Bay Journal

Bay’s restoration needs all the sciences, including social ones

  • By Scientific and Technical Advisory Committee (STAC) on May 01, 2011
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A kayaker ponders the beauty of Little Blackwater River.  (Dave Harp )

For centuries, humans have been an important part of the Chesapeake Bay ecosystem. We have benefited from the Bay's abundant natural resources and have also shaped the estuary's biology and ecology - whether directly through harvesting or indirectly as a consequence of population growth, agriculture and development across the watershed. So today, the Bay is a complex integration of human and ecological dynamics that can only be understood and managed using a broad range of research approaches. For these reasons, there is a growing recognition that we need more social science research to complement our historical strength in natural science research.

Policy makers and program managers in the Bay restoration fields increasingly understand that human behavior is a key component affecting efforts to restore the Chesapeake. But how do we better understand human behaviors and then incorporate that knowledge into environmental policies and programs?

This is exactly what social scientists, such as anthropologists, sociologists, psychologists, some economists, geographers and others put into practice every day. Their work and expertise is an untapped resource of knowledge that, if integrated into restoration and management efforts, could help lead to a healthy Bay and a more engaged citizenry.

In March, a group of social scientists, with the support of the Chesapeake Bay Program's Scientific and Technical Advisory Committee, took an important step to strengthen the ability of the social sciences in supporting Chesapeake Bay restoration goals. They organized a one-day workshop in Annapolis that illustrated the potential contributions that the social sciences - anthropology, economics, sociology, psychology, geography, etc. - could make to the Bay effort.

The workshop provided almost 60 participants, which included Chesapeake Bay Program managers, representatives of nongovernmental and governmental agencies and other interested scientists, with the opportunity to learn from a variety of social science experts. Each of the speakers provided concrete examples of how their social science research directly affected human behavior and the environment. Attendees heard from:

 

  • An anthropologist who showed how a deep knowledge of a culture and the values of its people can open doors for conversations on environmental activities;
  • An economist who shared approaches for a better understanding of the ways that people place a fiscal value on natural resources such as wetlands or forests, and how their decisions on the use of these resources are based on those values;
  • A psychologist who discussed the cognitive and emotional factors that affect how individuals respond to environmental change;
  • A sociologist who presented information on measures of community vulnerability to environmental disruptions; and
  • A geographer who highlighted his research in coastal New England in which he collaborated with area fisherman, establishing "communities at sea." From their coming together in the North Atlantic, these same fishermen began to take more ownership of their work and community and ultimately created a fisherman's co-op in their town.

 

All of the speakers offered examples, supported by years of research, for ways that their fields of expertise have impacted environmental issues and human behavior.

The program concluded with a number of leaders in Bay restoration efforts summarizing key themes, challenges and opportunities that emerged from presentations and discussions.

So what are the challenges of using more social science expertise in our effort to restore the Bay? What did we learn from this workshop?

First, we learned that many Bay leaders have an interest in and recognition of the social sciences as avenues of research that could benefit and even advance restoration and management efforts.

While the professional Bay community still faces the challenge of exactly how to integrate the social sciences into existing work in natural science, it is important to remember that the level of interest in doing so is new and was not even present only a few years ago.

A second challenge is that this workshop presented only the tip of the iceberg in terms of the range of social science disciplines that are available to Bay restoration managers and professionals. Therefore, the next task leaders face is exploring the variety of research available and understanding how it all fits into policy and restoration decision-making.

The Bay Program's Scientific and Technical Advisory Committee hopes that an important next step is to create organizational and program opportunities for tapping this social science expertise.

The final challenge is that of human behavior itself, which is perhaps even more complex than the Bay ecosystem. Until now, what our culture has seemed to value in terms of helping the Bay is the science-based understanding of the ecosystem.

Those involved in the work of saving the Bay know that doing so means engaging the region's 17 million people in the effort. The calls from Bay groups for people to "get involved" or alter their lives to help the Bay are numerous.

So the challenge is for Bay leaders and others to begin to truly value what the social sciences could offer in terms of helping to understand and affect human behavior change. If leaders, managers and research institutions provided both increased intellectual and financial support for social science research throughout the watershed, perhaps we would see clearer ways to affect real change in the way people live, work - and affect the Bay.

The social science workshop was a first in the almost three-decade history of the Chesapeake Bay Program. Organizers and participants alike recognize it as part of our beginning efforts to integrate social sciences into Bay restoration work.

More discussions and engagement by individuals, many of whom were present at the workshop, will be needed to flesh out how different social science approaches can help us make better policy and program decisions for restoring and sustaining the Bay.

The Chesapeake Bay is a socio-ecological system where the environment and people meet and interact daily. The impact we humans have now and in the future is becoming an increasingly important driver of that ecosystem's health.

In the future, a responsive and integrated social/natural science approach to Bay restoration will be even more important if we are to restore the Chesapeake.

A full report on the workshop will soon be available at STAC's website: www.chesapeake.org/stac.

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About Scientific and Technical Advisory Committee (STAC)

The Scientific and Technical Advisory Committee (STAC) provides scientific and technical guidance to the Chesapeake Bay Program on measures to restore and protect the Chesapeake Bay.

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