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USGS and Academia in Partnership—Exploring the Use of Joint Fact Finding in Science-Intensive Disputes

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Herman Karl (in white sweater) meets with MIT graduate students and some of the interested parties in the Nantucket wind-farm dispute to discuss the use of joint-fact-finding procedures.
Herman Karl (in white sweater) meets with MIT graduate students and some of the interested parties in the Nantucket wind-farm dispute to discuss the use of joint-fact-finding procedures.

For many Americans, the notion of harvesting wind energy comes complete with bucolic images of bright tulips, wooden shoes, and picturesque blades turning lazily in a gentle breeze. For others, the evoked images are less peaceful ones, as modern incarnations of wind farms—actual and proposed—are generating controversy worldwide. One example is a recent proposal to site wind turbines in the waters of coastal New England.

The geographic focus of this controversy is Horseshoe Shoal, an area of shallow water in Nantucket Sound, approximately 5 mi offshore Cape Cod, MA. The 130 wind turbines proposed here for the country's first offshore wind farm represent to some a source of clean, renewable energy. To others, they represent an assault on a precious natural resource. Thrown into the fray are disagreements and controversies regarding aesthetic considerations; international energy policies and politics; potential environmental and economic impacts and benefits; public versus private property rights; implications for tourism, fishing, and other Cape Cod traditions and industries; Federal, State, and local regulatory rights and responsibilities; and so on and on. In short: it's a thorny issue.

One approach to such controversial ecosystem- and resource-management conflicts seeks to replace hostility and conflict among the various factions with a solutions-oriented focus underpinned by a spirit of cooperation and consensus seeking. Joint fact finding, one component of the broader consensus-building approach, is the process by which scientific data and perspectives are brought into the conversation.

Can consensus-building and joint-fact-finding approaches make a positive contribution to complex controversies like the proposed Cape Wind project? This question serves as one focal point of a Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) graduate seminar currently being taught by Larry Susskind, Ford Professor of Urban and Environmental Planning at MIT, and Herman Karl, U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) Western Geographic Science Center chief scientist and MIT Visiting Lecturer. The goal of this yearlong seminar on "The Use of Joint Fact Finding in Science-Intensive Disputes" is to explore the role of science and scientists in the management of ecosystems and natural resources, with a particular emphasis on joint fact finding as a new approach to policy-making.

Several USGS scientists contributed to the fall 2003 segment of the seminar and to the MIT Environmental Policy Group luncheon-seminar series:

  • Stan Ponce, Chief of the USGS Office of Partnerships and Business Policy, discussed the role of science in environmental policy with respect to the interior Columbia Basin.
  • Bob Alverts, USGS Science Advisor to the Western Regional Biologist, and Christine Turner, USGS research geologist, discussed the role of science in addressing contentious issues in John Day, Oregon.
  • Carl Shapiro, senior advisor to the USGS Director and coordinator of the USGS Science Impact program, talked with faculty about the goal of implementing joint-fact-finding projects.
  • Bill Schwab, USGS Coastal and Marine Geology Team chief scientist at Woods Hole, MA, Brad Butman, USGS oceanographer, and Brad Barr, Senior Policy Advisor with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA)'s National Marine Sanctuary Program, discussed ecosystems-management aspects of the proposed Cape Wind project.
  • Patrick Leahy, USGS Associate Director for Geology, presented examples of health- and safety-related USGS research activities and products and discussed the growing importance of joint-fact-finding approaches to framing research questions.
  • Dave Russ, USGS Eastern Regional Geologist, and two of his senior staff, Susan Russell-Robinson and Jim McNeal, talked about the role the USGS could play in the Cape Wind controversy and in providing strategic regional-scale baseline data for evaluating the impacts of offshore development.

Other speakers included a representative from a California watershed council experienced in consensus-building approaches, and several senior policy officials from the U.S. Department of the Interior. Collectively, these classroom discussions are helping to develop a process to engage scientists in a joint-fact-finding approach to environmental disputes.

In addition, Bill and Herman are collaborating to design a multiyear, regional-scale benthic mapping and research project within the context of a joint-fact-finding approach. This work would contribute to a strategic environmental assessment and database to aid in policy decisions addressing offshore renewable energy and such other issues as fisheries management. Herman's participation in the MIT course and Woods Hole collaboration are made possible by support from the USGS' Coastal and Marine Geology Program.

Related Sound Waves Stories
Joint Fact Finding: A New Approach to Balancing Science and Politics in Ecosystem- and Resource-Management Decisions
December 2002/January 2003

Related Web Sites
Woods Hole Field Center
U.S. Geological Survey (USGS), Woods Hole, MA
St. Petersburg Science Center
U.S. Geological Survey (USGS)
Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT)
Cambridge, Massachusetts

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in this issue: Fieldwork cover story:
Turbidity Flows Recorded in Monterey Canyon

Mapping Hawaiian National Parks

Research USGS and Academia in Partnership

Meetings Chesapeake Bay Science

Special AGU Sessions on Gas-Hydrate Systems

South Louisiana Sea-Level Rise

Awards Clifton to Receive Pettijohn Medal

USGS Book Wins Outstanding Publication Award

"Local Heroes" of Western Snowy Plover Protection

Staff & Center News MIT Scientists Visit Woods Hole

Three New Scientists

New Postdoc in St. Petersburg

Reef Name Becomes Official

Publications New Book on the Phosphoria Formation

Two Articles in JSR

February Publications List

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