Over its 14-year history the not-for-profit Adirondack Research Consortium (ARC) has served as the unique, regionally based organization dedicated to facilitating natural resource, economic, recreational and social research in the Adirondack Park. The ARC and partners have identified the disconnect between information producers and information consumers. In addition, researchers from different institutions (and occasionally the same institution) often operate separately, sometimes duplicating research, often competing for the same dollars, seldom collaborating in a meaningful transdisciplinary way. The ARC has committed to a strategy that seeks to bridge this gap by identifying immediate and long-term research needs, identifying existing research and focusing future research, identifying potential sources of research funding, identifying teams of producers and consumers to begin exploring specific opportunities, and facilitating research derived information transfer between producers and consumers in an ongoing forum.
The Adirondack Research Consortium (ARC) is an incorporated not-for-profit 501.C.3 organization. Over its 14-year history the ARC has sought to serve as the unique, regionally based organization dedicated to facilitating natural resource, economic, recreational and social research in the Adirondack Park. The Park is the largest protected area in the continental United States with regional zoning plans for public and private lands.
The ARC seeks to facilitate protected area research to better address local, regional and global problems facing the Park, and which can serve as templates for use in other protected areas throughout the Northeast. The ARC holds annual conferences and sponsors forums and workshops that address special topics as they arise. The annual conferences provide researchers the opportunity to present current information from varied disciplines for the Northeastern United States and adjacent Canada. In addition to updating colleagues on current research, the conferences also serve to identify research needs and funding sources, foster partnerships, and be the common link to bring people with diverse backgrounds together to develop proactive approaches to dealing with the problems that face Adirondack Park.
The ARC and partners including Adirondack North Country Association, Adirondack Ecological Center, Adirondack Park Agency and Assemblywoman Theresa Sayward’s office have identified the disconnect between those that produce information (typically academic researchers) and those that consume information (typically local government officials and staff, regulatory agency staff, consultants and other land use professionals). In addition, researchers from different institutions (and on occasion from the same institution) often operate separately, sometimes duplicating research, often competing for the same dollars, seldom collaborating in a meaningful transdisciplinary way.
Research producers often conduct their work separated from the practical information needs of research consumers. Their research may be focused on testing a hypothesis that may or may not have practical relevance to the everyday land management decisions that research consumers must make. Or, if relevant, their research may have tenuous or hidden connections. The results of their research are presented at professional conferences where colleagues in their or related fields have time for a short presentation and five minutes of questions before moving on to the next paper. The abstract of the presentation is printed in the proceedings of the conference, and, when ripe, the researcher attempts to get the paper published in an often highly focused peer reviewed journal, where it will be read by colleagues. There is often little dissemination outside of the circle of research colleagues of the truths that the research may have uncovered. In fact, if the paper was disseminated in the form it was published in, it is doubtful whether many outside of the circle of research colleagues would be able to understand the jargon fully enough to get the full effect of the research effort. Certainly, laypersons hoping to get to that nugget of truth or a practical application of the research will be left shaking their heads. This observation is not meant to disparage today’s research community or the scientific method. There are many who work in collaborative, transdisciplinary ways and have an active outreach life. Professional conferences are often fertile breeding grounds for partnerships and new ideas. The disconnect is real, however, and those who generate information can and must do better.
Research consumers are often overwhelmed by the day-to-day minutiae of running a municipality, reviewing multiple and varied permit applications, or balancing the desires of a client with the biogeophysical realities of a site. They are caught between the mandates of higher governmental levels, the demands of their constituents and the scrutiny of advocacy groups. They work with tight budgets and varying levels of time and expertise on issues that often have no clear-cut answers with little information to help guide them. Some of the issues they deal with are relatively simple. For instance, the sizing of pumps for sewage lift stations is determined by finite engineering calculations. Other issues however, such as the effects of climate change on tourist dollars, slowing the youth exodus from rural communities, and providing sustainable housing are much more complex and difficult to address.
In general, these two groups, research producers and research consumers, have had little contact. On occasion the results of a research project will inform local policy decisions, but this is not the rule. Typically, as noted above, research producers conduct their research distant from practical considerations and communicate within a coterie of peers, and research consumers show a marked distrust of research and science-based data.
This situation has larger societal implications besides just the practical uses of research data in the Adirondacks. When we scientists disconnect from ordinary folks, even innocently or unknowingly, we leave ourselves, our science and our planet open to management actions based on folk myths, urban legends and interpretations of the workings of the natural world by those who do not have access to or choose to ignore well documented scientific facts. In this scenario, political decisions affecting planet ecology, economics and society are based on folk myth rather than on peer-reviewed science. In my opinion, much of the fault lies with us scientists who have too long reveled in jargon, too long holed up in symposia listening to ourselves over and over again, too long bulked up journal articles with charts, graphs and statistics that do little to illuminate, and not reached out (sometimes even refused to reach out) to research consumers to find out what it is they are concerned about and require information for, and designed research projects that seek to accomplish those information needs.
