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photo of Bill TravisThe Center for Science and Technology Policy Research welcomes William (Bill) Travis as its new director.  Travis, an Associate Professor of Geography who has taught for more than 20 years at CU-Boulder and was the former director of the university’s Natural Hazards Center, was named director of CSTPR this September.  He has researched and written extensively about humans and the environment, including in his latest book "New Geographies of the American West: Land Use and Changing Patterns of Place," which was published in 2007. One of his current research projects focuses on how Colorado communities perceive and react to the mountain pine beetle outbreak.
This edition of Ogmius introduces Bill and highlights his work.

An Interview with the New CSTPR Director, Bill Travis

Ogmius (O): Tell us a bit about yourself.

Travis (T): I’m a Geographer trained in the “environment and society” school of research. I’m starting my 25th year at CU, having arrived in 1984 as director of the Natural Hazards Center in the Institute of Behavioral Science, a post I held for eight years and which put my office just three doors west of the Policy Center on Grandview Ave, so I’ve returned to my old neighborhood. I work on social dimensions of hazards, climate change, and land use. In the last couple of years I’ve come back to an area that motivated my early career: the societal effects of climate change. Since I was a kid in Florida I’ve been fascinated by how people responded to the weather and climate, and the problem of climate change came up just as I was choosing early research projects. My last significant contributions to that field pre-date the IPCC, but my interest was re-kindled by the growing potential for extreme, even abrupt climate change, a topic that nicely combines hazards and climate research.

O: What attracted you to the Center for Science and Technology Policy Research (CSTPR)?

T: You know, I was on the committee searching for a new CSTPR director, and the more I learned the more I recognized that this was a unique institution in a good position to make progress in research on the links between society and environment.  It has a high-quality team of people, housed in a premier environmental sciences institute, with a good track record. What could be better?

O: What do you see as the Center’s future work?

T: At home, we need to keep up, probably increase, our participation in the University’s Sustainable and Renewable Energy Initiative. The Energy Initiative will, for good reason, become a significant institution on campus, with links to the key energy-related federal agencies, the private sector, and NGOs.  And while natural science and engineering will play a big role in the EI, we all recognize the importance of integrating the social and policy sciences in it as well. Here’s a chance for policy sciences to shine, asking hard, skeptical questions about important policy decisions without becoming advocates for a particular solution.

We will also expand our work in social adaptation to global warming.  One question we should pose is: Do current policies aid or hinder adaptation to future climate change? An allied question: What’s the relationship between adapting to current climate variability and our longer-term resiliency in the face of climate change?  Is it possible that current responses set us up for worse impacts in the future? Here we can extend Roger Pielke’s work on disaster impacts; and we also should build on his Science Policy Assessment and Research on Climate (“SPARC”) project, seeking new insights into the policy links between atmospheric science and technology, and social benefits.

In the larger sphere of policy science we want to analyze governance questions (applied for example, to the global carbon cycle); ethical dimensions of global change policy; and nations’ investment in pure and applied research. All this will build on the Center’s record of externally funded and peer-reviewed research. Ogmius readers will also know that we’re growing, conducting a search for a new faculty member, who will bring their own focus and interests to the Center.

O: You’d like to focus on climate and society?

T: Yes, we have a solid track record in that area, with Roger Pielke’s work on hurricane and flood impacts, and global warming, Lisa Dilling’s work on carbon cycle governance, and Ben Hale’s look at the ethics of remediation. The topic has produced the longest threads and largest archives on our science policy weblog, Prometheus. It is an issue central to CIRES and NOAA research, especially within the Western Water Assessment. But, our challenge is to identify a few abiding problems and important questions that might yield to concerted analysis. Just what is the absorptive capacity of our socio-technical systems, or, in another framing: what is dangerous climate change?   By focusing on that analysis we side-step the many weaknesses of climate models and predictions, examined closely in the previous issue of Ogmius, and build on the basic notions of vulnerability and resilience.

