Disciplines and Institutions in Denial: The Case for Interdisciplinary/Interagency Research/Mitigation on Climate Change Impacts
By Don Callaway
Today, advocating for use of interdisciplinary research to address issues associated with climate change seems almost rhetorical. For example, an advisory committee to the National Science Foundation (NSF), the U.S.’s major source of funding for scientific research, states:
With respect to climate change NSF places a high priority on research that integrates behavior and life sciences, earth and atmospheric sciences, social sciences and mathematical, physical, engineering and informational sciences.
Interdisciplinary priorities for NSF and other agencies will not achieve all they could achieve if the institutional practices within the research and education communities are not adapted to facilitate interdisciplinary action (Advisory Committee for Environmental Research and Education 2009).
Echoing this position, the National Park Service Climate Change Response Strategy incorporated six principles from a 2009 National Research Council report “to provide a framework for building the collaborative and flexible response capacity that the NPS needs to effectively address climate changes.” Of particular interest to the thesis of this article is Principle 4: building connections across disciplines and organizations.
To ensure that the best information is available for decision makers as knowledge about climate change and effective responses increases, significant effort must go into building networks that encourage interdisciplinary collaboration among people with a wide range of technical expertise within the bureau and the department as well as across other agencies, partners and stakeholders (emphasis added) (National Park Service 2010).
Despite the self-evident nature of this proposition NSF added the following caveat: Current practices in academic and government institutions, with their traditional disciplinary funding and evaluation mechanisms, often inhibit the truly innovative and integrative science and education the nation needs. NSF should adopt organizational and review strategies that promote interdisciplinary innovation and ensure that programs funded for interdisciplinary activities have the longevity necessary to attract scientists to work collaboratively across the disciplines (Advisory Committee for Environmental Research and Education 2009).
This article reflects NSF’s concern by providing a brief description of long-term difficulties in building this vision of multidisciplinary research into subsistence issues in the Alaska region. In contrast to this disappointing precedent we will next describe a very solid interdisciplinary effort to produce sub-regional climate change scenario planning documents for Alaska. Finally, we end with a more sobering tale of the difficulties of inter-organizational coordination and cooperation in responding to climate change impacts to rural coastal communities in Alaska.
The preceding paragraph highlights the terms “multidisciplinary” and “interdisciplinary.” We suggest that “multidisciplinary” efforts are research projects where separate disciplines each write their own proposals, set their own budgets and research designs, and collect and analyze their data independently. What ties a “multidisciplinary” effort together is that the outcomes of their research share a topical link, e.g., caribou—their biological status and their human harvest and cultural uses. In addition, the findings of these independent research efforts are produced within a short enough temporal window that both types of data can be used to inform management decisions. In contrast, “interdisciplinary” research often shares a common funding “pot” (a useful but not essential condition) and a coordinated and collaborative overall research design. Such a research design has milestones whereby the products of one discipline; for example, geophysics/climate modeling, is a necessary input for other disciplines, e.g., biology/ecology, to conduct their own analysis. All disciplines perceive that their research and/or analyses are critically integrated in the production of a final report containing a shared vision.
Coordinating Disciplinary Research in Subsistence Management: The Regional Studies Plan Proposal
In Alaska, the Federal Subsistence Board (FSB) manages eligibility, access, and harvest of wildlife resources on federal lands through a regulatory system that emphasizes “seasons and bag limits.” The regulations that they promulgate state when (season) and how much (bag limit) of a species can legally be harvested. Most of the FSB decisions revolve around linking two facts: (1) the population status (health and number) of a wildlife species, e.g., caribou, which is linked to additional information and analysis on which rural residents are eligible to harvest caribou (based on their residence and cultural uses), and (2) how much of a species is traditionally harvested, consumed, and shared as needed. A number of disparate professional disciplines, from biology, ecology, and anthropology, are employed to provide this information.
However, it has often been the case that the requisite data for an FSB management decision was missing. Often there were no data relating to a specific issue, or there could be recent social data available without recent biological data on the status of the resource, or vice versa. Thus, often there was no data, or the simultaneous provision of both sets of data was serendipitous.
Between 1995 and 2009 numerous proposals were suggested to rectify this situation, most often in the form of an integrated regional studies plan. Within NPS, research proposals were (and still are) submitted by park and regional personnel to two overarching deliberate panels: the Natural Resource Advisory Council (NRAC) and the Cultural Resource Advisory Committee (CRAC). These two panels were later supplemented by a third panel, the Subsistence Advisory Committee (SAC).
