Institute of the Environment 2017

New Book Blazes the Way for Collaborative Science

Friday, April 15, 2016

by Paulina Jenney, Institute of the Environment

The Cerro Grande wildfire ripped through Los Alamos, New Mexico, in May 2000, destroying more than 400 houses and other buildings in a disaster that underscored the need to better incorporate wind and drought conditions into seasonal fire planning.

At the time, the fire fueled ongoing efforts by University of Arizona climatologist Gregg Garfin and a team of other researchers to incorporate climate science into resource management policy. Their efforts sparked the publication of the first national fire potential outlook just three years later.

This and other case studies are included in the new book, Climate in Context: Science and Society Partnering for Adaptation, which explains techniques for accelerating the handoff of cutting-edge research and discovery by scientists to stakeholders and policymakers who need to act quickly and efficiently. 

“Traditionally, it takes 10 to 20 years for information published in peer-reviewed scientific journals to be adopted for use by society,” Garfin said. “The time it takes for the information to finds its audience and be translated into usable and practical planning is time spent using science and management methods that may be long since obsolete.”

Garfin, deputy director for science translation and outreach at the UA’s Institute of the Environment, and Adam Parris, executive director of the Science and Resilience Institute at Jamaica Bay, led a team of three other co-editors on the book: Kirstin Dow, a professor of geography at the University of South Carolina; Ryan Meyer, a senior scientist at the California Ocean Science Trust; and Sarah Close, a program specialist in the Climate and Societal Interactions division of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s (NOAA) Climate Program Office.

Each chapter is written by different team members from NOAA's Regional Integrated Sciences and Assessments, or RISA, program, and includes the lessons they’ve learned from their projects. These lessons can serve as guides for scientists paving their own paths between science and society.

Climate in Context describes what it takes to help scientists and societies work together to deliver climate science, knowledge, policy, and action, based on RISA’s 20 years of experience in experimental, collaborative science. Their method, which has since become a model for other programs with similar aims, puts knowledge about what we can expect from the environment in the future in the hands of decision makers as soon as possible, which, in a rapidly changing climate, can make a big difference in terms of time, money, and precious resources.

“If we’re going to have sustainable societies, we need to have research that teaches us how to do it, and we need ways to connect the people who are going to implement that research,” Garfin said. That process, he continued, involves figuring out what questions society needs scientists to answer, as well as advocating for existing science to be more accessible and usable by the public.

For example, water managers use climate forecasts to decide when to keep water in the reservoir and how much of it can be allocated at a given time. The collaborative science exemplified in the book involves a direct conversation between the scientists and the water managers, discussing the types of information that are useful and working together on how best to use new methods for predicting precipitation and water levels.

Garfin hopes the book will be used by more than just decision makers and scientists, however. He also predicts the growth of classes that teach collaborative, contextual science in a university setting.

“There is a need for courses that teach skills, such as meeting facilitation, that supplement scientists’ disciplinary expertise to help them work with decision makers,” Garfin said. “As people experience firsthand the effects of climate change, there is more and more demand for these types of projects.”

The book includes four sections: Understanding context and risk, Managing knowledge-to-action networks, Innovating services, and Advancing science and policy. Each section is written by members of RISA teams, including the Climate Assessment for the Southwest, or CLIMAS, program based at the UA’s Institute of the Environment. Other UA authors include Jim Buizer, Kathy Jacobs, Mike Crimmins, Dan Ferguson, Gigi Owen, and Julie Brugger.

Climate in Context: Science and Society Partnering for Adaptation, a J. Wiley and Sons publication, is 362 pages. $125 hardcover.