• MIT graduate students in urban planning visit the U.S. Geological Survey. From left: students Anna Brown and Lindsay Campbell; USGS director Charles Groat; students Jennifer Peyser, , Basilia Yao and Peter Brandenburg; and Herman Karl, co-director of the MIT-USGS Science Impact Collaborative.

    Photo / Peter Brandenburg

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  • MIT urban studies graduate student Lindsay Campbell discusses ways of applying the MIT-USGS Science Impact Collaborative's consensus-building process.

    Photo / Peter Brandenburg

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D.C. trip focuses on resolving environmental disputes


Even as friends and foes of the Cape and Islands Wind Farm Project prepare to revisit--and re-argue--the offshore turbines' potential impact on Nantucket Sound, participants in an innovative MIT program will present new strategies for resolving science-intensive environmental disputes to members of the Bush administration in Washington, D.C.

The MIT group, comprised of five students and one faculty member, is visiting the Department of the Interior today. All six are participants in an MIT-based partnership between the Department of Urban Studies and Planning (DUSP) and the U.S. Geological Survey's Science Impact program. The partnership is known as the MIT-USGS Science Impact Collaborative, or MUSIC.

The group's two-day Washington visit is led by Herman Karl, co-director of MUSIC and a USGS Senior Scientist on loan to MIT. The other co-director is Lawrence Susskind, Ford Professor of Urban and Environmental Planning. The MUSIC interns making presentations are DUSP graduate students Peter Brandenburg, Anna Brown, Lindsay Campbell, Jennifer Peyser (project manager) and Basilia Yao.

Each MUSIC group member will discuss possible ways of applying the program's consensus-building process known as "joint fact-finding." This is a set of techniques that participants can use to establish shared understanding of technical and scientific issues and methods and to reach agreement on how to manage gaps in information.

"Most stakeholders involved in environmental disputes have different levels of scientific understanding, and trust among stakeholders can erode if each group brings its own scientific resources to support its position, leading to dueling or competing studies and experts, to a breakdown of the policy-making process, or worse yet, endless litigation," said Karl.

The MUSIC interns' presentations will include "A Spectrum of Strategies for Collaborative Decision-Making" (Campbell); "The Six Steps of a Joint Fact-Finding Process" (Brown); "Cape Wind Project and Long Island Power Association: Contrasting Case Studies" (Yao); "Opportunities for Integrating Joint Fact-Finding Into the NEPA Process" (Peyser) and "Joint Fact-Finding in the Adaptive Management Cycle" (Brandenburg).

Chip Groat, USGS director and a strong supporter of MUSIC, is heading the panels of Washington experts that will listen to the student presentations today and tomorrow.

Real-world experience

The MUSIC program was developed at MIT by Susskind, who has also helped to pioneer the use of joint fact-finding in a range of public policy-making situations. MUSIC interns are required to take a yearlong seminar on joint fact-finding and to work on field-based projects with USGS and other branches of the Department of the Interior.

The graduate interns in Washington this week came to MUSIC with practical, if frustrating, experience in the conflict-ridden field of environmental planning.

Before starting at MIT, Brown was "more focused on international dimensions of environment, conflict and development." She worked for Seeds of Peace, an organization that seeks to build relationships among young people from regions of conflict and elsewhere.

She pointed out that in New England, a joint fact-finding process could "help identify a way to meet regional energy needs by using natural gas. There are environmental, social and cultural concerns, safety hazards and economic factors at play. Communities in Maine, Massachusetts and Rhode Island have been grappling with whether to pursue an LNG terminal in the region--a true case of "not in my back yard.'"

Brandenburg worked for 10 years as a planner and forest and parks manager for the Massachusetts Department of Environmental Management; he was responsible for managing motorized off-road vehicles on state forest trails. "I basically worked on that every day for 10 years and never reached a lasting, durable conclusion," he said.

He identified the Cape Wind Project as "definitely a case that could use some joint fact-finding. A very similar scenario is the decision of whether to drill for oil in the Alaska National Wildlife Refuge."

Peyser, the MUSIC project manager, was inspired by the success of collaborative decision-making in an Arizona dispute, she said; she seized the chance to become project manager in her second year in DUSP. "I saw it as a great opportunity to continue working on joint fact-finding both in the university setting and potentially in practice on the ground.

"MUSIC has great potential to impact how - and with whom - environmental decisions are made in this country," she said.

Beginning in September 2005, there will be four returning and four new MUSIC interns in DUSP. They will be supported by the National Parks Service, the Fish and Wildlife Service and the USGS.

Cape Wind Project meeting

The Cape Wind Project, with its controversial environmental, economic and aesthetic impact on Nantucket Sound and Cape Cod, has been an important case study for participants in MUSIC and proponents of joint fact-finding since 2003. After the issuing of the draft environmental impact statement (DEIS) in November 2004, the permitting agency has yet to announce any decision on the project. The delay is widely seen as politically motivated.

On April 2, MUSIC will host stakeholders in the Cape Wind offshore wind energy proposal to discuss the permitting process and possible ways of resolving some of the scientific issues in dispute. MUSIC interns have prepared a web page (http://scienceimpact.mit.edu) to portray how citizens might use joint fact-finding.

Ali Mostashari, a doctoral candidate in engineering systems, has organized the April 2 meeting. In 2004, as part of his dissertation research project on policy design in the Cape Wind Project, Mostashari convinced more than 44 representative stakeholder organizations to summarize their views of the offshore wind energy siting and permitting process.

"Public hearings are just not sufficient to address the complex projects such as Cape Wind. We have seen how conflict can prolong the permitting process, without improving its substance. The goal of the April 2nd workshop is to learn from stakeholders in the current permit process how it can be improved for future offshore wind projects, as well as similar issues such as siting of LNG facilities," Mostashari said.

A version of this article appeared in MIT Tech Talk on March 30, 2005 (download PDF).


Topics: Energy, Environment, Urban studies and planning, National relations and service, Students

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