Monday, January 5, 2009

Networking or Oh, The People You'll Meet

Over the course of my fellowship with the Great Lakes Commission, one of the more contentious topics I have worked on has been aquatic invasive species. Boaters, anglers, the maritime industry, the shipping industry, the bait and aquaculture industries, harbors, natural resource managers, drinking water facilities, and anyone else reliant on Great Lakes water (which is to say, everyone in the basin) all have a different opinion on what we should be doing to stem the tide (pun intended) of these invaders.

Two groups – the shipping industry and environmental groups – are particularly on-edge when it comes to finding a solution to this problem. The shipping industry is constantly under fire from environmental groups calling for stricter legislation to govern ballast water discharges, and the environmental advocates are frustrated at the lack of progress in this same area.

Last month I attended the biannual meeting of the Great Lakes Aquatic Nuisance Species Panel in Ypsilanti, Michigan. The Great Lakes Commission organizes the work of this panel and so we host the meetings, write up summaries, send out action items, review documents, etc.

Most of the meeting was about what you’d expect – presentations about ballast water treatments and regulations, updates on the the Chicago Sanitary Ship Canal, discussions about VHS control efforts, and general comments on how the panel should be conducting its business over the course of a new year and under new leadership (Jim Grazio was recently elected chair of the panel).

The very last item on the agenda set aside 5 minutes for public comment. Expecting there to be none (as is usually the case) I had put away my laptop and was preparing myself for another AIS-related meeting the GLC had scheduled for later that same day (we like to overbook ourselves if we can).

Instead, Jim Weakley, president of the Lake Carriers' Association and recent panel member retiree, stepped up to the podium. This is what I wrote in my summary:

Once industry is gone from the panel, this forum will not be as effective. The ocean-going vessels (salties) should be treated differently from the vessels that stay within the basin (lakers). There are 63 lakers in the Great Lakes, down from 300 we had in the 30’s. Are the costs and the risk of massive chemotherapy really worth it?

These words hardly reflect the passion and conviction with which Jim spoke to us that Wednesday morning. What is missing is that he opened with the experience of watching his mother waste away from cancer and the subsequent chemotherapy that was required to treat her. Chemo is effective for certain kinds of cancer, he said, but it is not without cost and is not appropriate for all kinds of cancer.

He made this analogy to say that strict regulations are indeed effective for certain ships, but are not necessary for all. He then went on to describe the effects the current economic crisis was having on the shipping industry, and cautioned that further regulations will only cause a more protracted economic downturn for the people he represents and their families.

The point of this blog is not to promote Jim Weakley’s particular point of view as the right one. Indeed, while he certainly has one (that is, a point), so do all of the other groups I mentioned at the very beginning of this discussion. Passion, of course, does not mean his argument is without fault. There are certainly counterarguments, many of which I get to spend chunks of my day identifying and promoting (or not, depending on what's appropriate).

The point here is that these subtleties – the thickness of the room while he spoke, the stunned silence as he finished, and the sound of Jim Grazio clearing his throat before moving the discussion on to where the next meeting should be held – all of these will be lost when a watered-down version of my notes is posted on our website in the meeting minutes.

This is just one story I have from the many events I have attended since starting the fellowship (frequent travel, you’ll find, is also one of the perks of this particular gig). I am sure that I will have many more after I finish this job in five months.

As someone who works in environmental management, I recognize the value of knowing these personal stories. “Outsiders” – which is to say non-GLC employees and non-panel members – don’t have access to the institutional memory that is built into a group like this, which remembers the interpersonal dynamics that led up to such a powerful and heated statement by one of its representatives. We must all recognize that environmental decisions are made by people, and their idiosyncrasies will necessarily have an impact on the outcome of our work. Knowing these people and understanding their stories is a necessary part of making progress in this (and probably any) field. Having the opportunity to network with these groups is just one of the things I have loved about working with the Great Lakes Commission.

Kristina Donnelly is the current Sea Grant Fellow at the Great Lakes Commission.

Sunday, January 4, 2009

An Interview with a former Great Lakes Commission Fellow

In 2003, Jon Dettling spent a year as a fellow at the Great Lakes Commission (GLC) in Ann Arbor, Michigan. Now he is working as a consultant in Boston helping companies like Nestle assess the total environmental impact of their products.

Why did you pursue the GLC fellowship?
As a graduate student in the Department of Public Health at the University of Michigan, Jon focused on the health effects of emissions produced throughout a product’s life cycle. For his graduate project he used toxic emissions data from the Great Lakes Commission and through this connection he learned about the fellowship.

Jon was really interested in better understanding how science is used in policy development. “At the university you are almost too close to a topic and you never see it become anything more than publications. The idea of taking that work to the next step and really making a difference was really attractive.” The Great Lakes Commission, a bi-national NGO that specializes in policy research and advocacy, was an excellent place to learn about how science is actually used outside of academia.

What did you work on as a fellow?
Jon found that the GLC fellowship offered an ideal balance between structure and freedom. He was able to pursue ideas that were closely related to his graduate work on air pollution, but he also had the opportunity to participate in a variety of on-going projects. For example, Jon helped organize a series of regional planning workshops. “The goal was to bring together experts from around the Great Lakes to develop a vision for restoration and sustainability for the region.” This project lead to a larger regional collaborative, which allowed Jon to observe how governors and federal agency leaders come together to debate policy issues.

How did you benefit from the fellowship?
For Jon, the fellowship provided an excellent next step after graduate school. “Compared to the first year in a more typical job at an agency, fellows at the Commission have more potential to develop a broad range of contacts. This wide network can help you transition from school and really establish your own career.”

Jon’s year as a fellow at the Great Lakes Commission actually turned into a permanent job! Toward the end of the fellowship as he was asking for letters of reference, his supervisors suggested he consider staying at the GLC. “Over the course of the fellowship you get really involved with what you’re doing, so it was an easy decision to stay.” During the next four years Jon continued working at the Commission, expanding the Toxic Air Emissions Inventory program and developing the skills that would allow him to start his own environmental consulting business.

Where are you now?
After moving to Boston in 2007, Jon established a North American branch of a small Swiss Company, Ecointesys- Life Cycle Systems. Jon’s company conducts life cycle assessments to determine the total impact of a product throughout its life, “from cradle (extraction of raw materials) to grave (disposal).” This type of analysis can help companies better measure, improve, or communicate their environmental performance. Their approach is gaining momentum and government agencies, like the California Department of Conservation, and NGOs, like the World Wildlife Federation, have begun employing the services of Ecointesys.

What do you enjoy most about your career?
For Jon, the best aspect of developing his own company is that he has the freedom to pursue projects that he finds the most interesting and compelling. He also really enjoys the people he works with, although much of his interactions with his international colleagues is through the phone and internet!

I asked Jon about how working in the private sector differed from his previous work with the Commission. “It’s different. Government agencies and non-profits (like the Great Lakes Commission) have a clear goal of improving and protecting our natural resources. In consulting, the challenge is to ensure that the environmental goals line up with your client’s profit goals. However, once everyone agrees on the objectives, resources can be mobilized and things can move forward more quickly in the private sector.”

Advice for new fellows
Jon encourages new students to turn the fellowship into their own experience. He found that the Great Lakes Commission was really open to new projects- “and it isn’t hard to fit your ideas into the Commission because its mission is so broad!”

Jon is happy to answer questions about the fellowship over email,