I am not suggesting that pure research be abandoned or that all lines of research lend themselves equally to this approach; the scientific method is not flawed. Rather, I am suggesting that we do some soul searching about the practicality and applicability of our research, reach out to colleagues who have experience and expertise in using this type of approach to make our research more “user friendly” and relevant, seek suggestions from the lay world on research avenues that they would value having explored, and make good efforts to educate policy makers on issues they should be concerned about. I cannot guarantee it, but I suspect that by entering into this “soul searching” there may be fiscal and intellectual benefits. For instance, there are federal grant monies available to local governments that go begging because local government officials do not know how to frame a proposal and with whom to partner. Increasingly, federal grant monies are tied to interactions with local constituents.
The ARC is committed to facilitate efforts to undo the disconnect and help focus research efforts to provide practical answers to questions facing Adirondack Park, build partnerships to conduct research and garner funds, and describe a way forward that provides regular and substantive interaction between research producers and research consumers. The ARC board has developed a strategy that includes:
- Outreach to research consumers. ARC and its partners took the first step to solicit information needs from research consumers in November 2006. Over 400 invitations were sent to elected local government officials, planning board chairs and members, regulatory agency staff and consultants, to attend a hands-on workshop that would allow them to identify the issues facing them in the conduct of their work and develop a list of information needs. Table 1 contains the raw list of information needs that were identified. This list will be sent to all workshop invitees for additional comment and will be vetted publicly at Local Government Day on March 22, 2007.
- Outreach to research producers. ARC will coordinate the formation of a Ring Institution Research Council. The council will be made up of researchers and existing research consortia from varying disciplines that conduct research within the Adirondack Park. Although focused on institutions located within or near the Park (Clarkson University, Colgate University, Cornell University, Hamilton College, Paul Smith’s College, St. Lawrence University, SUNY Albany, SUNY ESF, SUNY Oswego, SUNY Plattsburgh, SUNY Potsdam, University of Vermont, etc.), membership can extend to researchers at other in- and out-of-state institutions and will be encouraged. This group will participate in the annual conference, help publish the Adirondack Journal of Environmental Studies (AJES), advise and participate in developing and maintaining a central repository of research (see 3. below), communicate interests and coordinate and collaborate on research efforts, and develop and participate in outreach efforts to research consumers. Outreach could include activities such as participation in software and hardware applications, training sessions and workshops coordinated by ARC, proactive issues training to inform local and regional policy decisions, and development of an issues “SWAT” team on call to municipalities for science-based information and advice.
- Central repository of research. There is no one place where an individual seeking multidiscipline research-derived information on the Adirondacks can go. The closest listings are the Temporary Revocable Permits (TRP s) that the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation records annually (see Table 2). TRP lists are incomplete, however, because not all researchers working in the Park realize that they must apply for a TRP to do work on Forest Preserve lands, in some cases TRP s contain scanty documentation, do not include research on private lands, and do not contain any data or papers that may have resulted from the research. In most cases the DEC requires that researchers provide results from their work at least in the form of a data dump. Yet it is unclear whether this ever takes place, is catalogued or followed up on by the busy DEC staff. In addition, these lists do not include social or economic research. The ARC recognizes the need and will begin dialogue with the Ring Institution Research Council to develop a central research repository. Such a repository should be digitally accessible with little or no cost to the consumer, be up to date, and be comprehensive in the fields of research it catalogs.
- Annual conferences. At the annual conference to be held at the Wild Center in Tupper Lake on May 22–24, 2007, there are three sessions devoted to the research producer/consumer nexus issue. The first is a plenary presentation entitled “Bridging the Gap between Producers and Consumers of Scientific Information” by Dr. Chris Bernabo, Director of Science Solutions at the National Commission on Science for Sustainable Forestry, National Council of Science and the Environment. Dr. Bernabo has over 30 years of experience in the public and private sectors in connecting information producers and consumers in a sustained way that is mutually beneficial. Two additional sessions will include a panel discussion moderated by Dr. Bernabo and a “mass brainstorm” designed to assess the raw information needs list to determine completeness and what information already exists.
- Continuity. The ARC has committed to facilitating an ongoing series of workshops and programs in addition to the annual conference that will:
- provide a means for research producers to communicate their information to consumers;
- continue to identify information needs and keep the list current;
- identify researcher–researcher and researcher–consumer partnerships;
- provide a means to focus future research; and,
- identify potential sources of funding to support research.
Even though the Adirondack Park has regulatory protection, other impacting agents are affecting it in ways that existing legislation may not be able to control. For instance, climate change is an overriding global phenomenon that brings many interacting and not entirely predictable changes that threaten to overwhelm the natural systems of the Park. Major disruptions are predicted for the Adirondacks’ economic and social systems, given their basis in natural systems. The people, government at all levels and researchers must enter into dialogue to innovate new approaches for dealing with these questions.
For the Adirondack region to become or remain “sustainable,” the incredibly broad effects of climate change must be addressed as well as the other, more mundane issues we are faced with every day. That work must be undertaken now if we expect natural and human-made systems to persist over time and maintain an adequate level of services for all system members, without destroying or changing the physical resources of the system. The ARC has committed to a strategy based on knowledge, cooperation and collaboration. I believe it has the best chance of success in addressing the problems facing the Park.
Daniel M. Spada is Supervisor, Natural Resources Analysis at the NYS Adirondack Park Agency and may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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