May 22, 2014

Applying science to natural resource policy issues: Social science joins natural and physical sciences

Posted by kcompton

By Jana Davis, Executive Director, Chesapeake Bay Trust

Rain barrels:  An example of a residential scale stormwater practice targeted by behavior change programs. Credit: Chesapeake Bay Trust

Rain barrels: An example of a residential scale stormwater practice targeted by behavior change programs. Credit: Chesapeake Bay Trust

As AGU members, we generally focus on the contribution of physical and natural science solutions to policy questions. But sometimes an issue calls for us to step outside the boundaries of these “hard” sciences to the social sciences. Areas in which many of us tend to be less comfortable. And less trained. Watershed restoration and protection can be just such an issue.

Many estuaries worldwide are plagued by excessive nutrient and sediment loads with multiple sources. In the Chesapeake watershed, which some argue is the best studied estuary in the world (we know more or less what the problems are, where they are occurring, and how to solve them), sources of nutrient and sediment pollution include stormwater runoff, agricultural runoff, wastewater treatment plants, septic systems, and deposition from air. We have applied natural and physical sciences to understanding these sources, the loads, and the efficiencies of various best management practices in reducing these loads.

Most of the application of these hard sciences, however, starts when we are standing at a parking lot that needs to be retrofitted with stormwater management practices, or a stream buffer that needs to be planted, or a farm field on which cover crops should be installed. What we have tended to do less is apply scientific principles to understanding how to get to these sites, these opportunities for implementation of best management practices, in the first place.

Ninety-five percent of the land in the Chesapeake watershed is privately owned, by residential landowners, farmers, commercial and industrial property owners, and institutional landowners. These property owners can be forced to install nutrient-reducing practices on their properties, and this regulatory strategy is certainly one that has been employed widely in certain sectors.

These landowners can also be encouraged to implement certain practices voluntarily. In the Chesapeake, so well-known for its analysis of source sector loads of pollutants, the natural resource community has recently become known for its implementation of social science best practices as well.

It turns out that there is a science to encouraging voluntary landowner practices: the social science of behavior change using the tool of community-based social marketing. Rather than a fuzzy “outreach” concept, we are starting to treat outreach and behavior change as a real science. No longer are we content with putting on a workshop and hoping community residents show up, or funding a pamphlet that gets mailed out and hopefully read. The “outreach” section of a grant application is no longer unmeasurable fluff.

Working through barriers to rain barrel installation with a residential audience. Credit: Chesapeake Bay Trust

Working through barriers to rain barrel installation with a residential audience. Credit: Chesapeake Bay Trust

Just as in “hard” sciences, we use a clear methodology with hypothesis testing along the way. First, we identify a behavior that we want to change; for example, voluntary cover crop implementation by farmers or rain garden installation by homeowners, both meant to soak up nutrients and prevent them and sediments from running off into the local stream system and ultimately into the bay.

Next, we identify the audience in which we want that behavior to change, and we segment that audience based on hypotheses about how tailored a message might be for each segment. Full-time waterfront residents behave differently than summer residents of a community. The perceived barriers and benefits to adopting the behavior in question are assessed for each audience segment, part of the formative research phase. These barriers and benefits are best quantified through robust survey tools or focus groups. Often these barriers are assumed to be well known, but researchers are often surprised by what they learn. One of the biggest barriers to planting trees on school property by facilities managers, for example, is crime and safety concerns. Energy conservation is not perceived by this audience as a valuable enough benefit. Therefore, if we want to plant more trees on school properties, we will have to address the perceived impact of trees on attracting or hiding crime.

Third, a message is developed that considers those barriers and benefits, a method to deliver that message is developed, and the message and method are pilot tested. Several tools can be employed, including prompts (such as the reminder notice around light switches used in the energy conservation sector), social norms (such as the bright yellow bins in the recycling movement), or commitments (which psychological experiments show increases the likelihood of adopting a behavior, especially public commitments).

Finally, the outcomes of the pilot testing are evaluated quantitatively relative to a baseline. The ultimate goal is to focus on behaviors in audiences that have a high impact (likelihood of improving water quality), a high probability of being adopted, and a low current penetration rate (percentage of people already exhibiting the behavior). Establishing impact-probability-penetration rate relationships for each major behavior for representative types of audiences is no small feat. In the Chesapeake watershed, groups are currently working on adoption of small-scale homeowner best management practices, such as rain gardens and rain barrels; on lawn care behaviors (there are as many acres in turf grass, often heavily fertilized, as there are in farmland in the Chesapeake); on litter reduction strategies; and on pet waste reduction behaviors (locally, pet waste can be the biggest source of bacterial impairments of waterways).

While social scientists have been working in the field of social marketing for a long time, only recently have these principles been applied to water quality problems in estuaries. Given how much of the solution to these problems private citizens play, natural resource managers have been forced to apply scientific principles and practices to the human side of the problem. As a result, natural, physical, and social science together intersect to address policy issues.

Dr. Jana Davis is the Executive Director of the Chesapeake Bay Trust, overseeing its work on watershed restoration, education, outreach, and innovation. Jana has been at the Trust since 2005, first as Assistant Director for Programs then as Associate Executive Director prior to assuming the role of Executive Director. Jana is trained as a marine ecologist, with a B.S. in biology from Yale University and a Ph.D. in oceanography from the Scripps Institution of Oceanography, and has spent her career working at the intersection of science and policy. Dr. Davis will be speaking at the 2014 AGU Science Policy Conference in June.