My approach to work is shaped by where I live—across the street from an ill kept New Orleans cemetery. Outside my front door I see plants sprouting over crooked gravestones. It’s a contradictory but grounding view, one that shows how beginnings and endings feed each other and create something new in the process.

Local geography drives the point home. There are spurs of relatively high ground in New Orleans, ridges a few feet above sea level where the old city flourished, and where homes stayed dry after Hurricane Katrina. Mississippi River floods built these ridges, laying down successive layers of sediment centuries ago. Floods creating dry land? Paradoxical but true.

Facts like these have altered the way I think about innovation, reminding me that sometimes the best way to make progress is to remember how things all began.

For essays on subjects close to home, see www.amyclippwriting.com.

Thursday, February 21, 2013

Street Cred in Science and Policy Partnerships: Talking with the Smith Fellows

Science in action, applied research. What’s not to like? We need to take better care of our environment, and scientists can tell us how to do it. It sounds so easy. Except, as we know, it’s not. The results of science/policy collaborations can be powerful. But they can can also go wrong for both parties:  scientists’ work misused or ignored, and public servants stuck waiting for data or insights that don’t arrive until after deadlines have passed.

One problem centers on credibility. Everyone involved has a lot of it to lose. If scientists get too close to the policy sausage making, they lose their status as independent advisors. Public servants take risks too. If they publicly commit to a technically informed course of action and the foundational science isn’t complete or can’t be explained, public servants have public egg all over their public faces.

The risks and rewards of these collaborations being great, I was interested when the Smith Fellows Program asked me to speak at their recent meeting in New Orleans. The program, which offers a two year program for post-docs in conservation biology, uses the tagline, “science in action.” According to the Program Director, Shonda Gilliland, the program is designed to help fellows embrace their responsibility as advocates for the environment in the policy realm. What guidance do they give their fellows about maintaining independence while following this path?

Shonda told me about the mentors they provided each fellow, along with connections to staffers on Capitol Hill. She described the work of fellows who had linked scientific inquiry with legal analysis, creating the basis for targeted environmental action. Results and credibility:  it sounded like the fellows were finding ways to hit the sweet spot.

During my remarks to the fellows, I talked about the science/policy partnerships involved in my work on the State of Louisiana's 2012 Coastal Master Plan. I discussed how we structured the participation of partners and found ways to share interim technical results. The plan wasn’t perfect, I said, but it was a good step forward. The fellows nodded, understanding the long game I was talking about.

But cred comes in all flavors, as we were soon to find out. The next speaker was an employee of a local environmental NGO. He led off his remarks by commenting on what he viewed as my overly charitable view of the state; jibes about my work on the master plan followed. But if the style of his comments was obnoxious, the substance was fair game. His role was to highlight what hadn’t been done, what still needed attention. Those ideas were an essential part of the conversation.

Interesting that what made my work credible—getting into the mix and bringing different groups together—was at odds with the NGO rep’s source of credibility. For him, legitimacy involved standing apart and pointing out how far we still had to go. And the Smith Fellows? I hope they were left with a real world taste of the complexities involved.