Science Policy Fellows use research to help shape well-informed policy options

This year’s fellows Kara Voss, Paul Glick and Michael Sierks present their findings in an effort to bridge the ivory tower and public policy

July 14, 2020 | By Virginia Watson | GPS News

Innovative research should inform public policy, and the UC San Diego School of Global Policy and Strategy (GPS) works to bridge that gap with programs like the Science Policy Fellows program. This year’s fellows – Kara Voss, Paul Glick and Michael Sierks – presented their research in a webinar forum on June 8, explaining to attendees the real-world implications and impact their research could have on crafting policy.

Usually, scholars conduct research and then present their findings to their peers in conferences and respected journals, with that research eventually filtering into the public policy realm. This program is specifically designed to bring together STEM Ph.D. students with policy experts so both sides can learn from each other – and do so in a way that results in flexible, informed policy responsive to the latest data. 

This year’s presentation, the program’s sixth annual event, covered topics ranging from the multitude of effects of climate change to the risk tolerance of innovation within NASA. Under the stay-at-home order issued because of the novel coronavirus pandemic, both researchers and their faculty mentors had to connect electronically.

“Thanks to all of you for taking time in these highly stressful times to come together for this,” said GPS Dean Peter Cowhey. “This program was created as a way to build deeper bridges to the Jacobs School of Engineering, the School of Medicine and other scientific disciplines. Our belief is that in giving people like you, the fellows, a chance to work with our faculty, you can explore interests that are more deeply structured on public policy in your home fields.”

Universities play a vital role in mitigating the impacts of natural disasters

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Under the guidance of her faculty mentors, associate professor Jennifer Burney and assistant professor Kate Ricke, Science Policy Fellow Kara Voss saw an opportunity in her study: more universities and research institutions could have a lasting impact in the resilience of communities after extreme weather events and natural disasters. 

She shared that these institutions are uniquely positioned in their communities to act in this role because, unlike policymakers, their decisions aren’t based upon an election cycle; the institutions can work on a long-term scale as they are a permanent fixture within the community.

“Really complex problems are best understood by local communities,” Voss said. “And developing policy solutions from science questions requires continuous engagement.” 

Voss focused her research on the work of three institutions that have seen success in partnering with local communities: the Center for Western Weather and Water Extremes (CW3E), based at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography; Pepperwood Preserve in Sonoma County, California; and the RISE Network, managed by the National Council for Science and the Environment (NCSE).

Voss explained that CW3E, for example, works directly with water managers and local agencies to help prepare for drought and mitigate flood risk. 

Pepperwood Preserve uses the data it collects locally to better predict wildfire impacts in the region.

“Without that data, the projections would be based on data collected in the Sierras and Southern California that are not necessarily applicable to Sonoma County,” Voss said.

During the 2017 wildfires that swept across Sonoma County, the preserve not only acted as a reliable source of information for residents but was also able to step in further once the emergency ended by partnering with the U.S. Geological Survey and the Sonoma County Water Agency to study the fire’s impacts on local water quality.

Another group Voss studied was RISE, which came to fruition following a failure of universities to partner with locals after Hurricane Maria struck Puerto Rico in 2017.

Many universities in the mainland U.S. sent researchers to the island independently and set up short-term projects without collaboration with the communities they were serving, limiting the effectiveness of those universities’ work. Seeing that their involvement was proving problematic, researchers created RISE, a collaborative group of universities and other research organizations. RISE developed a framework for best practices for engaging in post-disaster environments, working to develop long-term relationships in different communities to learn how to engage more effectively following disasters.

As a product of the fellowship, Voss is currently working on a policy memo to describe the actions these institutions are taking in their communities. 

“The memo will be geared toward policymakers who are in a position to incentivize research institutions to perform this role through funding and toward academics/administrators who may be convinced to develop this role within their own institutions,” Voss said.

How NASA balances innovation and risk tolerance

news_science-policy-fellows-glick.pngScience Policy Fellow Paul Glick, whose faculty mentors are assistant professors Elizabeth Lyons and Michael Davidson, began his research with a question: Why is NASA – which has a long history of funding high-risk, innovative research – so careful when adopting new technologies for use in flight missions?

