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SESYNC
The National Socio-Environmental Synthesis Center (SESYNC) brings together the science of the natural world with the science of human behavior and decision-making to find solutions to complex environmental problems. We convene science teams to work on broad issues of national and international relevance, such as water resources management, land management, agriculture, species protection, among other areas of study. By supporting interdisciplinary science teams and researchers with diverse skills, data, and perspectives, SESYNC seeks to lead in-depth research and scholarship that will inform decisions and accelerate scientific discovery. SESYNC is funded by an award to the University of Maryland from the National Science Foundation. Learn more about SESYNC.

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Conservation Trade-offs: A Conversation with SESYNC Scholars

September 3, 2013

MPA

by MELISSA ANDREYCHEK
Communications Coordinator

What are the unintended consequences of closing off large marine areas to fishing? Is a fish saved a forest lost?

Dr. Ray Hilborn, a former member of SESYNC’s External Advisory Board and a Professor of Aquatic & Fishery Sciences at the University of Washington, has argued that marine protected areas (MPAs) have far-reaching consequences beyond their prescribed conservation objectives. In a recent opinion piece published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America (PNAS), Dr. Hilborn wrote that “… marine conservation has never considered the costs associated with food production when evaluating closing large portions of the ocean to fishing.” But a closer look at an MPA that restricts local fishing activities may in fact lead to increased fish imports from aquaculture and capture fisheries, or to an increased reliance on land-based food production, which may open new lands to cultivation, and/or give rise to intensified land exploitation.

I recently sat down with two of SESYNC’s funded scientists—Dr. Taylor Ricketts, Director of the Gund Institute for Ecological Economics at the University of Vermont and a Senior Fellow at the World Wildlife Fund (WWF), and Dr. Brendan Fisher, Conservation Scientist at WWF and Fellow at the Gund Institute—for responses to Dr. Hilborn’s PNAS article. Below are excerpts from that conversation.

Melissa: Thank you, gentlemen, for your time and for talking with me about Ray’s piece. Can we start with some initial reactions—what does it mean that conservation actions should be considered globally rather than in isolation? What does it mean for centers such as SESYNC?

Dr. Ricketts: One thing that we really agree with Ray on is that the implications of any conservation action are global, not just local—that basic point is really beyond dispute. This makes the world more complicated for a conservationist, and it makes the need for centers like SESYNC even more important: to analyze the complicated relationships between an ecological system that’s being changed by things like MPAs and the social and economic systems that flow from such governance efforts.

Dr. Fisher: And I want to agree with a more subtle point of Ray’s article in that the linkages between terrestrial and marine systems in relation to food security aren’t often thought of. As a globe, our populations are becoming more coastal—and coastal populations, especially in the developing world, rely on a suite of strategies to meet their needs. So, linking fisheries activities with impacts on agriculture and vice versa is really important.

Dr. Ricketts: One reason it’s easy to agree with the article is that the basic issue isn’t particularly new or unique to fisheries. There’s a pretty widely-used word for what Ray’s talking about, and that’s “leakage.” It’s the idea that if you stop some activity in one place, it will “leak” to someplace else. The classic example is that China has banned forestry on much of its land. Now, that’s heralded as a big conservation success, but you can also trace upticks in Malaysian logging and logging in many other places around the world as a consequence of that ban in China. The carbon world and carbon market is very interested in the concept of leakage. If you reduce deforestation to prevent emissions of carbon and greenhouse gasses in one place, will logging just increase somewhere else?

Melissa: Excellent points. Did anything within Ray’s article give you pause?

Dr. Ricketts: There’s another common concept here that Ray doesn’t highlight, and that’s “spillover.” A lot of work has asked whether MPAs actually have local benefits. Ray’s article assumes that if you prevent fishing in an area, then that local community is “out” of fish. But there’s a lot of work that shows that an MPA actually increases the fish biomass and the yield around it. Fishermen learn very quickly to fish the boundary of an MPA, where they can actually get more fish because they spill over from the off-limits, productive MPA region. So it’s not a complete loss to fishermen. It may not be an immediate effect, but that benefit builds up over time—and in some cases, communities may not have to go elsewhere for their fish, because spillover is such that you’re getting as much locally.

