[This blog post was originally written for the Early Career Climate Forum and posted in December 2012.]
How do you get 80 land managers, conservationists, tribal representatives and researchers from various backgrounds and most diverse areas to an agreement? Or should you?
Well, let’s find out …
The South Central Climate Science Center (SC-CSC), funded by the Department of the Interior in early 2012, deals with the diverse part of the south-central United States and Mexico, stretching from the coastal wetlands along the gulf coast of Texas, Louisiana and Mississippi to the agricultural lands of the Southern Great Plains to the deserts of New Mexico and northern Mexico.
So when it came to nailing down research priorities for the upcoming USGS proposal solicitation in January 2013, the challenge was finding common ground amongst this – quite literally – wide range of research areas. For this reason, at the end of November the SC-CSC held a two-day climate science workshop in Fort Worth, Texas, to bring together those various areas of expertise. The 80 or so participants spanned not only research areas like economics, social sciences, meteorology and ecology but also state and federal land management and conservation organizations as well as representing two tribal nations in Oklahoma. These participants were organized into three major discussion groups, depending on their areas of interest: regional physical climate variability and trends, ecosystems and landscapes, and human dimensions.
“We felt it was important to initially introduce people by discipline and identify common ground that way”, says Aparna Bamzai, Technical Coordinator at the SC-CSC main office at the University of Oklahoma (OU) in Norman, Oklahoma, and principle organizer of the event. Before the workshop, many of the participants may have known each other through research publications, but probably had not actually met each other.
Dr. Paul Risser, an internationally renowned ecologist at OU, and Dr. Keith Owens, Professor and Head of the Department of Natural Resource Ecology and Management, moderated the “ecosystems and landscapes” breakout session on both days. The job of the two moderators, however, started long before the actual workshop, with many phone calls to be made and emails to be exchanged. “My role was to identify and recruit members for the session who would lead the discussion on specified topics”, Dr. Risser explains, “and to prepare introductory material for the session.” During the sessions, his job was to “keep the discussion on track and moving along at the right pace.” The goal, he points out, was to identify high-priority research studies. That also meant his diverse group had to develop a common language and methodology and find common ground in terms of temporal and spatial scales to work with.
In a final wrap-up, the moderators presented the results from each of their sessions and discussed some of the steps forward for the near future. By December 20th, about three weeks after the workshop ended, a written summary of the group results will be submitted to the workshop participants for review. The finalized written summary will be available to the public in early 2013.
So what’s next?
The role of the SC-CSC, says Dr. Renee McPherson, Director of Research at the SC-CSC, is to provide a forum for scientists to promote and discuss their research. “Ideally,” Aparna Bamzai explains, “we would track collaborations initiated during the workshop and help these teams develop and submit proposals both to the DOI/CSC [Dept. of the Interior / Climate Science Center] initiative and external requests for proposals.” In the future, Ms. Bamzai adds, these so-called breakout sessions could be organized by research focus. Then, a session on drought could attract an inter-disciplinary audience. And this may result in both visible and invisible progress such as more interconnection between different fields of research and more interdisciplinary research proposals. “We feel”, Ms. Bamzai says, “that these types of proposals will be more successful and as a result draw more research dollars to the region.”
“The goal is not research consensus”, Dr. McPherson sums up, “although that could be a possible result years from now continues.” “What we do encourage”, she continues, “is high-quality research, including projects that may illuminate differing opinions and methods.”
* Toni Klemm is a German Ph.D. student in geography at the University of Oklahoma, and works at the South Central Science Center. At the climate science workshop in Fort Worth, which this article is about, he served as a note-taker in the “landscapes and ecosystems” discussion group.