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Science, Upstream: Balancing Trust in Embedded Journalism

Vancouver Island Pacific Rim by backpackphotography,

I’ve always been fascinated by the social dynamics of staff meetings – the little affirmations, both spoken and gestural, that build conversational momentum; the inevitable off-key comments that bring it all crashing down; the subtle maneuvering, by the natural diplomats in the crowd, to restore that office-talk sweet spot. As often as not, we see this act unfold under fluorescent lights, around an elongated table, usually in an uncomfortably small, aseptic meeting room.

The geographically disjointed marine division of the Natural Capital Group is spared this particular workplace beast– but they’re captive to its cousin: the conference call. Every Friday morning, their disembodied voices unite over various phone conferencing platforms to talk through simple, logistical matters, as well as to establish a consensus position on the big, who-are-we and what-do-we-stand-for questions they face.

These calls, over the last month, have centered on two major themes. The first: the Valentine’s Day the launch of the team’s keystone product, a software program called Marine InVEST [pdf], which they are making available to policy makers and stakeholders for the first time. (The program is free and accessible online for use by anyone who has the requisite skill set.) The second, a question: Given excitement in the conservation and land management communities over the software, how open should the team be to forging new collaborations and commitments?

The launch of Marine InVEST signals a big development for the Natural Capital Project. The software, which was funded by a $1.97 million grant from the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation, draws on the basic principles of the terrestrial model (see Jamie’s introductory post but applies them to marine environments. The program is intended to guide decisions around fisheries and aquaculture management, shoreline protection, wave energy installations and recreation uses.

NatCap has partnered with West Coast Aquatic, a government and non-government management hybrid, to model the many potential applications of Marine InVEST on the west coast of Vancouver Island in British Columbia, Canada. The area’s 460 kilometers of coastline feature a stunning network of inlets, fjords, sounds and open beaches, which harbor thousands of plant and animal species, according to the team. But those resources, and the communities who rely on them, are threatened by dramatically declining salmon populations, high levels of toxics in local food sources, the logging, transportation and aquaculture industries, and the possibility of wave energy development. Jamie and I look forward to visiting the demonstration site in the coming months as NatCap seeks a more integrated, intelligent approach to management of the area’s resources.

A major challenge for the NatCap marine division is training people to use the software tool. On Vancouver Island, for instance, the group is working to share their intimate knowledge of the model with West Coast Aquatic. Depending on the project, however, the collaborators could be other academic groups, NGOs or local, state or national governments. Even once basic proficiency has been attained, they expect it will take one to three people anywhere from two months to a year to compile all the necessary data before the model can be successfully run.

On a recent Friday morning call, the team discussed the importance of ensuring consistency in the online user manual – the expression “too many cooks in the kitchen” was used at least once, and intended many more times – but didn’t neglect the desirability of settling on a time and place to celebrate the recent launch.

As a clear reminder that their work continues past the unveiling of the software, however, Greg Guannel raised a question about a potential new collaboration. He had recently given a talk at the University of Washington, and he’d met a professor there who was excited about applying the Invest model in Tanzania. A rapid expansion of the coastal population in that country, combined with a high degree of poverty and a history of poor management of natural resources, has led to the “rapid and extreme degradation of coral reefs and other coastal communities” along much of the coastline, according to the World Atlas of Coral Reefs. Overfishing and destructive fishing practices, coral mining, inadequate sewage treatment and tourism have all been identified as challenges that must be addressed by new management schemes. But the government, said the University of Washington professor who approached Guannel, simply didn’t know where to start making improvements.

Anne Guerry, a lead scientist on the marine team, was facilitating the call from Seattle. She said it wasn’t clear how the team should proceed with projects that sound like promising opportunities, but came without “resources” attached.

Mary Ruckelshaus, NatCap’s managing director, provided guidance that might sound familiar to many in academia—that “probing” for potential collaborations was okay, but that with the team already short on time, they should be cautious about taking on side projects that come with no formal agreement or funding.

With one pilot project already underway, she emphasized, the marine team has to be sure that their system is robust before taking on additional challenges. A time for broader applications will come, Ruckelshaus said, but for now, “we’re not really in an expanding mode.”

The first time I dialed into the Friday morning meeting, Gail Kaiser, administrative associate for the Natural Capital project, was kind enough to introduce me to the others on the line. When she initially mentioned that I’d be “monitoring” the call, however, there was a brief, awkward silence—followed quickly by the clarification that I would be “following” the conversation. I said “lurking” might be a better definition, and for the rest of the conference I was appropriately silent – enjoying the facts that I was a. at home and b. in my pajamas and c. still getting work done.

That short moment of easy living aside, the palpable tension coming through all those different phone lines served as a reminder that what Jamie and I are trying to do won’t necessarily be easy. We both feel lucky to have access to a world-class research group in such unguarded, casual circumstances; but we’re also committed to fulfilling the role of journalists. The question we’re struggling with, as we become more closely immersed with the researchers, is where to draw the line between personal and professional relationships…and how aggressively, for example, to seek out external voices who don’t necessarily support the Natural Capital Project’s approach. In other words, how do we maintain both our pajama-worthy connection with the researchers and our journalist objectivity and independence? Are sparks of apprehension shooting down the telephone wires to be avoided, or to be embraced as a sign that we are doing something right? They are questions we hope you’ll help us answer as our project moves ahead.

Photo via Flickr / backpackphotography

Who is Science, Upstream?
JAMIE HANSEN has written for Sierra Magazine, the High Country News, and Birders’ World. She’s pursuing a master’s degree in journalism at Stanford, hoping to tie together two passions: a keen interest in the natural world and communicating with broad audiences. She has a bachelor’s degree in English from Oberlin College, but fell in love with biology during her last semester.
JULIA JAMES is a master’s candidate in Journalism at Stanford University. She often writes about issues relating to human and environmental health. When not chained to a computer, she likes to climb rocks and chase Frisbees. She holds a B.S. in geological and environmental sciences (also from Stanford) and lives in Palo Alto with six housemates and five chickens.

  1. Hi, good article. Let’s just hope things get better… my stock investment is doing real bad now!

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