A series spotlighting OST's position at an evolving science-policy interface

By Emma Stone

Tell us about your journey to a career at the nexus of ocean & coastal science and policy - how did you get to OST?

When I started my career I was working as an economist for the federal government – and during the global financial meltdown of the early 2000s, no less. A lot of my job at that time became talking to people who were struggling. Their businesses were going under, they were trying to find work. I ended up spending a lot of time thinking about how to help people, and especially how to proactively get ahead of a crisis. My undergraduate degree was in environmental economics, and I separately wanted to move back into the natural resource space, so this seemed like a good pairing. I ended up focusing on fisheries economics, which was super interesting intellectually – but I still wanted to make sure at the end of the day that I was using that scientific training to help people. I wanted to be out in the world making that work matter, so I finished my master’s and went to work for various conservation organizations. I ended up in this neat job where I was one part economics consultant and one part science funder – but the second part, the science funder aspect, got me more and more interested in how to make science policy relevant. That put OST on my radar years before I moved back to California – it made me dunk my head into the world of boundary organizations and science-policy connections. So when I was looking to move back to California, I knocked on OST’s door and here I am.

Was there an unexpected turn or pivotal moment?

I always bristle at this kind of question because, for me, it was much more of a gradual awakening instead of a specific moment. I’ve been in a lot of instances where people ask me “When did you start caring about the environment? What caused you to take this career path?” And I just…always have? It’s just been my natural default state, because the environment is great! I love the ocean, I love going hiking, I love being outdoors! There was never a moment where I went “Oh, well, this is it. This is why the Earth is important” or anything like that. It just always has been. Similarly, there was no real moment where I had my eyes opened to the importance of boundary organizations, because it’s just been a progression and collection of experiences. It was seeing peoples’ struggles with the environmental movement in general – how to use science and economics to achieve better outcomes. But all of those conversations built conviction that this work really matters. All the hard-to-describe in between stuff that OST does that is just so valuable.

Maybe the biggest shift for me was realizing it was a whole school of thought, and you can make a career out of this – that there are organizations, people, who already do this! This is why I like talking to people, particularly graduate students, about OST and what we do. I think people often default into thinking the options are “I just do science” or “I work on the decision making side” – and there’s not always recognition of the particular skills it takes to get one of those to talk to the other. I think there’s a lot of appreciation for the importance of connecting them, but thinking of it in terms of a unique career path doesn’t always follow. So it’s always fun to talk about OST’s work and hear “Wait, that’s a thing? You can do that?”

Your job exists both above and outside of the standard programmatic portfolio. How do you balance being both the Director of Programs and “that fisheries guy”?

Part of what makes somebody good at OST, part of this particular skill set, is being an expert generalist. And part of that is being able to move from topic to topic, and pull out the deeper messages or those different instances that can move across things. So working with our government partners highlights all the needs they’re trying to meet and how science can help with some of that. Some of that translates between parts of my job. It doesn’t matter what the topic is or even what the details will be, really in the weeds and really programmatic but recognizing this sort of interaction might call for that response, or we’re running into this challenge and that approach has worked in the past. I think a lot of that is very translatable and an integral part of the unique skill set that makes OST staff so effective.

But! Everyone comes into this field from their own background and training, so they’re naturally going to have some amount of deeper connection to that specific field. In my case that’s fisheries, having spent over seven years working on state, federal, and international fisheries before joining OST. I know that world and a lot of the people in it. So these days, it’s great when I can put that topical knowledge to work using that unique OST skill set.

A lot of our work exists in the nebulous space between academia, policy, and stakeholders - how do you view OST’s position in that landscape changing or evolving, both over the five years since you joined and over the next five or more?

I don’t know if it’s “evolving” so much as constantly working to right-sizing each of our initiatives to meet what the state needs. Part of the reason OST was on my radar before I ever came here was our belief in co-production of science – stakeholders having input into the science itself and into the context under which the science is being conducted. Our current urchins project is a good example, where we’re working with a social scientist to talk to the communities and talk about their needs their perceptions, and what they did in this crisis a few years ago to help with potential options for what needs can be met now, as well as what it can tell us about the next crisis that comes along. Stakeholder input upfront is central to the whole thing.

On the other end, our microplastics working group in partnership with OPC from a couple of years back was a great example of starting by going deep with the science. The topic was so nascent that alongside the need to engage with communities, there was a ton of value just from scientists talking about what we know and don’t know, and understanding the no-regrets actions we could potentially take now versus the things we need additional research on so we can do better in the future. Again, that’s alongside the need to work with stakeholders, not a replacement for it – but here the need we specifically were helping address was wrestling with the basic science to even articulate the realm of the possible. So how we tackle each project is always going to depend on the program, the partner needs, and the context at that moment.

Do you have a single project, program, or initiative that you think of as most reflective of OST’s values and mission?

I don’t know that any one project fits every mission, every value. Our portfolio on fisheries is really interesting, for example, because it tells us something about how the state is going to wrestle with the impacts from climate change. We may find there are tweaks we can make to help the things that are already in place work better, and in other cases we may have to flip the table over and think about new approaches. That’s a very high-level conversation, and work like our adaptable permits partnership with UC Davis looks beyond one specific element or fishery. But we also have projects where we work with stakeholders directly – again, our current urchin project – and a few years ago I worked on the California halibut peer review project, where we convened experts to do a peer review of a stock assessment. Those are all very different expressions of how science can help the state, even just looking at fisheries. So I’d say the portfolio as a whole could be reflective, but any single project less so.

Our coastal resilience and insurance project is another good example because it takes a more portfolio-based approach. Sometimes we’re starting with conversations in individual communities to say “What are your needs, and here’s what the science and the experts we can help bring to the table to help.” Other times it’s working with the state to ask “What are you trying to do to test new approaches to coastal resilience, and what can scientific expertise do to light the way?” And sometimes it’s engaging with the academics first and asking what’s going on in the science space, and how do we actualize that on the ground in California, so we can have communities that are more resilient to flooding and other climate impacts.

That’s the biggest thing for me. It’s not one scientist in one lab doing an experiment to answer a single question. It’s our responsibility at OST to bring the collective weight of science to bear on big challenges that are going to require multiple perspectives and disciplines so that we can start to figure out where to go. Science is not the only input into that process, but sometimes when we’re all struggling with where to even start for huge challenges like climate change, it’s the one that can shine a light and say “Look, let’s head that direction. Let’s try this. Let’s figure this out.”

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