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David Hart: How Can Higher Education Help Mobilize Sustainability Solutions?

David Hart is the Director of the Senator George J. Mitchell Center for Sustainability Solutions at the University of Maine, where he is also a professor of biology and ecology. His work focuses on increasing the value of science in society and on growing the capacity of higher education institutions to address sustainability challenges. The Mitchell Center brings together universities, stakeholders, and researchers to link knowledge with action in response to a wide variety of sustainability challenges.

You and your colleagues use stakeholder-engaged, interdisciplinary research to solve real-world problems. What role do students play in catalyzing solutions to the world’s most pressing sustainability challenges?

We want our students to become leaders and problem-solvers. We’ve provided research opportunities for ~ 900 undergraduate and graduate students in the last decade. Graduate students often have time to dive deeply into solutions-driven work. For undergraduates, we provide opportunities to work on teams of students and faculty from different fields. These experiences allow students to span the boundaries among different kinds of academic knowledge and real-world know-how.

In high school, I participated in an interdisciplinary environmental project in collaboration with a diverse stakeholder group, an experience that sparked my passion for strengthening the role of science in society. If we can help today’s students have hands-on, transformative experiences, they’ll be better equipped to build a sustainable world!

Can you describe the role of “bottom-up” strategies that universities can use to become more beneficial partners of society?

One common view of organizational change is that it requires leaders who can provide a clear, compelling vision for others to follow. But for universities, it’s also important to tap into the individual passions that inspire faculty research. Because sustainability problems involve many interacting environmental, social, and economic issues, no single kind of expertise is sufficient for identifying and implementing solutions. Our talented faculty want to “link their knowledge with action,” and they know that doing so necessitates collaborating with other academics and diverse stakeholders. This “grass-roots change” is gaining traction at our university and at many other institutions of higher education.

The Earth Leadership Program model involves three main groups: fellows, universities, and engaged science networks. How have you related back to your Earth Leadership Program training to balance the interests of university researchers and stakeholders without becoming partial to one interest or the other?

Connecting knowledge and action is more successful when interdisciplinary teams collaborate with diverse stakeholders and listen to those partners’ needs. Our faculty want their work to matter in the real world, and they’ve learned that their research is more likely to make a difference if it’s aligned with stakeholder concerns.

Faculty and students occasionally worry that by focusing on stakeholders, their research will be viewed as less rigorous or “cutting edge.” To avoid this, we work closely with researchers to ensure that they can publish innovative papers, navigate the peer-review process successfully, gain external recognition for their work, and work with stakeholders to link knowledge with action.

In a project focused on shellfishing, students and faculty learn from partners about clamming.

The Earth Leadership Program training model is built around collaboration, co-design, and cooperation with diverse stakeholders to accomplish transdisciplinary projects.

Can you describe the transdisciplinary nature of the groups you work with and the research you conduct?

Our work is “transdisciplinary” in the sense that it involves three components: engagement with stakeholders, interdisciplinary collaboration, and an emphasis on solutions. Our process usually begins when stakeholders ask for our help or when researchers connect with stakeholders to learn more about their goals. We then assemble research teams with sufficient breadth of expertise to match the multifaceted nature of the particular sustainability challenges at hand.

Our efforts have been strengthened by our decision to create a permanent home for this work at the University of Maine – the Senator George J. Mitchell Center for Sustainability Solutions – whose vision is to “…connect knowledge with action to create a brighter environmental, social and environmental future in and beyond Maine.”

The state of Maine faces many interconnected economic, social, and environmental challenges. Has the multifaceted nature of the state’s challenges led you to employ interdisciplinary teams in pursuit of solutions?

Do you have advice for communities, states, or countries with similarly diverse issues and stakeholder groups as they work to solve environmental issues?

The kinds of sustainability challenges we face in Maine are classic “wicked problems”, meaning that society disagrees about their importance, nature, and potential solutions. Wicked problems have many interconnected parts, and efforts to solve them often have adverse unintended consequences.

Universities have unique capacities for addressing wicked problems. Faculty and students have diverse knowledge bases to examine causes and consequences of such problems and identify potential management strategies. But like all organizations, universities can suffer from siloed thinking that complicates the coordination and integration of different kinds of expertise and problem-solving capacities.