In that respect, I think there are some factors that make the situation a little less worrying than the article suggests. In addition, for example, less than two percent of the world’s oceans are under MPA protection. So while we do need to think about the points Ray’s article addresses, it’s also difficult to argue that enormous amounts of fisheries are being lost to MPAs globally, because the global impacts to fisheries are marginal. Do you agree with that, Brendan?

Dr. Fisher: Yes, absolutely. I’ll just pick up on Taylor’s time component—there might be local costs immediately, but perhaps local and global benefits later.

Ray’s article also makes a subtle point about distribution aspects and how actions taken by developed countries such as the United States and Australia impact less developed countries such as Indonesia and Peru. I would say that it’s really important, considering the incredibly complex and linked challenges that the world is facing at a global scale, that we think about distribution—especially in terms of the poorest countries that are the most vulnerable to environmental change. So we’ve got population pressure, food insecurity, climate change, ocean acidification: all of these things will differentially impact certain vulnerable populations in parts of the world that really just couldn’t stand any additional stressors.

But what we’re talking about here, and why Ray talks about the cost of conservation victories—this falls under what we often consider net cost or net benefit. And in social cost-benefit analysis in economics, it’s all about that “net.” So if we’re going to talk about the negative impacts of MPAs on some fishing populations and global food insecurity, we need to also talk about the positive impacts of MPAs—not just for fisheries but for multiple objectives, including biodiversity, resilience for the future, etc. We definitely need to look at both sides of the coin, and we need to be inclusive about all of those things.

In terms of SESYNC, I think SESYNC’s basic foundation is uniquely set up for that framework, in that we’re talking about socio-economic syntheses of environmental challenges. So immediately, SESYNC was set up to think about impacts that are outside of exclusively ecological, social, or economic influences, but the whole suite of things. So again, we think about the term “net” in those cases.

Melissa: The article obviously prompts further discussion. But Ray only had 800 words to lay out his argument. So what’s the next important point to be made? If you were writing a formal response to Ray’s article, what would you want your 800 words to say?

Dr. Ricketts: I like Brendan’s framework of this social cost-benefit analysis, both locally and globally. I think you have to do a really good job of netting out all of the good things that an MPA does, and all the bad things that an MPA does locally. And then you have to do a really good job of netting out all of the good things that an MPA does, and all the bad things that an MPA does globally. That’s exactly what Brendan was just talking about—it’s not just about fish supply, but it’s also about biodiversity and tourism and other forms of livelihood.

It’s kind of the full-blown version of what Ray is calling for, which is a spatially comprehensive evaluation. The full version would also be comprehensive across all benefits and costs. I think that would be a very interesting thing to do, and it’s a very SESYNC thing to do, as well.

Dr. Fisher: I would say that the frontier is even bigger than the conversation about the net benefits of MPAs, picking up on the connectedness between the terrestrial and the marine. So for me, the next point is thinking about how the benefits and costs of MPAs link to changes on the land. Global food security is really going to be this dance between how we manage our forests, how we manage our farmland, how we manage our grasslands, and how we manage our marine resources. In some areas, we might think that protection of a marine resource is important for a whole bunch of social benefits including biodiversity or resilience of coral reefs, which might impinge on some terrestrial system. So we just need to be transparent about all of those costs and benefits.

This kind of relates to the SESYNC project that Taylor and I lead: we’re trying to understand globally how conditions on the land or in the sea affect human health, and they’re going to be different for different parts of the world. Hopefully, what we’ll be able to do is to think about, at least regionally, statistical models that show that a change in forest cover or governance of a forest impacts health and social benefits. And then once we get there, thinking about how those changes ripple across space and time—linking back to our earlier points—“what are the leakage and spillover effects of those changes?”