Selected NRAC and CRAC proposals for research were supported by national funding “pots” allocated to regions, e.g., the Alaska Region. Advisory panels would review proposals for technical merit, keeping in mind an equitable distribution of funds between parks over time and perceived need. The concept of a regional studies plan was that a regional panel of resource managers, including superintendents or their designees, creates a top-10 list of existing or expected resource management issues (e.g., the perceived decline of a caribou herd). These 10 issues could then provide general overall guidance on upcoming research needs to the advisory committees—for example, biological research on the caribou herd in question along with social/cultural information on the communities that harvested from that herd. There was no expectation that all the research monies from these funding sources would be applied to issues identified in the regional studies plan, but that at least some priorities submitted for consideration by more than one advisory committee would be coordinated among multiple disciplines, i.e., multidisciplinary research.
Why, over a span of nearly 15 years, did multiple proposals and multiple presentations to both groups, with support from the associate regional director, fail to be adopted? There seem to be two key dimensions that contributed to this failure. The first dimension is the structure, organization, process, and allocation of research funds, which have been, for the most part, “stove-piped” along disciplinary lines. The second dimension, recognized by NSF, relates to how incentives and rewards are distributed. Broad divisions between the physical, biological, and social sciences are organized in NPS to mirror their organization in higher education. Research universities organize their incentives and rewards along strictly disciplinary lines. Higher rewards, such as tenure, are offered to researchers who publish along disciplinary lines. Senior authorship or co-authorship of a peer-reviewed journal article or book counts much more towards tenure than does the contribution of the sixth of 12 authors on a larger multidisciplinary research effort.
Also, a multidisciplinary research effort can create the specter of turf battles. Researchers tend to protect disciplinary pots of money within their own control, and resist dividing funds to support research expenses in other disciplines.
Finally, it warrants mention that the above-mentioned regional studies plan proposal was advanced only within NPS. A truly integrated regional studies plan should of necessity involve all the federal agencies within the FSB and similar agencies within the state, e.g., the Alaska Department of Fish and Game. As the NPS climate change response strategy noted, “as well as across other agencies, partners and stakeholders” (National Park Service 2010).
The fact that such an integration of research resources was not even suggested speaks volumes.
Climate Change Research: the National Park Service’s Scenario Planning Initiative
As already mentioned, the proposals for multidisciplinary efforts to coordinate biological and social sciences on subsistence issues have been slow to take hold. A contrasting example is provided by the NPS Climate Change Response Program’s funding for a large ($600,000) interdisciplinary effort for climate change scenario planning across multiple large areas of Alaska.
Five climate change scenario planning workshops were conducted for geographically associated park clusters within Alaska. We will refer to three of those workshops in this article. One workshop included Southeast Alaska Network (SEAN) parks and coastal Wrangell-St. Elias. Another included all of the Southwest Alaska Network (SWAN) parks, the Kenai Peninsula, and Bristol Bay region. The third focused on coastal northwest Alaska, while two others focused on interior arctic Alaska and on central Alaska. Brevity precludes a detailed discussion of the scenario planning process, which is described in each of the reports generated by these five workshops (Winfree et al. 2014a, 2014b, 2014c, 2014d, and 2014e). However, it is key to the thesis of this article to note the close coordination demonstrated among a variety of disciplines in researching and producing these workshops.
The scenario planning process began with elicitation of several focal questions about uncertainties that have important long-range strategic consequences for NPS. A focal question at each workshop was: How can NPS managers best preserve the natural and cultural resources and values within their jurisdiction in the face of climate change?
Workshop participants were then asked to evaluate driving forces that affect these focal questions. Driving forces are key processes that influence or shape the focal questions in fundamental ways. The University of Alaska Fairbank’s (UAF) Scenarios Network for Alaska Planning (SNAP) provided a set of “driver tables” for each workshop.
As you can see from the SEAN example driver table (Table 1), each row contains one climate variable (e.g., temperature), the modeled specific changes expected in this variable (e.g., an increase of 2 degrees Centigrade by the year 2050), the pattern of change (more pronounced in northern latitudes), and the confidence associated with this prediction.