Our advice for universities and their partners is to commit to learning how to collaborate more effectively. Managing wicked problems is harder if we can’t achieve a shared view of what the problem is or what useful solutions could look like. We need to build stronger collaborations within and across universities, as well as between universities and outside communities.

You have described Maine as a laboratory for sustainability science, a direct manifestation of the Earth Leadership Program’s “Empower” strategy.

How has the state of Maine, a model for sustainability science, provided the call to action for others, and conveyed ongoing conversations?

First, I’d like to acknowledge that my colleagues and I have benefited greatly from the Leopold Leadership Program’s innovative work. I’ve received great advice from dozens of Leopold Fellows about strengthening the work we’re doing in Maine and look forward to learning from the Earth Leadership Program Fellows. We can all help grow our collective capacity for creating a sustainable future.

When my colleagues and I share what we’re learning in Maine, many of the stories we tell are less about the science per se and more about our organizational ethos and culture. Our strategies are all about growing collaborative capacity, which requires relationships- among researchers and between researchers and stakeholders- built upon open communication, mutual respect, and trust. Part of the trick is to be prepared for the conflicts that sometimes arise in diverse partnerships and to troubleshoot organizational limitations and create more effective collaborations.

Our most important stories are about persistence. Quick fixes to sustainability problems are unlikely, so we need to stick with this work for the long haul.

The “systems model” you describe has two components: an emphasis on the human dimensions of biophysical problems, and productive collaboration between universities and diverse stakeholders.

How do you co-design solutions by emphasizing the human component of environmental issues? What role do salience, credibility, and legitimacy play in forging trust between the scientific community and society?

Biophysical science is needed to create a sustainable future. Scientist Bob Kates often said that when he and his colleagues were launching the field of sustainability science, it consisted mainly of biophysical researchers. But Bob was a geographer who was equally comfortable with biophysical and human dimensions of sustainability challenges. Bob was also a generous mentor and inspiring role model for our work in Maine.

We work hard to assemble interdisciplinary research teams with significant social science expertise, including expertise regarding strategies for changing human behaviors to promote sustainable policies and practices.

For example, the Mitchell Center has created opportunities for 200+ faculty to participate in a variety of interdisciplinary research projects. More than half of these researchers are social scientists. We’re fortunate that many of our faculty were trained in the humanities because their expertise helps us examine the moral, ethical and spiritual aspects central to creating a sustainable future.

The concepts of salience, credibility and legitimacy shape our efforts to link knowledge with action. We focus on issues that matter to stakeholders to increase the salience of our research. We’ve published hundreds of papers in peer-reviewed journals, which enhances the credibility of our work. We also invest significant time discussing our research with stakeholders to increase their understanding of and trust in our work.

Achieving legitimacy is often the greatest challenge because it requires transparent, respectful, and inclusive processes that represent the divergent beliefs and interests of various stakeholders. Legitimacy depends in part on whether the decision-making process is perceived as fair.

Though we’re not in charge of such decision-making processes, we often strive to enhance their legitimacy. For example, we’ve been collaborating for over a decade with Indigenous communities in Maine, including the Penobscots, Passamaquoddies, Maliseets, and Micmacs. We share the goal of increasing the ability of tribal communities to participate fully in decision-making surrounding use of land and natural resources. These collaborations rely on decolonizing methodologies to increase the legitimacy of decision-making processes.

During the Mitchell Center’s annual Sustainability Awards celebration, colleagues from the Penobscot Nation’s Department of Natural Resources (l-r: Dan Kusnierz, Angie Reed, Jan Paul) received an award for “Outstanding contributions by an external partner to research collaborations” in 2018.

What challenges have you faced in designing interdisciplinary research that aligns with societal needs? What has proven difficult in working with various stakeholder groups?

It can be hard to assemble the right mix of expertise on interdisciplinary research teams and even harder to ensure that the “interdisciplinary whole” is greater than the sum of the parts. And, although interdisciplinary teams play an important role in helping solve societal problems, participating researchers don’t always get the credit they deserve when it comes to professional advancement within their universities.

Working with diverse stakeholders can also be challenging. Stakeholders may become frustrated if they don’t quickly receive the answers they are seeking. Sometimes researchers can get caught in the proverbial “crossfire” if conflict arises between groups of stakeholders.

I’m fortunate to work with wonderful colleagues who have discovered many creative ways to overcome such challenges. But even when the challenges aren’t easily overcome, we forge ahead because we must.


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