ESA’s 95th Annual Meeting Kicks off in Pittsburgh

Last night the Ecological Society of America’s 95th Annual Meeting was off to a rousing start as an audience of over 500 applauded Mayor John Fetterman of Braddock, Pennsylvania, this year’s winner of ESA’s Regional Policy Award.  The award recognizes a regional policymaker who uses ecological science to help inform policy decisions.  Since 2005, Mayor Fetterman has used innovative approaches—including encouraging green technology—to turn Braddock around, a town that is a mere shadow of what it was during the heyday of the steel industry.  In his acceptance remarks, Fetterman noted that climate change shouldn’t be a political issue but that unfortunately when a divisive figure like Al Gore becomes a spokesperson for the issue, that automatically “turns off” half the population.  Fetterman said that it’s hard to hear the message when the messenger is someone who is someone you may not like.  Fetterman has been advocating for alternative energy sources, such as wind power, which would also be a natural fit for Braddock, as a former steel mill town.  Fetterman described the ESA award as a great honor and also said that he really believes that “environmental justice is social justice.” Directly following the award presentation, panelists of the Opening Plenary explored the topic of environmental disasters and risk perception.  David Dzombak (Carnegie Mellon) reviewed the response of the Environmental Protection Agency to contaminated sediment sampling after Hurricane Katrina, David Lodge (Notre Dame) highlighted the story of invasions in the Great Lakes, culminating in the recent advances of Asian Carp, Robert Twilley (Louisiana State University) spoke of the long history of “hardening the landscape” along the Gulf Coast, especially in reaction to crises, and Baruch Fischoff (Carnegie Mellon) gave his perspective as an expert in risk  perception and its effects on decisions affecting environmental and other big issues society faces.  ESA Vice President for Public Affairs Laura Huenneke (Northern Arizona University) moderated.  Panelists noted that the “reactive crisis mode” is the worst time for people to devise long-term, thoughtful, collaborative plans.  Panelists Twilley and Lodge pointed out that other interests (such as navigation or flood control) can sometimes help advance another cause such as restoration.  Fischoff reminded the audience that people have trouble integrating information that is non-intuitive or non-linear but that “running the numbers” and explaining what they mean can help clarify such issues.  Dzombak described the various  “publics” that often have very diverse interests and come at an issue with their different perspectives and that each setting is colored by its own political dynamic. Once the audience participated in the discussion, the discourse very quickly shifted to engaging in policy.  Advice from panelists included: “Be persistent and consistent,”...

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Nonlinear risk and the limitations of democracy: Academic cross-training as a partial remedy

This post contributed by ESA Science Policy Analyst Piper Corp. It isn’t surprising that climate legislation is stalling in Congress. In tough economic times, an emissions cap—like any other major investment—is a tough sell at best, requiring US households and industry to swallow added costs in the short-term for projected savings down the road. What’s more, the current symptoms of rising temperatures don’t reflect the magnitude of changes to come. Like many other contemporary challenges, climate change is nonlinear—policymakers have to draw from scientific models, not current observations, when making decisions. But climate-related struggles in Congress suggest a larger dilemma: Can our legal system adequately address nonlinear processes? Legislative priorities reflect the concerns of constituents—concerns dominated by the most immediate demands. When time and funds are short, the squeaky wheel almost always gets the oil, and ecological risks are often comparatively silent until they reach a tipping point. Once we experience the magnitude of change necessary to elicit widespread public response, much of that change may be irreversible. According to scientist James Lovelock, best known for proposing the Gaia Theory, democracy is not cut out for addressing climate change. In a recent interview, Lovelock said: We need a more authoritative world. We’ve become a sort of cheeky, egalitarian world where everyone can have their say. It’s all very well, but there are certain circumstances – a war is a typical example – where you can’t do that. You’ve got to have a few people with authority who you trust who are running it. And they should be very accountable too, of course. But it can’t happen in a modern democracy. This is one of the problems. What’s the alternative to democracy? There isn’t one. But even the best democracies agree that when a major war approaches, democracy must be put on hold for the time being. I have a feeling that climate change may be an issue as severe as a war. It may be necessary to put democracy on hold for a while. Obviously, this is an unlikely scenario. So what do we do? As in previous discussions of science and policy, it seems that taking a successful integrative approach doesn’t just mean listening to both science and other parts of society; it means rethinking the ways we design experiments and approach policymaking. Integration, in other words, must happen from the get-go—a somewhat lofty requirement to be sure. In environmental policy, most scientists don’t fully understand the political implications of their work, just as most lawmakers don’t fully understand the science behind their decisions. Rather, individuals from both groups research the issue on their own, consulting experts as...