Melissa: Thank you both! It’s been great talking with you, and I’ll be looking forward to seeing some of the results from your SESYNC project on the linkages between environment and human health.

The preceding is the first in a two-part conversation facilitated between leading scholars affiliated with the National Socio-Environmental Synthesis Center (SESYNC). To read part two, click here.

Photo: Point Dume, an MPA in California
Credit: Ana Luisa Ahern, Creative Commons

Teaching Socio-Environmental Synthesis with Case Studies

August 19, 2013

by CYNTHIA WEI
Assistant Director, Education and Outreach

Question:

What are the topics, concepts, and competencies associated with teaching socio-environmental synthesis (SES)?

Answer:

By glancing at this word cloud generated by participants of Teaching Socio-Environmental Synthesis with Case Studies, the short course recently hosted at the National Socio-Environmental Synthesis Center (SESYNC), it is clear that SES involves a broad suite of topics, concepts, and competencies. However, the words above—though they hint at the complexity of SES—still do not capture the essence of what it means to teach SES, as it is more than just a collection of topics, concepts, and competencies. Rather, it is a problem-solving approach, and the key to learning about SES lies in the examples—in the details of the profound socio-environmental problems that SES addresses.

Stories are keys to student learning. Teaching is most effective when students are engaged, and a compelling way to draw students in is to relate the lesson to something students care about and are interested in. This is the basis of the case study method of teaching, a high-impact, active-learning pedagogy. Given the problem-based focus of SES, this approach is a good fit for teaching SES. Thus, a course that introduces participants to this teaching approach and helps them build SES-focused case study activities of their own serves as a good place to start our short course offerings.

The short course, held at SESYNC on July 23–26, 2013, drew 41 participants from across the country, and one participant from across the Atlantic. Participants included professors, graduate students, and postdocs from a variety of disciplines in the natural and social sciences, all with varying degrees of familiarity with SES. Each participant, whether as part of a team or as an individual, came to the course prepared to write their own SES case study. Following an introductory day focused on addressing the question of “what does it mean to teach socio-environmental synthesis,” participants then focused on the question of how to teach SES and were introduced to case study teaching by Dr. Clyde Herreid, Director of the National Center for Case Study Teaching in Science, who expertly guided them through a series of exercises designed to help them develop their own cases.

Participants quickly discovered—as SESYNC postdocs Dr. Judy Che-Castaldo and Dr. William Burnside and I discovered earlier when writing two SES cases of our own for this course—that writing a SES case study for use in a classroom can be very challenging given the complexity of socio-environmental problems. However, participants also discovered the appeal of teaching SES with the case study method. Not only is it an active and engaging way to teach, but it is also a flexible approach that lends itself well to modification for different courses. Of the many types of case study activities, several are particularly appropriate for teaching the collaborative and interdisciplinary competencies critical for SES. For example, for a case that Dr. Che-Castaldo, Dr. Burnside, and I wrote on endangered species recovery, students work collaboratively in small groups to prioritize conservation efforts for a small number of endangered species based on several data sets. When this exercise is used with students from different majors, it also becomes an exercise in interdisciplinary collaboration.

Over the 3 1/2 day course, a steady buzz of conversation filled the common area of SESYNC as participants dove into writing their cases. Once completed, this collection of SES-related case studies teaching activities will be made available online for others to use either in their own classrooms or as templates for developing their own activities.

The course ended as it began—with words from the participants. This time, a response to how they were feeling at the end of the course: “motivated,” “inspired,” “overwhelmed,” “informed,” “encouraged,” and “pumped!” If I were to add a word, it would be “grateful”—for the opportunity to meet this insightful and dedicated group of scientists and educators.

Examining the Ecology & Sociology Behind the Urban Mosquito

August 12, 2013

Sophie Jin
Sophie gives a tour of the lab she worked in this summer.

by SOPHIE JIN
SESYNC Intern

“Hey kid! Do you like science?”

