UW News

October 28, 2016

Interdisciplinary inspiration: Special journal edition honors multitalented UW alum, NOAA economist

UW News

Interdisciplinary research isn’t easy. Uniting physical, biological and social scientists to solve difficult ecosystem and environmental problems can be messy.

Mark Plummer

Mark PlummerNOAA

Mark Plummer, a former economist at NOAA’s Northwest Fisheries Science Center and a University of Washington economics graduate who died in 2014, exemplified the traits of a skilled interdisciplinarian. As a tribute to his life and career, Plummer’s former colleagues and collaborators — including several UW researchers and many alums — have contributed articles published this week in a special edition of the environmental science journal Coastal Management.

“Mark Plummer challenged conventional wisdom and sought practical solutions appropriate to the realities of our ever-changing world and diverse stakeholder values,” said Phil Levin, a professor of practice at the UW and lead scientist at The Nature Conservancy who worked for years with Plummer at the fisheries agency. “He is an example of an interdisciplinary person — a translator and the glue who can connect people from different disciplines.”

Levin served as co-editor and contributed to several articles in the special edition, including two on the importance of interdisciplinary work, particularly in academics where subject-matter silos still exist. Levin argues that “while our disciplinary homes may provide us with a sense of place, the fences that separate us are an artifact of the past that must be breached.”

The special issue’s other co-editor is Leif Anderson, Plummer’s former colleague at the Northwest Fisheries Science Center.

All of the articles in the special edition spawned from Plummer’s existing projects or were inspired by his research and influence.

“The theme issue is a reflection of Mark Plummer’s remarkable career,” said Patrick Christie, editor-in-chief of Coastal Management and a UW professor of marine and environmental affairs.

“He worked to improve our understanding of marine and coastal policies, with a particular eye for how the integration of social sciences could improve science and policy. The papers, written by individuals inspired by Mark and his life’s work, cover topics and methods that represent Mark’s vision.”

Mark Plummer, 1975

Mark Plummer, 1975NOAA

Plummer’s expertise was on the integration of economics and other social sciences into natural resource management, but he is also recognized for his interdisciplinary research, including in the areas of fisheries management, conservation, ecosystem services and social-ecological systems.

“Mark Plummer was really a vanguard for social sciences in Puget Sound. He pushed for space in thinking about socioeconomics as an important contribution for restoration,” said Melissa Poe, an environmental anthropologist at the UW-based Washington Sea Grant and a contributor to the journal. “This special edition is a really instrumental focus on what integrated social-ecological science can look like.”

Poe is the lead author on an article that examines connections between sense of place and human well-being in the context of shellfish harvesting in Puget Sound. Through analysis and interviews of tribal and nontribal shellfish harvesters, the researchers found that for Washingtonians who started digging for clams and oysters as children, the activity became a significant part of their identity as adults.

Similarly, other types of shoreline-based activities like beach-walking and kayaking helped forge strong place attachments among residents, the researchers found. People who were tied to a place were also more likely to support restoration and stewardship activities.

These findings helped inform the Puget Sound Partnership’s recently updated vital signs, or targets, for human well-being. Plummer, who served on the agency’s social science advisory committee, provided critical insight and constructive feedback on this sense of place research, Poe said.

“This is a topic that resonates with people,” she said. “We can find lots of gloomy, difficult conservation failures. Sense of place orients us to where people’s direct engagement with the environment has motivated them to steward the ecosystem and healthy communities.”

Each of the special edition’s 12 articles originated from a symposium last year in which Plummer’s colleagues presented their research that was inspired by or in collaboration with the economist. Other articles look at the benefits of green infrastructure on coastal areas, capturing energy from the ocean’s motion and income diversity of West Coast fishermen, to list a few.

Sara Breslow with the UW’s Center for Creative Conservation is another university co-author, and many alums across disciplines — fisheries, economics, psychology, biology and marine affairs — are contributing authors.