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Scientists visit Capitol Hill to talk about funding for research, education

This post contributed by Nadine Lymn, ESA Director of Public Affairs. BESC CoFARM participants on Capitol Hill It may not seem as satisfying to talk about as an environmental issue, but talking to policymakers about federal investment in science is an important task.  That’s what over twenty ecologists, field biologists, agronomists, animal scientists, and resource economists did last week.  In town for an event sponsored by the Biological Ecological Sciences Coalition (BESC) and the Coalition on Funding Agricultural Research Missions (CoFARM) these scientists from around the country visited over 50 congressional offices, from New York State to Hawaii, to highlight the paybacks from the nation’s investment in science, and in particular, the biological and agricultural sciences.  Highlighting the two agencies that fund the bulk of this research–the National Science Foundation (NSF) and the US Department of Agriculture’s Agriculture and Food Research Initiative (AFRI)–participants pointed to the state and national benefits derived from this publically-funded research.  For example: o Field station data recorded at Hawk Mountain Sanctuary showed the relationship between the decline and recovery of bald eagles and the use of organochlorines. o Data from the Sevilleta field station near Albuquerque helped scientists forecast the spread of Hantavirus and West Nile virus.  o University of Minnesota scientists discovered a bacteria “battery” that produces electric current when attached to a conductive surface. This discovery is being applied to efficiently convert wastewater compounds into electricity.  o  Researchers identified the genes that regulate temperature tolerance in wheat in order to identify frost-susceptible varieties. This has enabled breeders to develop hardier winter wheat, which is vital in light of growing pressure to increase global food production.  Overall, research funded by NSF and USDA AFRI advances understanding and helps the nation develop solutions to some of its biggest challenges, such as invasive species, emerging infectious diseases, habitat loss, water availability and quality, food security, environmental degradation, and climate change.     The budgets of both NSF’s biology directorate (BIO) and USDA’s AFRI have been essentially flat over the last 10 years, when adjusted for inflation (excluding boosts from the 2009 economic stimulus package).  NSF BIO provides 68 percent of federal grant support for fundamental biological research at US universities and nonprofit research centers, while AFRI’s extramural grants fund research in plant health, food safety, renewable energy, and agricultural economics.  For fiscal year 2011, NSF is requesting $7.4 billion while AFRI hopes for a significant boost that would put its funding at $429 million.  During their meetings last week, the scientists expressed their hope that Congress would do its best to meet these budget goals.  Dr. Knute Nadelhoffer (right), an ecologist at the University of Michigan, meets with Rep. Bart Stupak (D-MI).  Before the scientists hit the Hill they...

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Pondering the authority of science

