How the SW CASC NRWD Fellowship Has Prepared Us for Working in this New Reality

April 8, 2020
Josh Sturtevant in a mountain forest setting up research equipment.

We have entered into new times of great uncertainty in which collaborative and interdisciplinary approaches to grand problems must be the standard. This is the reality ushered in by the global pandemic. In the United States alone, gruesome statistics of lives lost, public health systems stressed, and unyielding exponential growth of the novel coronavirus disease-2019 has brought the daily lives of hundreds of millions of Americans to a near stand-still. Similar realities have played out in countries including China, Italy, and Iran, with over 1.2 million cases and 60,000 deaths worldwide as of this writing (World Health Organization, 2020). In the words of the United Nation’s Secretary General António Guterres: “Covid-19 is the greatest test that we have faced together since the formation of the United Nations,” demanding collective world action not seen since World War II.

In the midst of the first pandemic since the 1918 Spanish Flu, science has emerged at the fore-front with renewed public interest and sentiment. Globally, all eyes are trained on scientists racing to develop a vaccine, who have cast aside normal imperatives such as academic credit in favor of global collaboration (New York Times, 2020). In the United States, public health officials such as Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, have developed loyal followings among those seeking fact-based guidance and reassurance (The Verge, 2020). For a country who has critically under-funded science research initiatives (NPR, 2014) and embraced science skepticism, particularly around the topic of climate change (Smith and Leiserowitz, 2012) , this change in public opinion has the appearance of a watershed moment.

For the SW CASC Natural Resource Workforce Development (NRWD) Fellows, science-policy-management interactions are the central focus to our training and research. Inextricably, the nexus of these domains is on some level informed by public opinion. Though the immediate impact of COVID-19 on the natural sciences is undoubtedly negative (e.g. labs closing, field seasons cancelled), it is also possible to imagine the slow change in public sentiment favoring longer term investment in the applied natural sciences. Already, an additional $75 million has been allocated by the United States Congress to the National Science Foundation’s Rapid Response Research program to prevent, prepare for, and respond to the coronavirus (Science, 2020). If and when the moment arrives for widespread science investment driven by a restored public interest in the sciences, I strongly believe that the preparation and training I have received through this fellowship program will better prepare me for that new reality.

There are two examples that come to mind when considering how the NRWD Fellowship has prepared me for science in the era of a pandemic. First is the remote nature of large-team, stakeholder-driven, collaborative research. Before Zoom became a household name brand, the fellowship team and our advisors congregated over video conference for our biweekly meetings to discuss research efforts and future directions. What were once challenging communication circumstances have since become reliable avenues for large-team and one-on-one collaborations. Second has been the use-inspired nature of our scientific efforts. In the last several weeks, members of our team have worked closely with faculty and outside advisors to prepare a survey for submission to the Institutional Review Board. Pending review and acceptance, our group plans to survey different communities and groups along the Gila River system about barriers to climate adaptation planning and access to localized hydroclimatic projections. Our objectives are to produce actionable science relevant to all river users. Now, perhaps more than ever, our SW CASC training as collaborative and interdisciplinary team scientists has prepared us for successfully approaching large-scale scientific problems that strive to deliver on the issues most relevant to society.

Smith, N., & Leiserowitz, A. (2012). The Rise of Global Warming Skepticism: Exploring Affective Image Associations in the United States Over Time. Risk Analysis, 32(6), 1021–1032.