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Wendy Jepson Engages Stakeholders to Address Global Water Insecurity

Leshner Fellow Wendy Jepson preparing students for field study.
AAAS 2018-19 Leshner Fellow Wendy Jepson preparing students for field study.
Photo credit: Texas A&M University College of Geosciences

Globally, around 4 billion people are faced with a severe water shortage for at least one month of the year. Wendy Jepson, a 2018-19 AAAS Leshner Leadership Institute for Public Engagement Fellow, is working toward solutions to address this massive issue. Jepson, University Professor of Geography at Texas A&M University,  also leads the Household Water Insecurity Experiences (HWISE) Research Coordination Network, which brings together researchers and practitioners to better understand the causes and consequences of water insecurity at the household-level.

Until recently, water insecurity was primarily measured at the macro-level (e.g., communities, countries, regions). The HWISE Network developed a scale that measures it at the level of individuals and households, and is intended to work across different contexts and cultures. Organizations around the world are currently piloting the scale, which Jepson and her colleagues hope will inform policies and programs to help the most at-risk communities.

Jepson says the AAAS training she received as a Public Engagement Fellow “helped tremendously in providing useful skillsets and a framework for reaching out to communities of interest.” She first used the AAAS public engagement framework to inform internal HWISE conversations about which publics they actually wanted to reach and how they might engage with them. Then over the course of the year, in parallel with their efforts to develop the scale, HWISE held meetings with non-profit organizations (like Oxfam), multilateral institutions (like UNESCO, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization), and policymakers to share the scale and learn how it could better meet their needs and answer their questions. She was pleased that they were able to create real dialogue.

“The fellowship provided me with skills to be able to do engagement in different ways, whether it’s hosting an event, or just thinking about how to present the research to the community that will be using these ideas… it was very, very helpful in that way,” Jepson said.

Jepson and several HWISE colleagues also created a submission for the Science Gallery Detroit’s art exhibit “Depth.” Their installation, “Precarity: Water and Power,” uses photographs the scientists took during their fieldwork to illustrate that water insecurity happens all over the world, including in the United States. The exhibit is open through August 17, 2019 and then will travel around the world.

Jepson reflected on this experience as a rewarding one. “This is a different way to talk about this experience of water insecurity… We can create numbers that represent what we see in the picture, but at the same time, the picture influences how we begin to think about, ‘Okay, how do we even measure this?’”  

Over the course of her AAAS fellowship year, Jepson had several other successes, including being awarded Texas A&M’s inaugural University Professorship in May 2019. In addition, Jepson and her co-Principal Investigators at the Texas Water Research Institute were awarded a $1.5 million grant from Texas A&M to assess urban water insecurity in locations in Texas, California, Australia and Israel. Although it was not required by the grant, they included a public engagement plan as part of the submission, which Jepson believes is one reason her university was drawn to it.

To support and facilitate engagement by other scientists at her institution, Jepson helped establish a dean’s award for public engagement, with money attached, for graduate students, post-docs, or faculty members conducting research. They held an event to honor their first awardee, and since then Jepson has continued to organize monthly events related to public engagement. Her plans for fall 2020 include talking with a journalist, talking with their campus representative from The Conversation, and discussing op-eds. The response has been quite positive – in fact, a visiting researcher from Argentina was inspired by one of the events to write an editorial to his local paper, which was published.  Jepson hope that during these ongoing engagements, she will finally write an op-ed advocating for Texas to adopt the human right to water. She has an outline, but she “hasn’t yet slayed the dragon,” she says. She accepts that she will “fail until she succeeds.”

Jepson points to three main reasons her efforts to promote public engagement at her college have been well-received: her dean is supportive (she nominated her for the AAAS fellowship); there was already ongoing activity related to public engagement (thus, the first person to receive the award was not hard to find); and their younger faculty especially have started to internalize engagement as part of their role, and they are not being penalized for it. “The idea that being a public institution means we needs to be responsive to society has permeated the attitudes of many faculty members,” Jepson said.

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 cohort of mid-career scientists from an area of research at the nexus of science and society.