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Virginia Tech News / Articles / 2014 / 08 

Natural resources 'roadmap' to guide research, education, policy decisions

August 29, 2014

The Science, Education, and Outreach Roadmap for Natural Resources, written by university scientists, including several from Virginia Tech, calls for an integrated approach to natural resources education, research, and management across funding agencies and academic disciplines, and better communication of research results to the public, including policymakers.

The Association of Public and Land-grant Universities’ strategy document details six “grand challenges” facing the United States in the areas of natural resources sustainability, water, climate change, agriculture, energy, and education. 

The report recommends actions to meet these challenges over the next decade.

Previous reports have tended to break natural resources into sub-disciplines representing particular resources, such as forests, rangelands, water, or wildlife, yet these resources are interrelated.

The goals of the roadmap are to provide direction for public universities for the next 5 to 10 years; identify major challenges, knowledge gaps, and priorities; provide guidance for policymakers in strategic planning and investment; advocate for the use of sound science in natural resources decision making; and chart a path for and facilitate the development of interdisciplinary research, education, and outreach focused on natural resources challenges.

Faculty members in Virginia Tech’s College of Natural Resources and Environment were involved in shaping responses to several of the challenges:

  • Sarah Karpanty, associate professor wildlife science, was co-author of the chapter that responds to the climate-change challenge.
  • Janaki Alavalapati, professor and head of the Department of Forest Resources and Environmental Conservation, was a reviewer of the energy challenge response. 
  • Eric Hallerman, professor of fisheries and wildlife, chaired the team that wrote the response to the education challenge response, with Brian Murphy, professor of fisheries science.
  • Dean Stauffer, professor of wildlife and associate dean for academic programs in the college, serving as peer reviewers on that response.

“Understanding the magnitude and direction of the direct and indirect effects of climate change on ecosystems combined with the effect of ecosystem changes on climate are among the most important questions facing ecologists and natural resource scientists and managers in the 21st century,” said Karpanty. 

For example, climate change is thawing the permafrost, which in turn is releasing carbon.

The chapter on climate change calls for interdisciplinary teams that will link climate change models to habitat models to models of population and community dynamics. “As such integrated models become accurate,” Karpanty said, “we will need to translate their predictions into actionable knowledge for natural resource managers and policymakers.”

Natural resource management in a changing climate is fundamentally an exercise in risk management, the roadmap emphasized. The chapter concludes that addressing the cumulative impacts of climate change and understanding uncertainty related to the impacts will make it possible to prioritize mitigation strategies.

Recommendations include identifying signals of climate change, improving climate-based models, and defining the impacts of uncertainty and irreversibility.

The education chapter also calls for incorporating uncertainty and the need for models. Goals are to incorporate natural resources into STEM (science, technology, and math) K-12 curriculum and activities; strengthen natural resources curricula in higher education; improve the scientific literacy of the nation’s citizens; communicate scientific information to the general public more effectively; and promoting diversity in the natural resources profession.”

And students should have hands-on experiences outside the classroom. Hallerman called for “changes in our modern built environments to provide children with positive contact with nature.”

Scientific literacy among the America public in general was a particular concern. “Education must promote critical thinking skills, such as the ability to use this knowledge to assess specific issues and evaluate options,” said Hallerman. “With a more robust investment in science education, natural resources decision making will prove less controversial.”

Recommendations to improve education and communication include integrating natural resources management into courses about the natural sciences, determining why so few women and minorities choose natural resources studies and careers, conducting research to better understand how individuals make decisions in order to increase the effectiveness of scientific communications, developing better methods for communicating uncertainty and probability to the public, and having a broader range of federal grants that require a comprehensive plan for communicating results to decision makers.

The team of 35 scientists who authored the roadmap received significant feedback from researchers at public and land-grant institutions across the country. The U.S. Department of Agriculture sponsored the report through a grant to Oregon State University, which then partnered with the Association of Public and Land-grant Universities.

The six grand challenges addressed in the report are as follows:

  • Sustainability: The need to conserve and manage natural landscapes and maintain environmental quality while optimizing renewable resources, particularly to meet increasing water, food, and energy demands.
  • Water: The need to restore, protect, and conserve watersheds for biodiversity, water resources, pollution reduction, and water security.
  • Climate Change: The need to understand the impacts of climate change and to develop a comprehensive strategy for managing natural resources to adapt to climate change.
  • Agriculture: The need to develop a sustainable, profitable, and environmentally responsible agriculture industry.
  • Energy: The need to identify new renewable energy sources and improve the efficiency of existing resources to meet increasing energy demands while reducing the ecological footprint of energy production and consumption.
  • Education: The need to maintain and strengthen natural resources education to have an informed citizenry.

The Association of Public and Land-grant Universities is a research, policy, and advocacy organization representing 235 public research universities, land-grant institutions, state university systems, and affiliated organizations.

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