puget Sound Workshop on Role of Science in Ecosystem Recovery

Presenter: Dr. Joel Baker, Port of Tacoma Chair in Environmental Science, University of Washington Tacoma, Science Director of the Center for Urban Waters in Tacoma.  Research interests include contaminants, aerosol chemistry, contaminant transport in estuaries, modeling, food webs, and water quality.

Dr. Joel Baker discussed the outcomes from the 2013 Puget Sound Science Enterprise Workshop on the role of science in ecosystem recovery, but before he started his presentation, he threw out a couple of thoughts and ideas about ecosystem restoration programs.

The first question I would put to you is recognizing there’s this dynamic tension between those who think we know what the problems are and what the solutions are and it’s just a matter of effort – so do we really know what it takes and we’re just not doing enough of it? That’s one camp,” said Dr. Baker. “The other camp is, we have no idea how to fix the problem, so we need to do the research, we need to do adaptive management, and we need to figure this out. At least in Puget Sound and the other systems I’ve worked in, there’s always that tension. There’s oftentimes, ‘We don’t need to study this. We just need to fix it,’ versus the, ‘We don’t quite know which of these problems is most important.’ That’s something to think about.

The other question I would throw out is, are we really trying to fix ecosystems or are we trying to fix institutions and people because the ecosystem could be degraded?” continued Dr. Baker. “I’ve been fortunate in my career to work in three of these large ecosystems. I started in the Great Lakes quite a while ago when Lake Erie had a phosphorus problem; now, apparently Lake Erie has a phosphorus problem. Not much has changed there. Then I spent 20 years working in the Chesapeake Bay system, so I was glad to see that we’ve recovered the striped bass in the Chesapeake. For the last seven or eight years, I’ve been working in the Puget Sound system, so I have a big of perspective on how these ecosystems work.

Dr. Joel Baker

A few years ago when they were working through planning with the Puget Sound Partnership, they brought together the science directors of large aquatic ecosystems for a workshop. Dr. Baker said that although the ecosystems are radically different, the similarities and approaches are remarkably the same. “There’s a lot of commonality among the people in this room, and I think it’s fantastic that organizations get people from different ecosystems together to talk about this, because there’s certainly more that binds us together than separates us,” said Dr. Baker.

Seven years ago, the University of Washington Puget Sound Institute was created from a cooperative agreement with the EPA. This came about because Dr. Baker recognized that in the 25+ years he has been working in large ecosystems, he recognized that the interface between science and policy doesn’t just happen organically. “You have to have a very deliberate structure to make sure that this kind of interaction happens,” he said.

The core mission of the Puget Sound Institute is to support targeted research, to address the uncertainties, but more importantly, to synthesize and integrate research findings into policy-relevant guidance. “I think most ecosystems probably have far more science laying around in reports, databases, theses, dissertations and in published papers that hasn’t been pulled together than you’d care to admit, so we spend a lot of time not doing new research, but just digging up old reports and trying to make some sense of them,” he said. “Then we spend a lot of time in communication.”

The goals of the workshop were to cross calibrate among large aquatic ecosystem science programs; to discover and discuss what’s working and what’s not across systems with an eye towards best practices; to explore how much science is needed to adequately support ecosystem restoration and protection, and to build a peer network of large aquatic ecosystem program science leaders. “We were largely trying to not make the same stupid mistakes that each ecosystem was going around and around,” Dr. Baker said.

Dr. Baker acknowledged that they ‘dropped the ball’ on building a peer network. “I think it would be fantastic if we established a peer network of the scientists and the science program leaders in the large ecosystems that get together every year or so, have a beer, kabbitz about what’s going on, and have these kinds of conversations,” he said. “Some sort of enduring structure would be nice coming out of this.”

The topics in the workshop were very similar to the topics here at the Science Enterprise Workshop: How do we set the priorities in the face of uncertainty? How do we use adaptive management or how do we make management adaptive? What’s the most effective institutional structure for recovery? How should social sciences advance recovery? How do we effectively communicate science to decision makers? The workshop participants were other systems that were part of EPA’s Large Aquatic Ecosystem Program: The Chesapeake Bay Program, The Great Lakes, The Gulf of Mexico Program, The Long Island Sound Study, The South Florida Geographic Initiative, The Lake Champlain Basin Program, The Puget Sound – Georgia Basin, The Columbia River Basin, The San Francisco Bay Delta Estuary, and The Pacific Islands Program Office.

Dr. Baker than discussed his interpretation of the findings from the workshop.

Target setting is common to all systems, but the number of targets varies widely. There are two extremes: A few (or one) ’influential’ targets, or a portfolio of diverse targets.

