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 - what was an unexpected turn/moment?

Like so many of our colleagues in the environmental field, I had some formative experiences in the natural world. My first love was birds before I got into fish. I grew up in the California foothills but I actually had an impactful moment at Marine World in Vallejo, which is interesting because marine mammals in captivity can be controversial for some. In my case, it does point to the value of these facilities for education and exposure. This early interest led me to major in biology as undergraduate and then as a field tech for whale/dolphin research projects. As I got older my interests evolved and matured. I started to think about “What are we doing with all this information we’re gathering? How are we using these natural systems sustainably and in a way that considers future generations?” So I went back for a Masters at the Bren School at UC Santa Barbara, which has an explicitly applied & interdisciplinary curriculum. After that I pursued policy experience with the Knauss Marine Policy Fellowship and actually got to see the decision making process.

Let’s pivot a little and talk about Legislative Science Services, which you lead. How does that fit into the framework of OST’s boundary-spanning expertise?

Prior to the Legislative Science Services (LSS) program OST’s policy audience was almost exclusively the executive branch, so the launch was a big pivot. But that is part of why we were created as a 501(c)(3), to be nimble. And it also recognizes that boundary spanning science-policy work is valuable as the Legislature engages in horizon-scanning for new issues. That’s a really good fit for an OST lens because of the innovation and R&D that our science networks can offer. So in (nearly) three years it’s changed OST’s position and structure. Now we consider, “Is this appropriate for the legislature or the executive branch, or both?”.

Moving from core function to current programs, you’ve been instrumental in OST’s new insurance program. Do you think it’s a good example of our mission-driven work?

Yes, all about building coastal community resilience, both natural and human. Our Executive Director, Liz, always talks about our value as a dot connector, and that’s what we’re doing here – building deeper connections between the fields of insurance and coastal resilience. You can just look at the news from the last couple of years – even just the last year! – and know that we need new ideas to meet climate-driven disasters. That’s where science can bring in so much value, and we’re lucky that many of those really innovative thinkers are here in California. Our work to date has focused a lot on trying to break down some of those silos between insurance and nature-based solutions expertise, as well as local and regional government and to try to develop a shared language around risk in that space. We’re working towards scoping and developing demonstration projects to test innovative insurance schemes that can protect communities and natural infrastructure along the coast.

So how does that contribute to a track for these horizon-scanning programs? Offshore wind, for instance.

That’s a very obvious nexus for OST because there are so many questions that need to be prioritized and answered. We need to get the framework in place so that we can monitor and adaptively manage, establish our baseline data, etc., before this comes to California’s waters. This is a fundamental change in how we’re using California’s ocean. And it’s a needed one to address the climate crisis. But how we do it in a way that’s thoughtful and prioritizes science as something that can bring stakeholders together and share understanding moving forward. I’ve heard stories about the spread of misinformation on the East Coast and in some CA communities. So I think we need to get it right the first time.

Even within OST, you sit in a very unique position; you’re an explicit dot-connector and relationship builder. What are some of the rewards and challenges that come with that?

The perennial challenge for most of us is how to be an effective generalist. I try to focus on my unique position to make connections and on calling in the real experts as much as I can. One of the things I love about working at OST is that it’s very entrepreneurial. OST is always changing, including since I’ve been here – the Legislative Science Services program is an example of that, as is our insurance work. I’ve really enjoyed that evolutionary process because there are many opportunities as staff to be creative – in fact, we are encouraged to be creative. I feel very fortunate that I get to work on topics that are so interesting and meaningful. And to do it all on a small team that’s close-knit and pulling together. It’s how I keep a handle on my climate anxiety – by seeing so many smart people working hard to meet this challenge and knowing that I am not alone in the work.

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