The Institute conducts research on public participation in environmental and risk assessment and decision-making at all stages of policy processes, including design, research, decision making, implementation, and evaluation. Our research in this area aims to improve understandings and develop processes that seek just, equitable, and integrative solutions by deliberating issues; clarifying interests and values; informing deliberations with high quality information; addressing issues of power and influence; discovering common understandings; identifying mutual responsibilities; and negotiating shared principles. It includes both development of theories of public participation and guidance for design of processes that are sensitive to the specifics of situational contexts.
We have conducted a series of research projects to investigate the ways that context matters in preferences for process features and the ways that preferences for process are linked to preferences for outcomes, including
- the factors that influence local government officials' decisions to participate in regional watershed planning; and
- the inter-relationships of people's preferences for process features, preferences for outcomes, perceptions of the context, and their personal experiences and motivations in environmental and risk decision-making
A second stream of research relates to how different people define 'success' of public participation. There are a variety of ways that 'success' can be defined. It depends on who is doing the defining and the context. Development has theory has been an important component of our work, with its basis on the normative criteria of fairness and competence (as described initially in a book co-edited by Tom Webler). Our empirical work on this topic has included:
- how participants in a forest planning process define 'good' process;
- how stakeholders think ecological risk assessment workshops for oil spill response planning should be organized; and
- evaluation of the substantive impacts of the Sustainable Rural Community Development Project in Vermont and the public involvement processes the project used.
Recently we have focused attention on the role of evaluation for improving process and for empowering interested and affected parties to be more effective participants. In particular, we are comparing the ways that different evaluation techniques empower local communities to be more effective participants in the clean-up of contaminated sites (more).
The Institute's research on the social dimensions of risk explores the ways that social and institutional factors affect the risks from hazardous technologies. These factors can include individual risk perceptions, social networks, and organizational behaviors. In addition, our work explores the effects of risk management efforts, and opportunities for their improvement. We are particularly interested in translating the findings of research into decision making to address environmental exposures.
The social dimensions of risk have been investigated in several recent projects, including:
- community responses to risk communication and the role of social networks in the formation of risk perceptions about low dose radiation exposures;
- public health risks from Department of Energy nuclear weapons facilities and nuclear testing fallout;
- the human dimensions of wildland fire (more); and
- marine oil spill response.
The Institute conducts research on vulnerability and environmental change in a variety of policy domains, including marine fisheries, coastal ecosystem management, and wildland fire management. Our research in these area develops understandings of the driving forces that exacerbate social and ecological vulnerabilities to hazards and management responses to them. Our work has been conceptual, by exploring the relevance of, for example, vulnerability in fisheries management. Our work has also sought to develop methodologies for improving assessments of vulnerability and environmental change.
The Institute's work on vulnerability has been focused on New England marine fisheries. Those engaging in fishing-related activities and the communities in which they live face many and varied pressures. Declining fish populations and the associated regulatory responses impose constraints on fishing activities and can exacerbate economic and social pressures on fisheries stakeholders. Other factors such as increasing coastal development and shifting demographics have brought additional threats to the sustainability of fisheries and those dependent on them. A large number of factors - or driving forces - may contribute to individual and group vulnerability. Our work is investigating the utility of considering vulnerability in the assessment of potential impacts from fisheries management measures (more).
Additionally, the Institute has engaged in projects related to the role of models in assessing impacts of nitrogen loading in coastal embayments, with a focus on how models may be transferred from one ecological and social context to another (more). For example, we explored how local officials use nitrogen loading models in local decision making and how scientists (modelers) view the information requirements of local decision makers.