All systems have goals, targets, and benchmarks, although they might be called different things, said Dr. Baker. “There’s always this sense of, ‘We need to find a few things and work towards them,’” he said. “One of the interesting things that came out is this dichotomy or different strategies. Do you have one or two goals and really laser focus in on that? When I was working in the Chesapeake, it was just nitrogen, nitrogen, nitrogen. If you could fix the nitrogen problem, everything else would just take care of itself.

On the Louisiana coast, they went through the exercise of generating a lot of different goals. “I think they had a fairly nice handful of goals, and it became difficult to communicate,” Dr. Baker said. “It seemed pretty complicated. We need to prioritize our goals. Finally, through some modeling work, they were able to show, if we recover land or at best, keep the land from eroding away, a lot of this other stuff is going to come along for that ride. In terms of communicating, let’s just talk about, let’s not lose land or let’s solve the erosion problem and that covers a lot of other things.”

Dr. Baker said noted that there are advantages of having a narrow set of targets, but the downside is that you can give the perception that you are leaving some people behind; some people may not want to participate because their issue isn’t included in the selected targets.

The flip side is to have a diverse portfolio of targets, such as they do in the Puget Sound where they have identified 25 Vital Signs that cover water quality, habitat, species and food web, as well as human well-being and quality of life. There is a downside to that, Dr. Baker said. “Then the policy makers come look at it and say, ‘Which one of these should we work on?’ You say, ‘Well kind of all of them.’ They don’t like that answer,” he said. “We spent a fair bit of time talking about target setting, and I was impressed looking across the ecosystems, how variable the result was to the approach of target setting.”

Models are indispensable recovery tools, but the extent of development and degree of utility and acceptance varies widely across systems.

Another common theme that came out was that models, broadly defined, are really indispensable recovery tools. “If you have the models, it provides you with a way to contextualize the information that you’re gathering, identify data gaps, and all the things that you know about,” said Dr. Baker. “It’s a great way to communicate causal relationships between stressors and responses.”

One of the advantages of modeling that came out of the workshop came from the program manager of the Chesapeake program. “He made the point that models for him as a program manager were really valuable as a programmatic tool,” he said. “It allowed him to evaluate and communicate when new science information would be needed and when it would be ingested by this big machine. You could say, ‘I have a graduate student that really wants to work in this one process.’ He could say, ‘Well, we ran the model, and that process might be interesting to you, but it doesn’t look like it has much impact, so we can down-weight that.’ Or, ‘Wow. Our model is real sensitive of that, so it’s an important piece to get to.’

Updating the model in the Chesapeake, they said, also helped them programmatically think about staging different science aspects. They might say that this year, they were going to work on fixing hydrology; and next year, it will be the food web. So you’ve kind of keyed up when different parts of the program could then spin up,” said Dr. Baker.

Adaptive management is widely accepted in principle, commonly used in specific restoration projects, but rarely (never) effective at the ecosystem scale and perceived as slow and expensive.

Adaptive management is commonly used at the project scale, but it hasn’t happened at the ecosystem scale, or the big-scale projects. “We like to draw this circulative diagram where we act and monitor and all that kind of stuff,” Dr. Baker said. “It’s a good description of what you would like to do, but no one has really ever actually done one, so I’ll leave that as a challenge to you for your discussion.”

Large potential for social sciences, but it has been neglected to date. Social sciences are not a silver bullet, but can offer critical, valuable insight. In addition, social sciences are at least as diverse as natural sciences, and should be involved early on in the science enterprise development. Building the “human capital” or functional relationships between natural and social scientists takes time and investment.

Social science has been neglected to date. “I was fortunate in the Puget Sound program,” Dr. Baker said. “I had an excellent social scientist walk into my office one day and say, “Can I work for you? I have National Science Foundation (NSF) funding. I’m completely supporting. Can I work for you? I’m a social scientist.” My answer was, ‘Yes.’ She’s now on faculty at Oregon State. She brought to us this really rich understanding of what social sciences can do for you as an ecosystem restoration program.”

Social sciences can help you market and change hearts and minds, Dr. Baker said. “Once the natural sciences figure out how to fix the problem, the social scientist can help you convince people that the natural sciences have figured out the problem; that’s one way to view social sciences in restoration,” he said, noting that it’s not the best way to think of social scientists and you can really tick them off if you do that.

First of all, social scientists are not a monolithic group of people any more than natural scientists are a monolithic group of people, Dr. Baker said. “When we say social sciences, it’s everything from sociology, political science, economics – it’s a very broad swath of stuff, so a lot of diversity there to think about,” he said. “Social sciences are not outreach. Another way to tick them off is to say, “Oh, you run an outreach program. You’re a social scientist.’”