Increased precip (10%-20%), possible decrease in winter snow
Increased precip (20-40%), possible decrease in winter snow
High uncertainty in timing of snowmelt
5-10 days inland; freeze-up may not regularly occur in coastal areas
10-20 days inland; freeze-up may not regularly occur in coastal areas
Length of Ice-free Season
7-10 days inland; freeze-up may not regularly occur in coastal areas
14-21 days inland; freeze-up may not regularly occur in coastal areas
IPCC (2007); SNAP/UAF
> 90% chance of increase
IPCC (2007); SNAP/UAF
Water Availability (soil moisture = precip minus PET)
decrease of 0-20+%
decrease of 10-40+%
>66%; varies by region
SNAP/UAF; Wilderness Society
0% ± 10% increase or decrease
0% ± 15% increase or decrease
50% = as likely as not
>90% chance of increase
Abatzoglou & Brown
Pacific Decadal Oscillation (PDO)
Uncertain effect of atm circulation anomalies on Alaska's climate
Uncertain effect of atm circulation anomalies on Alaska's climate
High degree of natural variation
Hartmann & Wendler (2005)
Extreme Events: temperature
3-6 times more warm events; 3-5 times fewer cold events
5-8.5 times more warm events; 8-12 times fewer cold events
Abatzoglou & Brown; Timlin & Walsh 92007)
Extreme Events: precipitation
Change of -20% to +50%
Change of -20% to +50%
Abatzoglou & Brown
Extreme Events: storms
Increase in frequency/intensity
Increase in frequency/intensity
Field et al. (2007)
SNAP also provided maps depicting baseline (recent historical) climate and modeled output for future change to key variables, including monthly mean temperature, monthly mean precipitation, date of freeze, date of thaw, summer season length, and mean annual ground temperature at just over a yard (1 meter) depth (Figure 3).
What is crucial to recognize is the large number of disciplines involved in the production of these climate drivers. Principals in SNAP included PhDs in forest ecology, botany and plant ecology, science communication (and rural development), programmers, software engineers, statisticians, geophysicists, and so forth. In essence, multiple disciplines coalesced to provide high-resolution climate modelling output for sub-regions within the state of Alaska.
Another critical step in the process was that these climate drivers were evaluated by a whole host of other workshop participants, having expertise in a wide range of disciplines—ecologists, biologists who specialize in land or marine mammals, mycologists, hydrologists, anthropologists, economists, and—just as important—a host of local residents, hunters, and others, each bringing a lifetime of experience on the land observing both the landscape/habitat, and the activities, behaviors, and life cycles of numerous species.
Keeping in mind the effects tables that had been developed in webinars and discussions prior to the workshop, all workshop participants voted on what climate drivers they thought and felt were both important (in terms of impacts) and highly uncertain as to their outcomes. Table 2 from the SEAN workshop shows the ranking outcomes of workshop participants.
Table 2. Rankings of climate drivers for the Marine work group of the Southeast Alaska workshop. Group members discussed the impact and uncertainty of each potential driver.
Timing & magnitude of stream flow (added)
Length of growing season
Sea level rise
Water availability (soil moisture)
Extreme events: higher temperatures
Extreme events: precipitation
Extreme events: storms
Ocean temperature increasing (added)
X (but not degree)
Participants in the coastal subgroup of the Southwest Alaska workshop considered a very similar set of drivers, ultimately choosing two as the most critical, uncertain, and likely to affect their region in the next 50-100 years: ocean acidification and water availability (a combination of storms and precipitation). Potential impacts to park resources and infrastructure were identified and analyzed by considering a matrix of four plausible combinations of these two drivers. Based on this local climate drivers matrix, each workshop also developed several scenarios to explore potential impacts of climate change to park resources. The biophysical climate scenarios were also nested within a social/institutional framework. A dimension of social concern strongly influenced the potential outcomes for several climate scenarios. For example, people who were broadly informed and shared a heightened sense of urgency about climate impacts could be expected to respond differently than if there was widespread indifference to climate change and its impacts.
As mentioned above, prior to each workshop, participants helped to flesh out a climate effects table (Table 3). These tables organized potential effects to resources, operations, and people that might accrue from changes in the climate drivers mentioned above. Brief descriptions of the potential effects were collected and assessed by project team members with diverse disciplinary backgrounds. For example, anthropologists helped to identify potential impacts to subsistence, wilderness, tourism, economic development, and social and cultural impacts. As an illustration, we provide one brief write-up from the northwest Alaska workshop report (Winfree et al. 2014b), which describes the potential effects of community relocation resulting from storm surges, coastal erosion, flooding, thawing permafrost and other climate drivers:
Relocating indigenous communities represents a large social burden, not just financial cost for governments, but also impacts to the communities themselves, potentially resulting in loss of integral cultural elements such as access to traditional use areas for subsistence activities, loss of history and sense of intact community, and potential loss of social networks and extended kin support. Significant increases in social pathologies such as alcoholism and domestic violence may also be anticipated. Tremendous stresses may also be placed on traditional means of conflict resolution. In addition multiple strains will be placed on local governance and delivery of services. Finally, state and federal governments will have huge additional burdens placed on them as they try to provide relief from the impacts of climate change.
