Archive for December, 2013

Forthcoming article in Environmental Modelling

As we put a bow on 2013, I wrapped up my fall semester with the acceptance of an article to the journal Environmental Modelling and Software.  With colleagues Jacopo Baggio, Kenny Salau, and Marco Janssen, we ran some agent-based modeling simulations for an article entitled “Modeling Decision-making across Habitat Patches:  Insights on Large-Scale Conservation Management”.  The gist of the article was to understand how environmental managers could intervene in a mosaic of connected landscapes for conservation.  We looked at predator-prey dynamics with carrying capacity.  Our goal was to compare management success at helping to sustain both species based on taking a local or global perspective and based on monitoring vegetation levels, prey populations, or predator populations.

Based on the model’s simulation results, we find that a global perspective (looking across the network) results in better outcomes than looking at an individual habitat patch (which is what many land managers end up doing in the real-world).  This, of course, is not surprising.  We also found that if managers were constrained to only monitor one population, they did best by looking at prey population levels.  This seems to be because its intermediary position provided insight into levels higher and lower on the food chain.  However, this goes against some theoretical perspectives that articulate monitoring at the lowest level (vegetation).

Our next step is to try to find real-world data to ground our models in empirical results.  We also hope to overlay a network of managers to see how their interactions affect outcomes and whether they are contingent on source-sink dynamics or other network possibilities.  Stay tuned.


The Problem with Public Policy Schools?

I want to thank John Hulsey for posting this editorial from the Washington Post (  I would have otherwise missed it.

I had a number of quick thoughts and wish that I had the benefit of discussing with Roger Parks and other colleagues and advisors from Indiana University’s School of Public and Environmental Affairs before jotting down my ideas.

It’s worthwhile to first note that the authors are thinktank leaders and longstanding critics of the academy.  However, they raise a number of points worth considering.  Others have started targeting a number of critical flaws in the article (not fully understanding the enterprise of science, pushing a specific political agenda, etc).  I don’t want to continue dissecting the weaknesses of the article, but I would like to focus on a few of the key points that they have (perhaps unwittingly) raised.  Many of these challenges facing policy schools are the very same challenges that have been leveled at business schools for decades as well, and b-schools, in spite of their high profile, still struggle with their role in the academy around these issues.

First, the field of study is so broad, how does a school focus to the level needed to provide its students the depth of understanding required for future success?  At the same time, how does a school provide the broad perspective required for systems-level thinking and understanding.  Where should a program direct its efforts?  Should it directly them topically (environmental policy, public finance, etc) or around core skills needed by all MPA/MPP graduates?  How do the schools develop a common core curriculum?

Second, how does the faculty balance basic and applied research?  Should the work be predominantly applied and focused on real-world solutions and deliverables?  Should it be focused more on traditional science?  (And yes, I understand that science and application may not be in opposition).  If the focus is on more traditional academia outputs, how do professors balance their research with the solutions-oriented training and needs of their (mostly) professional students?

Third, and related to the previous questions, how do policy schools balance different disciplinary perspectives?  Is the program truly interdisciplinary?  Is it dominated by particular perspectives (hard-core quant, case-driven, environmental science labs,…) or disciplines (economics, political science, policy analysts)?

I noted earlier that public policy schools and business schools share in many of these dilemmas.  The same can be said for environmental studies programs and schools of sustainability.  At ASU’s School of Sustainability, we struggle with these issues a great deal.  We orient our program toward use-inspired  research and providing real-world solutions.  However, it remains a perpetual challenge to balance the world of academia with this approach.  We focus on an interdisciplinary approach oriented around skill development and sustainability competencies defined by the faculty as a whole (see Wiek, Arnim, Lauren Withycombe, and Charles L. Redman. “Key competencies in sustainability: a reference framework for academic program development.” Sustainability Science 6.2 (2011): 203-218.).  Much of this revolves around a more holistic approach to science and draws on research in complex adaptive systems.  If that sounds further and further from direct application, I need to explain what this means.  But that’s a topic for another day.