Donor Enables Collaborative Interdisciplinary Research for Bren PhD Students
Thanks to a generous gift from H. William (Bill) Kuni, the Bren School is supporting a series of new projects in which two or more Bren PhD students representing the natural and social sciences collaborate to address an interdisciplinary environmental question. The effort is intended to expand the PhD experience by having students encounter the perspectives, methods, and language employed by various disciplines in addressing environmental problems, and to leverage them in coming up with more meaningful and comprehensive solutions. Selected projects receive funding to cover the cost of gathering and collecting data, attending conferences, and hosting relevant speakers at the Bren School, a key part of building relationships that can facilitate interdisciplinary research.
“The reality of research now is that it is collaborative; people don’t write single-author papers or do research on their own,” said third-year student Elizabeth Hiroyasu, who is working with fifth-year student Alex DeGolia, a political scientist, on a project related to political pressure and invasive-species management. “As a PhD student, your own research is not necessarily interdisciplinary. The fellowship allows us to learn early in our careers how to work together in an interdisciplinary environment. It means that Bren will be putting out environmental professionals and academics who know how to collaborate right away.”
DeGolia echoes that. “While interdisciplinary collaboration is the goal of many here and why I chose the Bren School rather than a traditional political science program, it isn't always easy to achieve for PhD students. There are strong incentives to develop disciplinary expertise and publish in journals that signal that expertise to others in the discipline,” he says. “The fellowship funding provides an opportunity to cross those disciplinary lines while also advancing each of our own research efforts.”
“Most PhD students want to do interdisciplinary research, but prior to the Kuni fellowships, there weren’t many incentives to do that with other students outside your lab, and aside from the first-year interdisciplinary course, there was no structure to facilitate the process,” said third-year student Jessica Perkins. “Several of us had overlapping ideas but never went beyond that. The fellowship gave us the opportunity to explore some of those ideas in an interdisciplinary way.”
Perkins’s research partner, Patrick Callery, an expert in management strategy, adds, “As a scholar, it is satisfying to me knowing that the Bren School values the contribution of social science to solving environmental problems. I also value the fact that the donor is interested in furthering research that advances practical solutions not only to specific environmental problems, but also to developing corporate environmental policies and strategies.”
Below are descriptions of the first three Kuni Interdisciplinary Research Projects, which received funded during the 2015-16 academic year and should be completed in about a year.
The Global Opportunity for Marine Aquaculture to Improve Human Nutrition
In this project, referred to as “Kuni Mariculture,” doctoral students Patricia Faundez-Baez, Owen Liu, Renato Molina, and Molly Wilson, with faculty mentoring from Professor Ben Halpern, are examining optimal ways to use marine-based aquaculture, or “mariculture,” on a scale that could help address global malnutrition. Economics and ecology are at the core of this effort, which also involves researchers at the UCSB National Center for Ecological Analysis & Synthesis.
Using data sets primarily from the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), the researchers began by establishing a scoring system for nations based on three factors: their level of dependence on seafood, their trade imbalance in seafood (how much more is imported than exported), and their per capita malnutrition rates. The team seeks to determine where and how mariculture might be used to address the nutritional gaps they find. They will then “ground-truth” their approaches by examining four case-study nations.
The goal is to identify optimal approaches in using mariculture to address nutritional needs as global population climbs toward perhaps 10 billion.
Investigating Motives for Management Action Related to Invasive Species.
Alex DeGolia and Elizabeth Hiroyasu are interested in what motivates people to demand management action related to eliminating endangered species. Because endangered species can cause so much harm to environments they invade, management efforts may be undertaken to eliminate the invader. These efforts may be motivated by political pressure.
Supported by Bren School faculty advisor and political scientist Professor Sarah Anderson, the students seek to identify what motivates individuals to call for management of invasive species, whether it is economic losses resulting from intruders or perhaps the opportunity to recover or protect one or more species by removing them.
Hiroyasu, an ecologist by training who has a particular interest in invasive species explains, “We can discuss and explore impacts, but it takes political will and engagement to move the needle for people to care. Invasives are especially tied up with people, who move them around. It’s a people problem that becomes an ecological problem.”
Working with DeGolia, she says, “has allowed me to engage academically in the political sphere. In some ways, there is a bit of a hole in the literature there. Experts have thought about the economics and the ecology of invasive species, but few have thought about how to bring that thinking together to develop solution in the policy realm.”
“The problem we are trying to address is by nature interdisciplinary: understanding the impacts of ecological, economic, and political forces on invasive species policy outcomes in California,” says DeGolia. “The project was Elizabeth's idea, and fits nicely with existing ecological and economic research she is doing on non-native pig species in California. I, on the other hand, had never even considered research on invasive species prior to this project. But I've done a lot of work regarding the effects of politics on environmental policy outcomes. Hopefully, together, we're able to produce something worthwhile that would be outside the realm of possibility if we were working independently.”
Uncertainty and Firms’ Voluntary Disclosure of Greenhouse Gas Emissions
As part of the effort to reduce greenhouse gas emissions (GHGs), which drive climate change, many businesses are trying to reduce their carbon footprints. In this project, fifth-year PhD student Patrick Callery, whose research is focused on strategic management, and third-year student Jessica Perkins, an industrial-ecology scholar and life-cycle-assessment (LCA) specialist, are applying their knowledge to a voluntary mechanism for reporting firms’ GHGs.
CDP, formerly the Carbon Disclosure Project, is a United Kingdom‒based organization that works with major corporations to disclose their GHGS. Nearly 3,000 firms participate in CDP. Favorable reports ― those in which GHGs are shown to be either low or falling — can have a high value for firms in terms of public relations and also for investors concerned with having a “green” portfolio.
Firms who choose to report receive two grades: one for how well they are mitigating their impacts in terms of climate change and another for their level of transparency. Callery and Perkins, working with Bren professors Matt Potoski (management) and Sangwon Suh (Industrial Ecology/LCA) are interested in determining whether the value favorable scores may influence how, what, and how accurately firms inventory and report their emissions, and whether cheating takes place that could undermine the veracity of the scores.
One particular area of interest is how firms address uncertainty in the system, whether it occurs as a result of natural variability or through holes in accounting, such as when a multinational company tries to account for all the GHGs in its global supply chain. Uncertainty values affect scores, so if a firm reports only 2 percent uncertainty, its score looks more reliable, whereas if uncertainty is closer to, say, 20 percent, the score is less reliable.
The project is intended to determine a) whether firms are reporting realistic uncertainty values based on their methods of calculating GHGs and b) whether firms are incentivized to describe accurately the uncertainty of their GHG disclosures.