March 27, 2014

Citizen scientists: UW students help state legislator with climate policy

News and Information

In a twist on the concept of citizen scientist, University of Washington science students helped the state Legislature with environmental policy.

During the past year and a half, four UW graduate students participated in a working group tasked with creating policies to satisfy the 2008 law requiring Washington state to reduce total greenhouse gas emissions to 1990 levels by 2020.

students at table with papers

Mary Levin / UW Photography

Seth Bushinsky, Emily Newsom, Ashley Maloney and Andrea Fassbender with some of the documents they helped review for the climate legislative process.

While the students didn’t succeed in passing new legislation, they may have found a way to connect budding environmental scientists and state policymakers. The students presented their experience at the recent Ocean Sciences meeting in Honolulu, and are now working on a journal paper.

The partnership took place through the Interdisciplinary Graduate Education and Research Traineeship, or IGERT, Program on Ocean Change, now in its third year at the UW. Group members were Andrea Fassbender, Ashley Maloney and Seth Bushinsky in oceanography, and Emily Newsom in Earth and space sciences.

The collaboration began when Kevin Ranker, D-Orcas Island, contacted Washington Sea Grant to ask about a fellowship that places students with management agencies. That ended up putting him in touch with the UW students, who in 2012 offered to help him with ocean acidification and climate issues.

Soon after, Ranker joined the Climate Legislative and Executive Working Group, which was created in March 2013. The students ended up providing research support throughout that process that ran through the end of the year.

The working group included two Republican legislators, two Democratic legislators, and Washington Gov. Jay Inslee. Students either drove down to Olympia for the eight monthly meetings or watched via teleconference. In between, they responded to Ranker’s requests for information or helped to read and analyze documents prepared by the consulting agency hired to manage the process.

They met with Ranker a couple of times beforehand, attended public forums in Seattle and Olympia, and helped interpret the 50- to 100-page reports prepared by the consulting group.

“There were crazy timescales,” Fassbender said. “Literally, we’d get a call and in two days need to get back to them with supporting information for the next meeting.”

“We struggled ourselves, splitting it up between the four of us,” Maloney said.

The students had imagined providing scientific expertise. But they soon realized those questions were better addressed by the UW Climate Impacts Group, and most of the disagreements weren’t about the science. Instead, they researched cap-and-trade policies, carbon-tax legislation and all the downstream effects.

They provided summaries and questions for Ranker to bring to meetings.

“He was looking for information on the job impact, for assessments of specific policies,” Bushinsky said. “He was comparing the economic advantages to the economic costs.”

While all this was happening, Gov. Inslee signed a climate action plan with leaders of other West Coast states. But the state discussions failed to reach an agreement.

“The arguments were about real things that needed to be addressed,” Newsom said. “We were all pretty impressed with the level of knowledge of the people on the panel.”

In the end, rather than writing a bipartisan report, members of the two political parties each submitted their own documents with policies to meet the emissions targets.

Ranker offered his perspective as a five-year veteran of the state government.

“One of Kevin’s take-home messages was, ‘We didn’t agree on specific policies, but this is one of the steps that needed to happen for the long-term legislative process,’” Bushinsky said.

“Washington is no longer just debating climate change, we’re now discussing what to do about it,” Fassbender said. “That’s a big step.”

Will the experience affect their scientific careers?

“It changed the way I think about how science is used in policy,” Fassbender said. “And I might think about what other little things I could tack onto a research project where it could really benefit the state to have that information.”

While these students will go off to complete their graduate research, both sides say the experience could provide a model for future collaborations.

The IGERT program is supported by the National Science Foundation and the UW College of the Environment.

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For more information, contact Fassbender at 206-526-6208 or afassben@uw.edu or faculty adviser Terrie Klinger at 206-685-2499 or tklinger@uw.edu.

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