What do social scientists really do? Social scientists study us. They study institutions. They study how people work together as organizations, as individuals,” Dr. Baker said. “All of the organizational charts that were shown today, those would drive institutional analysis folks nuts… Institutional analysis and social scientists can look at how your organization is built and tell you whether it’s optimal to what you’re trying to do. We hardly ever do this in restoration forums, so something for you to think about that came out of our workshop. I was thinking social scientists were going to help us market our great ideas. They’re actually much smarter than that and you should involve the social scientists early on in the process.”

Effectively communicating science to policy and decision makers often results from trusted science ‘champions’ engaged with influential elected.

Broadly, enterprises must balance between conducting further research to address uncertainty, or taking action. Within the policy realm, enterprises must clearly communicate to politicians how there is enough information to move forward, how uncertainties will be addressed, and acknowledge the slow pace of ecosystem response.

One of the things that came out of our workshop and is often we ask the question, ‘When does this really work well? When do you feel like there’s a great communication path between the science community and the elected officials or politicians?” said Dr. Baker. “It’s almost always because of individual people. Either a scientist or two that are super good communicators, or a legislator who’s either trained as a scientist or not turned off by science to begin with and is willing to make that connection, so it’s really a person-to-person, or small group-to-small group interaction where it works well. It’s hard to build that into your system, but you should recognize it and encourage it when it happens.”

Dr. Baker said that they spent a lot of time discussing managing the expectations. “This problem of, how do you communicate uncertainty – the science community needs to be able to say to the policy makers, ‘You have enough information to act on, but we need to learn from it. We’re going to do an experiment,’” he said. “Never say to a politician you’re going to be doing an experiment with their money. We know exactly what we’re doing. Learning while doing is a tough concept for politicians to deal with.”

Then there is the issue of the pace of ecosystem response. “We have to be able to communicate that we want you to do a heavy-lift politically and make it an action,” Dr. Baker said. “It’s going to take a decade to see a change in the environment. This is another tough message for communicating policy.”

Final thoughts …

The different systems have different origins, structures, histories, cultures, but despite that, the commonalities among the restoration programs far exceed these differences, so we should really embrace that and take advantage of it,” said Dr. Baker. “In fact, almost a demand. We’re not going to get this right unless we really, seriously engage social sciences in a smart way, so hopefully when we have this meeting a few years from now, when we raise hands, half the people in this room will be social scientists.

Dr. Baker acknowledged that it’s not necessarily easy. “You need to walk into the social science departments and start talking them about this stuff, and it turns out, they’re not that good at it, either,” he said. “It’s a long slog to build social sciences who are smart about participating in ecosystem restoration projects, so that’s a bit of an infrastructure, human capital thing to work on.”

The final thing I’ll leave you with is to think about the programs that are successful, they have long-term continuity in people, programs, and approaches at the ecosystem scale that are really important to the success of programs,” he said. “Earlier we saw photographs of people who have been working in Louisiana for decades. That is such a valuable resource. We need to find ways to encourage that. They are usually underappreciated and therefore under-resourced. Keeping monitoring in programs – playing the long game here is really a challenge.”


Question: How did you use the information you got from this workshop going forward with the Puget Sound program?

Dr. Baker: It helped us inform how we were structuring some of the programs that were evolving within the Puget Sound Partnership. Since the agency was growing up at the same time, we were able, based on what came out of the workshop, to encourage the creation of the social science work group, so it’s hardwired within the Puget Sound Partnership as a thing. We got them in the tent, but the social scientists are all down there in their own little work group and they meet and talk about their stuff, so we’re not quite there yet. That’s one example of it. I would say that we didn’t make a lot of progress on figuring out how big your program should be or what the best organization structure is, which is what you’re wrestling with here. We had a good conversation, but I can’t say that it really actually changed our program, because it was pretty much already started.

Question: I was surprised that there was no mention of these social ecological systems as being complex. When do we start talking about these things as being complex systems as opposed to complicated systems? This still looks like we’re trying to model and study our way out of the problem.

Dr. Baker: That’s a really good point, because we do confuse complicated with complex. Part of that is communication, because I think that policy makers understand complexity, because they deal with things that are far more complex than ecosystems. There’s this tension between needing to boil it down to something fairly simple, versus embracing the complexity that it is… The best way I’ve seen this handled are where you capture all of the fine detail and you really do get down in the weeds and you build super-complex models that cover everything, but you got to do that to get it right. Then you build a front end that looks really simple for the policy makers. I’m not quite sure I’m ready to go to coloring the lakes red, green, and yellow. I don’t know if I’m there yet.

The front-end of the model can have a very simple output. That doesn’t mean you have a simple model or a simple description of the system, but it does mean that you vary that complexity so you don’t turn off the people you’re trying to talk to, but I think we all know that the complexity of the system is what makes the system what it is. I’m afraid we have too much of an engineering approach of deconstructing everything down to individual pieces and figuring those out, and then hoping we can put it back together again, which has failed. It failed medical science. It’ll fail ecosystems sciences as well.

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