UW News

March 11, 2013

Long-term relationships, access to data drive sustainability institutions’ success

College Of The Environment

Turns out, the secret to fostering the emerging field of sustainability science is based on some simple and straightforward principles.

Speaking at a national meeting on a panel of academic leaders who focus on natural resource sustainability, College of the Environment Dean Lisa Graumlich said the college’s successful sustainability initiatives are grounded in long-standing relationships among scientists, local communities and decision-makers as well as widely accessible research data and results.

She was among the directors, deans and department heads exploring the challenges academic institutions face in undertaking sustainability science as part of a panel at the annual conference of the American Association for Advancement of Science.

Lisa Graumlich talks at a podium

Lisa Graumlich, dean of the UW College of the EnvironmentBen Lucas

Sustainability science is about taking what’s being learned about ocean acidification, climate change and other phenomena and helping policy makers and citizens develop strategies to deal with challenges that may arise. It’s scientific knowledge linked with societal action.

Graumlich said the UW’s Climate Impacts Group and the Northwest Association of Networked Ocean Observing Systems, for example, have critical ties with user communities, providing them with tailored information, teaching resources and apps to help people make decisions about issues from daily fishing conditions to climate change adaptation.

She also pointed to the importance of long-running relationships that college researchers, like forest ecologist Jerry Franklin, have with the various communities that bring multiple perspectives to the table when dealing with natural resource issues. “Franklin is known as the father of modern forestry precisely because he continually brings people together, so that they can identify logging practices that will work for them in the long-term,” Graumlich said.

These relationships require both social and financial investment, a critical issue that Graumlich said is often overlooked.

“New institutional arrangements are necessary if we are going to reconcile our development goals with the planet’s environmental limits,” said panelist James Buizer, one of the developers of Arizona State University’s institution-wide effort to increase sustainability science and practice. Because research to address environmental problems is inherently complex, researchers require skills, like mediation and facilitation, for which they are often undertrained.

That message was echoed in the “Careers” section of Nature the week following the AAAS meeting that said, “Sustainability training is on the rise, and institutions are working out how to best translate it into marketable skills.”

The article quotes Julia Parrish, associate dean in the UW College of the Environment, who said, “When we talked to employers, whether they’re top-tier universities, federal labs or large environmental non-government organizations, they said ‘we want disciplinary experts with cross-cutting skills in communication, problem-solving and leadership.”

An example is James Thorson, now with NOAA’s National Marine Fisheries Services. While earning his doctorate in aquatic and fishery sciences at the UW, he also worked on a team advising the Washington Restaurant Association on sustainability guidelines. But his contributions didn’t concern fisheries, they concerned such things as energy-efficient lighting.

That “pushed him out of his area of expertise and into one with varied stakeholders,” the Nature article said. “He learned about everything from environmental auditing to certification programmes to project management.”

“It’s an example of how universities are seeking new institutional models to effectively engage with the grand challenges of sustainability,” Graumlich said.