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Forum links young scientists on sustainability challenges

Researchers in the natural sciences come up with new technologies all the time that have the potential to solve sustainability problems, from energy use to economic development. But whether those advances work or wither depends on such social factors as markets, political institutions and policymaking organizations.

"We see a lot of ways in which social relationships or political relationships either advance or get in the way of trying to address sustainability problems," said Ken Roberts, the Robert S. Harrison Director of the Institute for the Social Sciences and professor of government at Cornell, at a Sept. 29 forum at the ILR Conference Center to promote dialogue between junior social scientists working on sustainability issues.

The Second Annual Young Social Scientists' Sustainability Research Forum was co-sponsored by the Institute for the Social Sciences and the David R. Atkinson Center for a Sustainable Future, both of which promote interdisciplinary research.

"We know from numerous past examples, unless you can align most of the sectors of society to address these very large [sustainability] issues, you don't get anywhere," said Frank DiSalvo, director of the Atkinson Center and the John A. Newman Professor of Physical Science, commenting on the importance of cross-disciplinary research.

In presenting their work, faculty members such as Paul Nadasdy, associate professor of anthropology, for example, described their research. Nadasdy said his includes long periods of "dedicated hanging out" with an indigenous community in Canada's Upper Yukon. There, he accompanies First Nation hunters as well as wildlife biologists to study the influence of more than 1,000 years of native experience on the Canadian government's conservation efforts to protect bighorn sheep and other species.

"Knowledge is embodied, so the more I can be out on the land doing with the people what they do, the more I understand the hunters' relationship to the animals," he said.

In discussing why people participate -- or don't -- in public meetings related to sustainability efforts, Katherine McComas, associate professor of communication, noted that participants who perceive that a public meeting is "fair" are more likely to accept the outcome of the decision-making process and its legitimacy. People perceive a process to be fair if the outcome's benefits or drawbacks are distributed equitably, if they feel they have been heard and treated with respect, and have accurate and timely information about the process. The opposite is also true, she said -- and has an influence on how people will respond to the meeting. For example, "an unfair situation might result in someone feeling that their comment wasn't going to matter," McComas said.

Wesley Sine, assistant professor of management and organizations, described how such social movement organizations as the Audubon Society and the Sierra Club laid the groundwork for entrepreneurs to start wind farms during the early years of the alternative energy industry, 1978-1992. For example, environmental groups provided the social networks that connected entrepreneurs with investors; these organizations also acted as de facto industry organizations.

"When you have a successful social movement, you get a countermovement, and that seems to be what is really having an impact on the wind industry -- that is, the rise the NIMBYs (not-in-my-neighborhood). ... That's the story of the next paper we're working on," Sine concluded.

Sara Pritchard, assistant professor of science and technology studies, described her research on knowing and managing water in the French Mediterranean; Miguel Gómez, assistant professor of applied economics and management, closed the forum with a talk about lessons, issues and research in the localization and sustainability of food value chains.

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Joe Schwartz