A new study from the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), Western States Water Council (WSWC) and Airborne Snow Observatories, Inc. points the way to accelerating how knowledge and technology are transferred to and from public agencies and environmental organizations. The team’s publication, “Paths to Research-Driven Decision Making in the Realms of Environment and Water”, sets out a roadmap for how environmental research and stewardship can come together.
“NASA has extensive data sets from state-of-the-art satellites,” explained Indrani Graczyk, Director of NASA’s Western Water Applications Office (WWAO). “These resources are needed more than ever before. At WWAO we’re working to transfer NASA’s knowledge and technology to decision makers on the ground.”
In this latest paper, the team outlines a path for how to protect environmental resources by not only offering technical solutions, but by developing strategic relationships and fostering a culture of organizational support. Two water case studies – the Airborne Snow Observatory (ASO) and the Cyanobacteria Assessment Network (CyAN) – are used to highlight how effective knowledge and technology transfer can be done. ASO has recently evolved from a NASA research project to a private company with uptake across U.S. states and agencies. CyAN has successfully transferred knowledge across several U.S. government research and management programs that support water-quality monitoring under the U.S. Clean Water and Safe Drinking Water Acts.
Both projects have been successful because they fill critical gaps in how we manage water, cultivate strong relationships between scientists and decision makers, transfer knowledge to protect valuable environmental resources, and improve research outcomes.
“With these success stories in mind, we’re advocating for a framework of best practices in applied science,” said Savannah Cooley, Knowledge and Technology Transfer Lead at NASA’s WWAO and lead author of the study. “We need a key conceptual and cultural shift: from a one-way ‘science-to-user’ approach to an inclusive, iterative knowledge exchange where researchers and decision-makers learn from one another.”
The study is the result of a collaboration between the WSWC and WWAO to support the transfer of technology to improve water management in the western U.S.
“Creating this framework was eye-opening,” explained Dr. Blake Schaeffer of the U.S. EPA. “It will hopefully allow remote-sensing communities around the world to increase their impact for years to come.”
This shift in thinking is presented in a ‘Research to Operations and Operations to Research’ framework (Figure 1) that builds on NASA’s existing Application Readiness Level (ARL) scale. It intentionally sets milestones for technical success and social success (relationship-building and institutional support) to ensure science can help shape natural-resource management and environmental decision-making and vice versa. By adopting this approach and tailoring it to a specific institution’s culture, NASA, public agencies and other environmental organizations have been shown to deliver more long-term, sustainable impact – urgently needed in a climate that is rapidly changing.
“Our work provides concrete suggestions for how researchers and water managers can work together to find common ground that puts complex data and tools into operation,” added Dr. Adel Abdallah, Water Data Exchange Program Manager at WSWC.
“We’ve charted a clear path forward for using science to drive action. But effective implementation requires buy-in and investment from research and decision-making organizations across the environmental and Earth-science spectrum”, noted Dr. Amber Jenkins, Information Architecture Lead for NASA WWAO and second author of the study.
Recognizing the need for a shift in culture and resources, the team offers several recommendations for institutional and policy changes as well as a list of NASA-affiliated projects that are already implementing many of the best practices identified. Recommendations include training opportunities for decision makers and scientists; peer-to-peer mentoring; the inclusion of testimonials, letters of support and in-kind contributions from decision-making partners; and career advancement for researchers that veers away from traditional peer-review statistics towards indicators of progress in moving from science to action.
The question of how best to transfer knowledge from one group (such as research scientists) to another (such as decision makers or those who manage our water, air and land) is critical. Traditionally, this knowledge transfer is framed within a commercial or industry context, focusing on technology development. But the goals, resources and opportunities of environmental knowledge transfer can differ significantly from established university-to-private sector pathways. This interagency work proposes an approach for NASA and other organizations to successfully transfer knowledge and technology as a way of improving decision-making and research.
The Earth’s natural resources are under increasing pressure. Water is one of our most precious resources, and decision-makers are facing ever-greater challenges to manage it in the face of more intense and frequent droughts and floods, stress on water quality and increasing demand. It is crucial to speed up the transfer of research and technology to meet our present and future water needs.