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Scientists Show How Public Engagement Improves Food and Water Security

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Scientist Craig Just outlines the importance of pursuing a comprehensive watershed approach to effective flood management. | Neil Orman/AAAS

Four scientists recently drew from their research to demonstrate the ways science works to reverse water and food insecurity and describe opportunities for scientists to effectively communicate with impacted communities and stakeholders.

Research around a critical Iowa watershed, food system modeling, farm stresses in Texas and urban garden lead contamination revealed the necessity for scientists to reach across communities to exchange ideas with residents, farmers and government authorities and forge partnerships to build the foundation for research endeavors, the scientists said.

The discussion took place during a public lecture on June 13 at the American Association for the Advancement of Science’s Washington, D.C. headquarters with four scientists who are part of this year's group selected to participate in the Alan I. Leshner Leadership Institute fellowship program established in 2015.

The 2018 Leshner Fellows include 15 scientists chosen for their research skills and demonstrated ability to engage the public on how best to address challenges facing food and water security, a topic that affects people around the globe.

Over the next year, these 15 scientists will train and mentor other scientists in their communities and work to establish public engagement activities and programs at their academic institutions, said Emily Cloyd, project director for the AAAS Center for Public Engagement with Science and Technology.

“AAAS has a long history of supporting science and engineering public engagement and I think most of us would agree that these days that’s more important than ever,” said Tiffany Lohwater, AAAS’ chief communications officer and director of the Office of Public Programs, in introducing the Leshner Fellows. “We want to make sure that scientists have the opportunities to participate in dialogue that fosters a true exchange of ideas and supports the discussion of ideas and critical issues at the interface of science and society.”

Craig Just, assistant professor of civil and environmental engineering at the University of Iowa, has worked with Iowa communities to adopt a watershed approach that better adapts to changing weather conditions and recovery from floods, such as the 2008 Cedar Rapids flood that was so devastating it remains on Federal Emergency Management Agency’s top 10 list of costly natural disasters.

Just’s research team devised a digital tool that can predict the magnitude of floods within a watershed and the cost of damages to area buildings, contents and crop land outside of urban areas. It also has found that those living upstream are particularly vulnerable. The tool’s cost benefit analysis revealed it fiscally beneficial for the city to invest in upstream flood mitigation projects where the poor, renters and those without vehicles were found to be most susceptible to flood damage and dangers.

“You can use this tool to very quickly say we get a $5 billion benefit for $1 million spent upstream,” Just said. “Putting socially vulnerable populations on the map drives that dialogue that we want.”

Laura Schmitt Olabisi, associate professor of community sustainability at Michigan State University, described how her team improved computer modeling of complex food systems by integrating statistical factors related to those who live and work within the system. This led scientists to collaborate with local and state officials to pinpoint those most in need of food assistance.

A surprise finding revealed that households that owned a vehicle did not necessarily have improved health or better food security, a discovery that allowed Detroit-area policymakers to better target food assistance.

“Food security science is a systems science and it is impossible to address food security without including multiple perspectives, including the perspective of scientists, policymakers, community members, everyone involved in the system,” said Schmitt Olabisi.

Alexis Racelis, associate dean for community engagement and outreach at the College of Sciences at the University of Texas, Rio Grande Valley, has worked closely with local organic farmers who face challenges from insects, weeds and poor soil quality.

Student researchers inventoried the pests and published a field guide for the predominantly Hispanic famers in English and Spanish and distributed it for free. Researchers also studied the most effective cover crops to enrich soil quality and improve crop yield levels. The study results were communicated through videos in both English and Spanish, Racelis said.

“This was in response to our farmers, who said, ‘We don’t want to read your papers. We just want to listen to it on YouTube while we do other things,” he said. “The idea of engage, respond and repeat is what we think about, and how we, as an academic institution, try to help our farmers who are at the core of food security.”

Kirsten Schwarz, associate professor of biological sciences at Northern Kentucky University, traced her team’s research on backyard soil lead levels to identify landscape features with higher rates of contamination and help gardeners avoid such areas.  

The research project encountered several setbacks, including a disconnect between its goal of cataloging soil lead levels and the urban gardening community’s goal of promoting community gardening. Yet, the five-year study was able to sample over 120 neighborhood yards after the scientists reframed their research to align with the goals of their community partners.

The project underscored the values of framing research objectives carefully, Schwarz said, and understanding that strong community relationships are “fundamental to the university and community partnerships.”

[Associated image: Mary Catherine Longshore/AAAS]