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Christopher Scott Wants Science to Improve Water Security Around the World

Chris Scott presents keynote talk on water-energy-food nexus at Water Security Week, Mexican Institute of Water Technology (IMTA), Jiutepec, Morelos, September 2019
Chris Scott presents keynote talk on water-energy-food nexus at Water Security Week in Jiutepec, Morelos, Mexico in September 2019.
Photo credit: Mexican Institute of Water Technology (IMTA)

When Chris Scott gets involved in a research collaboration, he often looks at how it’s being set up and suggests ways to further engage stakeholders, asking questions like “how will you be sharing this with people who can use it?” and “can research design better incorporate users’ needs?” He sees this as adding value both to the research and to those it may affect. “We need to take more seriously stakeholders’ priorities as we conduct research, or better, beforehand,” he says. As a hydrologist and professor at the University of Arizona, and director of the Udall Center for Studies in Public Policy, Scott considers the type of work he does to be “ideally suited to public engagement.” His 2018-19 AAAS Leshner Public Engagement Fellowship was a continued exploration of his career-long focus on use-inspired science. 

For many years now, Scott has led international research in Mexico, Argentina, Chile, India and Nepal to support informed water management policies. During the past year, he increasingly “built engagement into ongoing activities, with input, insight, tools and appreciation of some of the opportunities and challenges of broader science communication from the Leshner fellowship.” The work of the Udall Center has become more outward-facing through the efforts of the Native Nations Institute, situated within the Udall Center. And as he began participating in an NSF-funded research collaboration network (RCN) run through Washington State University, he was instrumental in expanding their collaboration in Argentina to include water managers, decision-makers and communities, such as those affected by hydropower development.

A long-term effort he has been part of came to fruition this past January: an assessment of the Hindu Kush Himalaya region, including eight countries from Afghanistan to Myanmar, intended to inform decision-making to protect both the environment and people’s well-being. He led the chapter on water, focused particularly on the consequences of melting glaciers. He “seized [media] opportunities because the importance was highlighted for me by the Leshner fellowship,” publishing an op-ed in regional media outlets and participating in radio interviews. He also helped support a broader, very successful media campaign by the leading partner organization, the International Centre for Integrated Mountain Development, which led to coverage of the assessment in The New York Times, The Guardian, BBC and The Huffington Post, among others. Scott points to this as another part of a public engagement strategy: partnering with likeminded people. He can do what he can as an individual, but teamwork is one of the best ways to maximize impact.

Partnering with another like-minded Leshner Fellow, Alexis Racelis, as well as Mónica Ramirez-Andreotta (winner of the 2019 AAAS Early Career Award for Public Engagement), Scott coordinated a breakout session at the 2019 AAAS Communicating Science Seminar about science engagement across boundaries -- centered on sharing experiences with U.S.-Mexico border communities, Native communities, low-income settings, and international, multilingual science communication. He was also on the organizing committee for the October 23-25, 2019 conference at the University of Arizona on science diplomacy, attended by students, faculty, practitioners and science-diplomacy pioneers from AAAS.

Scott was recently named the 2019-20 Chair of the National Academies Consensus Study on Sustainability Partnerships in the U.S.-Mexico Drylands Region, and the 2020-22 Mountain Chair of the Himalayan Universities Consortium, International Centre for Integrated Mountain Development (ICIMOD).

Reflecting on the Leshner Fellowship, Scott says “it was lot of fun, it was challenging, it made me think in new directions. I think it really upped my game in terms of working in some of these areas.” He hopes to continue to connect with the network of people and opportunities created through the fellowship.

The AAAS Leshner Leadership Institute was founded in 2015 and operates through philanthropic gifts in honor of CEO Emeritus Alan I. Leshner. Each year the Institute provides public engagement training and support to a group of mid-career scientists from an area of research at the nexus of science and society. Chris Scott is part of the 2018-19 food and water security cohort. The 2019-20 cohort is focused on human augmentation, and the 2020-21 cohort (to be announced in February 2020) on artificial intelligence.