“It’s a culture where failure isn’t really an option, especially with anything that relates to human lives,” Glick said. “They don’t want disasters to turn people off space exploration. Consequences leading to a loss of human lives are avoided whenever possible. Accidents can affect public perception, which affects the dollars allocated to NASA. Conversely, the dollars also affect public perception and whether it’s worth it to send people to space.”

Glick’s primary Ph.D. research and lab work focuses specifically on robotic interaction in unmapped settings, especially in extreme environments such as outer space or underwater. 

“The goal of my Ph.D. work is to enable the next generation of robotic agents that scientists can send to study harsh and exotic locations. However, this intended application is inherently risky since robots typically perform poorly in new or unexplored environments,” Glick said. “This naturally led to my research in the Science Policy Fellowship, exploring how risky new technologies can actually get implemented.”

Barriers to adapting new technology include the astronomical expense of launches and inconsistent, infrequent mission schedules. However, Glick noted that the low risk tolerance necessitates an opportunity: create low-cost, higher risk innovations that are smaller or secondary to the flagship missions, such as including a small instrument to collect separate data as part of a larger launch.

“If an instrument performs well and it’s that much smaller and lighter, why go back to an instrument that’s bigger and heavier?” he asked. “It’s so exciting to me because it's the one area where NASA is allowed to fail, and typically rapid failures and iterations go hand in hand with innovation.”

Glick said he sees continued opportunity for NASA in this lower-stakes innovation. Though his expectation is that human presence in space will grow, he said the use of lower-risk instruments and robots will continue to grow even faster.

“Of course humans are generally much more capable than robotic surrogates. Humans can understand context, make decisions in unexpected situations and problem solve in creative ways,” he said. “The problem with humans is that they have to eat, sleep, breathe, get home and generally stay alive. There will always be a role for robots in space exploration because we can happily send robots into the harshest locations in the solar system and even send them on one-way trips out of the solar system.”

Navigating flood-risk mitigation and water supply in California

news_science-policy-fellows-sierks.pngScience Policy Fellow Michael Sierks, under the guidance of faculty mentor Kate Ricke, focused his research on a hot-button issue in California: water supply and water management practices. Stakeholders have quarreled for years about water management between the wetter northern parts of the state and the drier southern areas, where the bulk of the state’s residents reside. 

Sierks studied how to correct the increasingly inaccurate calculations behind the management of water supply within California’s reservoirs. 

He explained that one characteristic operating procedure, called a rule curve, dictates a maximum value of water that is allowed to be stored behind a dam for each day of the year. 

“In California, these rules mandate that some amount of ‘empty storage’ be available to capture storm inflows during the wet season (October through April) when flood risk is high and allows the reservoir to be filled when the threat of flooding is minimal (May through September),” Sierks said. 

One issue with this rule, Sierks pointed out, is that these curves are created using historical knowledge of the hydroclimate of the surrounding area, without accounting for the impacts of climate change, such as wetter storms and changing snow levels. And without accurate accounting for climatological impacts, California will continue to struggle with ensuring its reservoirs have ample water supply for its citizens and that reservoirs can prevent devastating floods.

“Research suggests that many reservoirs will be unable to provide historical levels of flood risk mitigation and water supply benefits under the stresses of global warming,” Sierks said.

Studying and modeling reservoir operations can be a tricky business, as a number of factors affect the ability to accurately predict the outflow of water. 

“There are important environmental policies, like protecting salmon, that have requirements for outflows,” Sierks said. “Another challenge in understanding how a reservoir operates is that reservoirs are often federally owned, and information on their operations is not publicly available for safety reasons. Understanding how much water they plan on releasing can be difficult to obtain.”

Sierks said he hopes that accurate modeling studies of the variables that control the susceptibility of reservoir operations to climate change will be helpful in framing the conversation around adaptation and planning for California’s reservoirs. 

“This type of information may be helpful to decision makers and water managers as the state engages in long-term water resources planning,” Sierks explained.

For more information on the GPS Science Policy Fellows program, visit the GPS website.

The application deadline for next year’s Science Policy Fellows program is Aug. 20. Apply today!

Additional Science Policy Fellows stories:

Science Policy Fellows program nurtures effective interdisciplinary scholars

Fighting wildfires with web based imagery

Science Policy Fellows program trains ‘high-impact researchers’

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