Landscape-level changes affect visitor experiences and access, visitor use patterns shift.
Large-scale physical and biological changes across broad landscapes affect abundance and condition of wilderness- associated resources (e.g., glaciers, wildlife, access routes, etc)
Changing biophysical landscape affects key wilderness values such as naturalness, wild-untamed areas without permanent opportunties for solitute, etc.
Uses of traditional ecological knowledge become less predictive and less reliable.
More natural resource development in Alaska with increasing global demand.
Fuel and energy prices increase substantially with carbon mitigation measures. Transporting fuels to remote locations becomes more challenging and costly.
Research and Mitigation of Climate Change Impacts at Various Scales
The NSF advisory committee recognized the necessity of moving beyond researching issues to help develop mitigation strategies to aid communities suffering the consequences of climate change:
Environmental science must move beyond identifying issues and toward providing sound bases for the development of innovative solutions, effective adaptation, and mitigation strategies. To accomplish this goal we urgently need to expand our capacity to study the environment as an integrated system that includes the human dimension. Humans are inextricably embedded within supporting environmental systems. To understand this coupling of natural and human social systems, we must advance general concepts such as ecosystem services and describe the processes that link natural systems, from local to global scales, with human systems from individuals to collectives. (Advisory Committee for Environmental Research and Education 2009).
One of the communities currently at risk from the large environmental changes brought about by climate change in the Bering Sea is Newtok. The difficulties Newtok has experienced serve as an exemplar case study as to what may await numerous other rural Alaska coastal and riverine communities. Floods, erosion, and the complete encirclement of the community by the Ninglick River have turned Newtok into an island. Newtok is faced with:
Flooding that has eroded the community’s dock and crane—bulk shipments of fuel can’t be delivered
Flooding that is causing problems with sewage disposal and may have serious health consequences
Solid waste disposal that can only be accomplished by boat
Complete community infrastructure—school, homes, diesel storage, and clinic that are eroding
As bad as the problems presented by the physical environment are, much worse is the frustration experienced by residents as they try to adapt and move their community to higher ground (the community was originally situated in this location by edict of the BIA in the 1950s against the objections of indigenous families).
Stanley Tom of Newtok stated that one of the biggest obstacles they face in trying to relocate is the lack of a single agency or group in charge of planning and/or response. The Alaska Department of Transportation and Public Facilities can’t build an airstrip unless there is a post office; there can’t be a post office without a school; and the school has to have at least 25 students. But the structures needed to house 25 students can’t be built without the airstrip. These and numerous other Catch-22 situations impede an integrated, flexible, and timely response. In addition, obtaining funding for relocation has been difficult and frustrating.
A multitude of state, federal, and regional entities are responsible for delivering services to rural Alaskan villages, but specific program policies and regulatory constraints produce circumstances for conflicting directives, resulting in bottlenecks in the ability to achieve a coordinated delivery of vital services and outcomes that will enable villages and traditional culture to adapt in the face of climate change. Therefore, there is a concrete need for establishing a coordinating entity with the ability to advocate and navigate these multiple bureaucratic entities and to leverage their resources to support rural villages in emergency response, relocation, subsistence concerns, and other priorities.
For instance, in order to facilitate a possible migration to higher ground, the Newtok Traditional Council has to interact with a large number of bureaucratic entities—13 State of Alaska agencies, 10 federal agencies and over five regional entities. This is a severe burden for a small community of 300 inhabitants.
The NPS scenario planning initiative in Alaska serves as an exemplary model for interdisciplinary research on climate change. Single-source funding for interdisciplinary cooperation is rare. Nevertheless we must recognize and continue to advocate, as the NSF Advisory Committee (2009) notes:
Incorporating the human component will require long-term, regional-scale research that addresses how individual behavior, demography, and social systems respond to changes in the functioning of environmental systems. While scientists from every discipline can make significant contributions, studying the components of environmental systems in isolation from each other is neither adequate nor meaningful. To address the environmental challenges that confront us we must find ways to integrate and synthesize data from diverse fields into a whole-systems perspective, taking into account the complications of interactions occurring on different spatial and temporal scales.