O: You say that you are returning to your earlier work on hazards and climate change; tell us about that early work, and its key findings.

T: I believe that an important insight from hazards research was not so much how vulnerable people are, but how rich was the roster of ways that people adapt. I came to the conclusion that in many cases where hazards managers believe people are acting irrationally, living in risky zones, they actually have found a reasonably efficient accommodation between their preferences and goals, and adaptation to the risk. I also argued that the range of options for adapting land and water use to climate change, both in the U.S and several places around the world,  was larger than we often thought. Maybe it is a bias in the way I pose the question, or where I gather my data and examples, but the space for adaptation seems to me quite large, even especially large in the developing world, a view that does not fit typical notions of vulnerability. For the last decade I have also focused my work on land use as reflecting nature and society interaction. And, partly in reaction to having spent so much time early on in airplanes and distant lands, studying climate and water in the Mekong, Zambezi and elsewhere, I fixed this land use work on the Western U.S., in my own backyard, so that I could be routinely on the ground and intimately familiar with the landscapes and places and people I was studying and writing about. So I examined how ranches evolved as land use and cover entities in the rural West, and how suburbs grew, and I’ve tried to test arguments about the sustainability of resource systems like Great Plains farming. I’ve been impressed by the persistence of some land uses repeatedly decried as unsustainable. This suggests that despite the emergence of what some call “sustainability science” we still have trouble telling sustainable from unsustainable resource systems. And, again, the power of preferences, and market-like processes, has impressed me. Ranchers may blame drought and government regulations for making them sell out, but research by me and colleagues has shown that demand for alternative uses dominates the pattern of land use change, and that internal forces, especially family dynamics, are as important as external forces.

O: What other research questions do you want to tackle?

T: Two things. First, I’m a bit of an un-recovered behavioralist, who assumes that people respond to the environment they perceive, not the environment described by scientific analysis. That is, we bring biases, heuristics, ideologies, and all manner of cultural filters to deciding how to manage nature, or to respond to a risk or to some event like a major wildfire or ecosystem change. Fallacies in our interpretations of nature, I believe, yield bad policies, so I’ve worked to document those misperceptions. My current book project explores the many ways that we misinterpret nature, and my goal is to flesh out the argument in a detailed, empirical way, including evidence I’ve gathered in cases ranging from ranchers in Colorado to water resource managers in the Mekong. Second, I want to push hard on the so-called “levee effect”, the notion that by providing some level of hazard risk reduction to an area that we actually attract more development that would have gone elsewhere and incur greater net loss in the long term when, inevitably, the protections or mitigations or response plans are overwhelmed (aka the catastrophe hypothesis, or the “safe development paradox”). I like its contrarian hypothesis, but can it be demonstrated? It sure gets mentioned more than it gets measured.

O: Back to the CSTPR, what about other aspects of science and technology policy?

T: We are, first and foremost, a Center where faculty and students can pursue abiding questions at the intersection of policy, science, environment and society. So the academic curiosity of CSTPR affiliates will shape the totality of our work. And certainly we want to be part of the great traditions of this field, posing questions about innovation and R&D, the relationship between research and policy, and the many technical questions facing the nation and the Obama administration, on energy for example.  Energy, climate and society strike me as logically demanding much of our attention, constituting our “brand” if you will, but underlying many such problems are questions about risk management, public sector decision-making, and unintended consequences. The growing attention paid to geo-engineering solutions to global warming raises abiding questions about technology, governance and ethics; and brings to mind past Center research on the space program and other technologies.

In many ways the challenges and opportunities we face as a research team are ones that environment and society researchers have struggled with for decades: how do we integrate knowledge from social and policy sciences into technologies like weather and climate forecast systems, renewable energy, disaster reduction, and ecosystems management? I do believe something of a “sustainability science” is emerging, but are our science and technology policies ready for it?

William Travis