The Colgate Scene
March 2006

Creating environmental harmony
For Herman Karl '69, resolving environmental disputes requires getting scientists into the policymakers' choir

Herman Karl '69 is co-director of MUSIC (the MIT-USGS Science Impact Collaborative). He came to campus last fall to participate in the geology Cooper Lecture Series. His talk was titled "Deep Freeze — The Impact of Science on U.S. Climate Change Policy." [Photo by Timothy D. Sofranko]

Up until the early 1990s, Herman Karl '69 was content in his work at the United States Geological Survey. A marine geologist, he had spent more than 20 years mapping ocean floors around the world. But when he took on a project in the Gulf of Farallones National Marine Sanctuary, things changed.

Karl and his colleagues were called in to study and create an ocean floor chart of the region, a few miles west of San Francisco's Golden Gate Bridge, where the government had dumped close to 50,000 steel drums of radioactive waste. The team worked for about three years exploring what they could of the 540-square-mile disposal site and collecting samples for analysis.

During the investigation, Karl began giving public talks on his findings, sometimes filling rooms with one or two hundred "concerned citizens" for two hours or more.

"That made a real impression on me," he said. "My training as a scientist had some value to society, which I hadn't really thought about before. There was a conflict involved, and the people didn't know what to do about it. There were no easy answers."

A subsequent project investigating a large DDT-laden sediment deposit off the coast of Los Angeles drove the point home further. As an expert government witness in a related court deposition, Karl was called upon to discuss his findings and was questioned by the opposition's lawyers.

"But they weren't really asking about what the science was telling them," he said. "It was more how they could get the right information to make their case." Several of his close colleagues were also involved -- but for the other team, said Karl, which made it impossible for them to discuss the situation as they normally would have.

"While we might have disagreed on our interpretations of the science, if we had just been able to work things out together, we would have been able to come to some kind of understanding. At that point, I was thinking that there's got to be a better way to solve disputes like this."

That notion led Karl down a new path, toward the Massachusetts Institute of Technology-USGS Science Impact Collaborative (MUSIC) program. It's a project that has him jazzed -- and growing numbers of government and private agencies talking.

Resolving dissonance
A versatile conversationalist -- one minute he'll be talking about the loss of barrier islands, then his clay shooting technique, then the advantages of living near Boston versus San Francisco -- Karl shares his thoughts in a quiet, benevolent tone that makes the listener want to divulge a trouble or two.

Combining that gift with his scientific expertise has recently turned into a new full-time gig, co-directing MUSIC, an initiative that is training students how to resolve science-intensive policy conflicts through joint fact-finding and collaborative planning.

"Science can and should play an important role in society. We scientists have all of this information about the natural world and processes that can truly help inform important decisions," he said. "MUSIC helps people integrate the natural sciences, fiscal sciences, social sciences, and urban planning concepts with collaborative approaches to problem-solving."

The composition of MUSIC began to take shape not long after Karl's participation in the DDT case, when he was introduced to the practice of alternative dispute resolution by a lawyer friend. ADR, as it is called, refers to settling an argument out of court, and could involve arbitration, mediation, neutral evaluation, or other related techniques. His interest in the method led him to discover the broader field of consensus-building and collaborative problem-solving.

Karl soon began to develop a USGS project called INCLUDE (Integrated-science and Community-based values in Land Use Decisionmaking), which explored the role of science and scientists in approaches to environmental policy, ecosystem, and natural resource management decisions. He also connected with what is now Stanford University's Center on International Conflict and Negotiation. Through that organization, Karl met a local environmental mediator, Robert Barrett, who introduced him to a well-known practitioner and theorist in the field of consensus-building, MIT Ford Professor of Urban and Environmental Planning Larry Susskind. The two hit it off, and Susskind invited Karl to MIT, where they co-founded MUSIC, which is affiliated with the USGS Science Impact Program. Karl soon relocated his USGS permanent duty station from his Menlo Park, Calif., digs to MIT's Cambridge campus.

Working in concert
Since Karl began to co-direct MUSIC two years ago, eight MIT urban studies and planning graduate student interns, supported by several federal agencies and MIT, have participated. He is talking about creating an interdepartmental PhD program and working on a proposal for an inter-university initiative with Tufts. And he receives e-mails from students each day from as far away as the Netherlands.

"I think the word has gotten out," he said with a laugh.

As for the MUSIC students themselves, they seem pleased with the initiative, said Karl. Although it is only a concentration -- not a degree program yet, he emphasized -- the interns are required to take two seminars and to work on field-based projects with the USGS and participating bureaus of the Department of the Interior. Several high-level federal officials, including now-Deputy Secretary of the Interior Lynn Scarlett, have already visited Karl's seminar. The Interior and USGS Office of Collaborative Action and Dispute Resolution even invited Karl and the interns to Washington, D.C., last spring, where they presented new strategies for resolving a handful of environmental disputes that they had been studying, and perhaps changed a few minds as well, said Karl.

"MUSIC has great potential to impact how -- and with whom -- environmental decisions are made in this country," intern Jennifer Peyser told the MIT news office shortly after.

For Karl, hearing a comment like Peyser's was music to his ears. After all, a prime objective of the initiative is to strike a balance between science and politics when decisions about natural resources are being made.

"What we advocate is that scientists need to be engaged, be at the table for discussions, instead of jumping into the process at the final stages," Karl said. "Scientists should be part of the stakeholder group." But overall, he thinks the aim of MUSIC is a bit more organic: "We want to train this new generation of students to think about how we build our cities, how we create environments that are in harmony with nature."

Jenkins is associate director of media relations at Colgate.
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