A Communication Systems Framework for Sustainability Science

Sunday, 15 February 2015
Exhibit Hall (San Jose Convention Center)
Bridie McGreavy, New England Sustainability Consortium, University of Maine, Orono, ME
Sustainability challenges require innovative approaches to link science with policy action. Our work addresses the problem of strengthening the scientific basis for decision making within the New England Sustainability Consortium (NEST), a National Science Foundation project to create a regional sustainability science network among the University of Maine, University of New Hampshire, and a host of other academic, governmental, and non-governmental institutions. Our Safe Beaches and Shellfish Project intends to understand and improve the science used in decision making about beach and shellfish management at municipal and state scales in Maine and New Hampshire. In this poster, we describe the application and development of a communication systems framework within NEST’s Safe Beaches and Shellfish Project. We share results from ongoing participant observations, a survey (n=29), and interviews with faculty, students, and stakeholders (n=40) that helped identify and test structure and process dimensions of this framework for enhanced sustainability science outcomes. Our communication systems research demonstrates that linking different types of science with effective policy across scales is shaped by a host of factors. There are many structural scientific uncertainties, such as the maximum threshold of “safe” levels of bacteria. There are also economic and cultural impacts of imposing additional closures on beach communities who rely on tourists and on shellfishermen whose livelihoods depend on open clam flats. In terms of process, participants expressed varying levels of communication competence and awareness about issues of voice and power. Participants described the importance of meeting face-to-face for learning about one another, demonstrating a commitment to the project, and promoting creativity in the research design process. Together, structures and processes within this system recursively shape outcomes like deciding and then making progress on how to best link science with decision making to promote safety and public health. We conclude by outlining a plan for empirical communication research that uses this framework to enhance the ability of sustainability science organizations to develop strong interdisciplinary teams, use responsive communication technologies and media, and form partnerships among researchers and policy makers. We provide specific recommendations for how our communication framework may serve as a model for other sustainability science efforts to solve complex sustainability problems.