Advancing collaborations in sustainability

Strategic funding can transform conversation into collaboration. For residents in the Skunk River watershed, this meant a voice in the sustainability research happening in their own community.

William Gutowski, professor in the Department of Geological and Atmospheric Sciences and associate dean of the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, brought together a group of researchers in geological and atmospheric sciences studying water processes, researchers in economics studying economic incentives of water use, researchers in engineering studying fluid mechanics and water resources engineering, and researchers in English studying communication between scientists and water managers to develop a holistic and sustainable water-management planning model involving input from the community.

The Liberal Arts and Sciences Signature Research Initiative (SRI), designed to encourage LAS faculty to develop and lead interdisciplinary, collaborative research projects, gave their project the funding it needed to get off the ground.

"I'd been talking off and on with different people and then this opportunity came along," Gutowski said. "It pulled us together to say 'okay, what can we really do?'"

The project modeled the Skunk River watershed with a water-resources model combining environmental and economic sustainability interests. The researchers also interacted with and sought feedback from community members in the watershed area. The research showed how a community could plan sustainable water usage through a participatory model.

"We wanted to get some sense from them of their priorities,” Gutowski said. “We also wanted them to understand a little bit about what models are — how they can be useful and maybe also can be abused."

While a model is a familiar tool for scientists, it may be new to community members. During the project, community members were able to raise questions about the inputs into the model. Some issues raised involved aspects the researchers hadn't considered, such as how the economic viability of the town is related to farmers' ability to spend their profits in town.

Through the SRI funding the researchers were able to hire Prairie Rivers of Iowa, a nonprofit organization committed to promoting awareness and building respect for the ecological integrity of our natural resources, to advertise and coordinate the public meetings.

"They've got a lot of experience with community interactions, getting the word out to members of the community, pulling people together," Gutowski said. "The first

two meetings we had were in a small church an hour north at the other end of our basin. I thought that was great because it felt like a community meeting place."

The project has resulted in a published paper and the forming of an interdisciplinary group that will continue to work together and bring new members into this area of study. Five new faculty members hired at the university will be involved in this research, contributing to sustainability modeling through their respective areas. By combining different research angles into one region, the researchers hope to create a synergy of research data that, pooled together, creates a more holistic picture than any individual project could on its own.

"This is trying to pull together not just a collection of natural science areas but also pull together all the other social science and humanities areas," Gutowski said. "You could imagine a historian who wants to look at rural development in Iowa. What they end up working with could inform a lot of efforts of people that are trying to understand how the landscape has evolved."

This story is one of three updates on research projects awarded LAS Strategic Research Initiative funds in 2014.