“No!”

Right after he replied, the boy returned to tending his bean plant along his window still. A few moments later, he pointed to our caddies full of bottles of filthy water, turkey basters, and siphons, asking us to explain what we were up to.

As a SESYNC intern, I am spending my summer with Dr. Leisnham’s lab at the University of Maryland College Park, helping a project studying urban mosquito vectors and their social and ecological factors.

Baltimore holds a diverse population of people, with neighborhoods that sit on both ends of the spectrum in terms of income and education. Low-income neighborhoods are marked by trash and dilapidated buildings. They often host unkempt containers and tires, which collect standing water: ideal conditions for mosquito larvae. High-income neighborhoods display fountains, fish ponds, and empty trash cans turned over and tucked away. Through social and ecological research methods, the project hopes to better understand how the different environmental and social structures of Baltimore’s neighborhoods contribute to its mosquito population.

Mosquitoes may only be a nuisance to many Baltimore residents. But as the city acts as an international hub, it risks introduction to new and foreign diseases. Epidemics such as Malaria, Dengue fever, and West Nile virus show the importance of keeping mosquitoes under control as they are excellent vectors for disease, making mosquitoes a significant human health concern.

The research project requires extensive field work in the Baltimore community surveying residents, trapping mosquitoes, and collecting water from potential breeding areas. Some days we may carry large white cylindrical mosquito traps and coolers of smoking dry ice (which releases CO2, a mosquito attractant). Other days we may carry caddies while siphoning water samples of mosquito larvae into bottles. We certainly present a curious sight and naturally, people ask questions.

Communicating our work in the neighborhoods of Baltimore resulted in varying responses, from an appreciative “Thank you for your work” to a dismissive door shut. Amidst the mixed reactions, it is uplifting to see community members, such as the boy who claims to “dislike” science, show interest in what we are doing and hopefully learn that there is more to the urban mosquito than an itchy bump.


Trash collects in an alley in Union Park, Baltimore. Trash and tires can hold water and host mosquito larvae.

Reference:

LaDeau SL, Leisnham PT, Biehler D, Bodner D. Higher Mosquito Production in Low-Income Neighborhoods of Baltimore and Washington, DC: Understanding Ecological Drivers and Mosquito-Borne Disease Risk in Temperate Cities. International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health. 2013; 10(4):1505–1526.

About this blog:

The National Socio-Environmental Synthesis Center (SESYNC)’s Internship Program provides undergraduate students with opportunities to deepen their understanding of socio-environmental issues. Interns spend the majority of their time working with mentors at their offices or labs on research projects, and participate in weekly Internship Program events, including field trips and seminars. These events include trips to SESYNC facilities in Annapolis, where interns are introduced to the socio-environmental synthesis research approach.

Above, we highlight the summer research experience of one of our interns, Sophie Jin.

SESYNC Word on the Street: Epistemology

August 9, 2013

Earlier this year, Alan Alda—an award-winning film and television star, as well as a founder and visiting professor of journalism at the Stony Brook University Center for Communicating Science—told participants at a workshop hosted at Cornell University to ease up on the jargon when communicating science to the public. Scientists sometimes take specialized terminology, core to the research that they do, for granted. While the use of such “trade language” can make communication between issue specialists more efficient, it can make communication with audiences outside of those niches—including scientists in other specializations—less clear and less productive.

We wanted to pull back the veil from some scientific terms that we use at the National Socio-Environmental Synthesis Center (SESYNC). So today, we took to the streets to see how many people know what “epistemology” means.

Watch the video below:

Word on the Street archive:
Wicked Problem

Workshop Application

Workshops are single meetings of up to 30 participants that focus on a broad topic or a set of related topics. Workshops may summarize and/or synthesize the state of the topic and/or identify future directions that have the potential to lead to a larger synthesis effort. We are particularly interested in Workshops that bring together new combinations of individuals and disciplines.

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