Symposium Interviews: Bruce Jacobson

Bruce Jacobson
Bruce Jacobson
Superintendent, Boston Harbor Islands National Recreation Area,
National Park Service

Interviewed by Tara Weaver 11/4/2008

The Park

Can you recall a few of your main impressions from the first Science Symposium in 2003; specifically as they compare to this year’s symposium?

In 2002, we had an intro session at MIT where we introduced the researchers who were working on Park Service projects to each other, and briefly went over their scope of work, because the researchers in the park had never really met together before. We used that as a spring-board for what we could do if we were all talking to each other. We set up the 2003 symposium by saying, in a year from now we want to get together and learn what you have learned about the park. MIT Sea Grant worked with me to put together a summary of the 2002 seminar.

In 2003, we received several grants; about $150,000 in funding for the Science Symposium. We used the symposium as the opportunity to do a peer-reviewed journal. We tried to establish Boston Harbor Islands as a player in the field of science, and in research about Boston and national parks. The symposium was a full day at the Museum of Science. We had E.O. Wilson as the key note speaker; that was a highlight. It was really there that he got engaged in Boston Harbor Islands. All of that resulted in the ATBI and the work with Harvard. E.O. Wilson as the keynote really was the launch of the ATBI.

Charlie Roman and I were the editors of the peer-reviewed journal. He was the scientific editor and I was the style and park-related content editor. That was a tremendous amount of work, but to have the peer-reviewed journal was a great outcome of the first symposium. The 2003 Symposium really established the park as a venue within the scientific community. With E.O. Wilson as the speaker, and with all of the presentations, and then with the Northeastern Naturalist as a wrap up, it was a robust agenda.

How does science relate to the mission of the National Park Service and Boston Harbor Islands?

Our mission is to protect resources for future generations. The premise of science in park management is that in order to make wise decisions you have to have information. Science is one way of gathering useful information to make management decisions. Science relates to the National Park Service and Boston Harbor Islands in that it provides information for sound decision making.

How has the presence of island research projects encouraged a sense of community in the park?

It has happened in several ways. One is that there is a community of scientists now interested in the park, and that was clearly evident at the 2008 Symposium. The event, and all the research, has created this community of researchers. Then, because of our intent of making science also available to citizens and managers, the science has increased the community of managers and staff; the island staff rangers have become involved in the science and feel more involved in park management. Then there are the stewardship and citizen scientist aspects from the Bioblitz this year. We had Judy Pederson return—she was my host at the 2002 MIT seminar. She came back as a volunteer for the Bioblitz this year because of her involvement and because of the buzz; the same with Mark Mello, who did some of our initial research on insects in the park. He has been back for some of the activities and events. Also, volunteers have been involved in the community of stewardship scientists.

The Partnership

For members of the Partnership who did not attend the Symposium, is there a section from the event that they might find particularly interesting?

You can’t generalize for all of the Partners. You have to think about those who are island managers for whom specific information about their islands will be of particular interest. I think for non-island managers, a general summary of facts like number of species, reports on field trips and the collection of specimens, found and unidentified specimens will be of interest to the non-land owner.

How do you see the Partnership benefiting from the research?

One way is that park managers will have the information to make informed, scientifically-based decisions. The Partnership and the park, as a whole, benefit in being seen as a legitimate research venue and serious management entity, because we take our work seriously and there is real research going on.

The Public

Volunteers invest in the park and its mission by dedicating hours of their time. Many of them are not academics or scientists. In your opinion were volunteers represented at the symposium?

I think the question raises a valid point; which is, if we are in fact proceeding along a line of citizen science in support of other pure science in the park, then that should be reflected at the symposium.

Part of the answer to that question is that we should use the park website as a way to highlight some of the volunteer connections to the research that was presented at the symposium.

Why is it important for the public to know about the scientific research on the islands?

Scientific research generates information, and knowledge. One part of our mission is to make sure people have an enjoyable experience—and some people go out to learn. The information we have about the islands will provide a better experience for those who are interested. It is also useful for the general public to understand that decisions are made based on real data; that we don’t just arbitrarily make decisions about important places like national parks. Part of the stewardship­ message is that we attempt decision making based on science and scholarship—whether that’s natural science, social science, or scholarly research. In addition to science, our decisions are based on "scholarly research," which is Park Service code for history, ethnography and to some degree, archaeology.

During your opening remarks you called Boston Harbor Islands “educational laboratories” for researchers. You said there is a “kernel of an idea” for a first class research center with classrooms and labs side-by-side, placing the public and professionals side-by-side. The potential spot for this island, or field based station, is Thompson Island. When might this come to fruition?

First, “educational laboratories” is a term from E.O. Wilson. I was quoting E.O. Wilson. The idea of a research learning center on Thompson Island is in the mid-term to distant future. We already have scientists using Thompson Island. Jessica Rykken and Harvard students are out there. We have school groups out there right now. But in order to make a research learning center we need capital investment in lab equipment, appropriate wet labs, computers, Internet connections, and who knows exactly what else in terms of laboratory equipment.

Based on a Park Service / Thompson Island Outward Bound feasability study, within five years it would be likely to see some kind of improvements that would move us closer to a research learning center on Thompson Island. There is discussion at the National Park Service Washington office, as well as the National Parks and Conservation Association (NCPA), about funding for existing science research centers and the establishment of additional centers. On Monday I spoke with one of the Washington reps at the NPCA, who is working on this idea, and I reminded him again of the Boston Harbor Islands idea. Unfortunately for this idea, there already is a research learning center in Massachusetts at Cape Cod National Seashore, so any Park Service support will likely go to states where there is no such thing.

We don’t know for sure, but we are at least moving in that direction. It will also depend on the success of Thompson Island, with NPS, in building the educational program on the island.


During the “Call for Future Research Needs on Boston Harbor Islands” was there a call from the audience that you found specifically interesting?

Yes, and even at the time I did second the notion: we need to do more social science research at the park. We need to have a better understanding of who our visitors are and where they come from, so we can increase visitation to the islands. I very much feel that we need to do a lot more with understanding visitors, and potential visitors, to the park through social science.

Do you see another Science Symposium on the horizon?

When I first organized the 2003 Symposium I thought it might be every other year, but in reflecting on the 2003 and then the 2008 Symposia, I think every five years is probably a pretty good target. So 2013 would be another good time, unless we happen to have some extra flurry of activity that we wanted to showcase. But I would say every five years, just given the amount of effort. And I would want it to be a little bit more robust. We certainly could not have fit any more sessions into the day this year but maybe multiple sessions, multiple days, or something along those lines.

Last updated: February 26, 2015

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