This post contributed by Piper Corp, ESA Science Policy Analyst Who says we have to listen to scientists? When President Obama vowed in his inaugural address to “restore science to its rightful place,” where exactly was he talking about? The thou-shalts and self-evident truths on which Americans base so many decisions have little to say about consulting sound science. Still, though science rarely plays a significant role in US policies, it garners a tremendous amount of respect. John Marburger, who served as Science Advisor to the President during the George W. Bush Administration, focused on this question of scientific authority during part of his keynote speech at a recent DC workshop on usable science. Riffing on sociologist Max Weber’s three classes of authority (rational [legal], traditional [moral], and charismatic), Marburger suggested that scientific authority, having “no intrinsic authoritative value,” is fundamentally charismatic. According to Weber, charisma is: a certain quality of an individual personality, by virtue of which he is set apart from ordinary men and treated as endowed with supernatural, superhuman, or at least specifically exceptional powers or qualities. These are such as are not accessible to the ordinary person, but are regarded as of divine origin or as exemplary, and on the basis of them the individual concerned is treated as a leader. Indeed, science achieves a level of objectivity and reliability far beyond that of everyday reasoning. It carries with it the promise of a methodical and repeatable process and, as such, integrity. The result, though, is that in public culture, science is primarily a pathway to facts. Scientific expertise, in other words, has been reduced to the results section. But is the scientific process entirely devoid of values and subjectivity? Not at all. While we’ve come to define rigorous science by the mechanisms used to ensure impartiality – peer review, quantitative and statistical analyses— even the most punctilious researcher must make decisions based on values: what to study, how to study it, how to talk about it. Who has the authority to make these decisions? The intuitive answer is, of course, the scientist, and when the goal of research is to advance knowledge within a particular field, there is no one more apt for the task. But a great deal of research—including basic research—seeks to build knowledge that is useful to society. And this is where scientific expertise reaches its limits: usable science is as dependent on the user as it is on the scientist. So what exactly is usable science? At first glance, it suggests a shift in focus from questions to answers, making many dismiss it as applied research, simply rebranded. But as the...

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ESA Policy News: March 26

Here are some highlights from the latest Policy News.  See the full edition here.   AIR POLLUTION: CARPER PLANS FOR APRIL MARK-UP OF 3-POLLUTANT BILL–Senator Tom Carper (D-DE) said this week that he expects a mid-April markup of legislation to curb power plant pollution in the full Environment and Public Works (EPW) Committee. Carper, who chairs the Clean Air Subcommittee, and Lamar Alexander (R-TN) unveiled a bill (S. 2995) last month that seeks steep cuts in electric utilities’ emissions. The measure aims to cut power plants’ soot-forming sulfur dioxide (SO2) by 80 percent by 2018, smog-forming nitrogen dioxide (NOx) by 50 percent by 2015 and mercury by 90 percent by 2015. Several Republicans on the EPW Committee signaled last month that while they support the goals of the bill, they had concerns about some of the details.  EPW Committee ranking member James Inhofe (R-OK) said last month that the bill imposes fairly strict emissions reductions over a short time frame, while Sen. George Voinovich (R-OH) cautioned that the reductions would require fuel switching and significant increases in electric rates. Carper has said he would like to add his three-pollutant measure to comprehensive climate and energy legislation pending in the Senate, but he and Alexander stressed the importance of moving forward independently on a multi-pollutant bill. INVASIVE SPECIES: SUPREME COURT AGAIN REJECTS INJUNCTION IN ASIAN CARP CASE–The Supreme Court has for the second time denied a request to temporarily close Chicago-area waterways as the justices weigh whether to wade into the interstate lawsuit over invasive Asian carp. Michigan’s request, submitted in February 2010 after new test results detected Asian carp in Lake Michigan for the first time, was a last-ditch effort to force the closure of the locks after the Obama administration declined to take that action. In an Asian carp response framework released last month, the administration pledged to spend $78.5 million to prevent the fish from entering the Great Lakes but did not commit to lock closures, which have been fiercely opposed by Illinois’ shipping industry. Supporters of the lock closures say the structures would provide the most effective additional protection against the short-term spread of Asian Carp, which could threaten the fishing and recreation industries in the Great Lakes if they manage to establish a permanent population. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is studying short-term options for the Chicago-area waterways and will determine by April 30 whether it will close the locks on a specific timetable or not close them at all. WATER: GEORIGA TRIES TO SWAY CONGRESS IN TRI-STATE WATER STRIFE–As Georgia wages a legal war against Florida and Alabama over its access to a...

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