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February 6, 2009

Critical Issues in Science Series: Sigma Xi's Year of Water 2008

RESEARCH TRIANGLE PARK, NC–How can science best inform government policy, both at home and abroad? As the multidisciplinary honor society of research scientists and engineers, Sigma Xi is in a unique position to be a leader in the science of science policy.

That is the motivation behind Sigma Xi’s Critical Issues in Science series, inaugurated in 2008 with a year-long focus on the global water crisis. Access to clean water has been deemed by many to be one of the most pressing issues the human community faces.

Activities during the Sigma Xi's Year of Water 2008 culminated in a panel discussion at the Society’s Annual Meeting and Student Research Conference in Washington, D.C., on November 22.

The panel was moderated by Michael Crosby, executive director of the National Science Board and interim vice chancellor for research at the University of Hawaii at Hilo. Following the discussion, four breakout groups developed recommendations for action.

The four panelists came to the topic from widely differing perspectives, but they unanimously pointed to the need for education and decisive government action in water management. Sigma Xi, they said, should take a leading role in these crucial educational efforts.

András Szöllösi-Nagy, director of the Division of Water and the secretary of the International Hydrological Programme of the United Nations Educational Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), emphasized the role of human population growth in the water crisis. Per capita water availability is now less than half what it was 40 years ago—not because there’s less water, he said, but because there are ever more people.

What’s more, half of that growing and thirsty population dwells on basins or aquifers that are divided by political boundaries, suggesting the eerie possibility of a future fraught with water-wars. The difficult-to-predict effects of climate change will likely rearrange the distribution of water, compounding access issues—although, Szollosi-Nagy added, new earth observation networks and technologies are needed to improve climate-water predictions.

The upshot? “If humanity can avoid nuclear holocaust in 21st century, then water is going to be the most important issue to deal with,” he said. And doing so will require “education, education, education,” especially of politicians. If scientists educate and persuade policymakers that water is the top issue of the era, solutions are within reach. He called upon Sigma Xi as a diverse and credible scientific community that could make an important contribution to educating both policymakers and the public.

Peter H. Gleick, co-founder and president of the Pacific Institute, researches and writes about issues at the interface of water, climate change and society. He, too, reviewed the global crisis, but reminded the session that “all water is ultimately local.” Even though the problem is global in its impact, “we need to look at local water solutions,” he said.

This could mean changing the way water relief efforts, such as those of the United Nations, distribute their funds. “Maybe what we need to do is spend a thousand dollars in a million places, rather than a billion dollars in one place,” he said.

The U.S., on the other hand, would benefit from some consolidation, Gleick added, noting that 20 different federal agencies all deal with different aspects of the water supply. In keeping with his local emphasis, however, Gleick suggested that Sigma Xi’s greatest impact should come from its chapters, through Science Cafés and education at the local level.

Peter Thum, founder of the bottled water company Ethos Water, presented what he calls the “street level perspective” on water. As an entrepreneur, he didn’t think about the water crisis until 2001, when he spent six months consulting for a winery in the South African countryside.

After seeing poverty, lack of clean water and poor sanitation first-hand, it occurred to him to capitalize upon Westerners’ demand for bottled water to remind them of the global crisis. “People look at [the problem] and then they get a phone call and… a text message, or someone twitters them. The attention span is very short,” he said. “When presented with problems, the average person doesn’t digest them and think about what they can do.”

Bottles of Ethos Water are meant to keep the attention of Westerners on water for a little longer, and the company donates to nonprofit organizations that work toward improving clean water access. The direct impact is small, Thum said, but again it comes back to politics: If the indirect impact is a more mindful public that tells policymakers to make water a priority, then there will be progress.

Thomas G. Mattia, senior vice president of the Coca-Cola Company, wrapped up the panel’s comments with his own experiences handling his company’s interactions with the public, the media and governments. The interface of government, civil society and business is the “pivot point where solutions come from,” he said.

He told stories of how Coca-Cola was forced to invest in local clean-water infrastructure in some Third World communities; without clean water, it’s impossible to make Coke, and without healthy customers, it’s impossible to sell it. The resulting improvements exemplify the business-public interaction, Mattia said.

But he, too, identified government as the weak link—saying that it is least helpful and least stable in the regions that most urgently need better infrastructure and services to deliver clean water. Because of public assumptions about corporate greed in the for-profit community, Mattia says science is in the best position to bring government into the interface. “What scientists and engineers can do that businesspeople cannot is have the credibility to move society,” he concluded.

Sigma Xi Global Water Crisis Breakout Groups
Four breakout groups were each asked to consider the same question: What specifically can your Sigma Xi chapter and Sigma Xi headquarters do to have an impact on water issues internationally, locally, nationally and politically? The following is a summary of breakout recommendations.

Breakout Group 1
Panelist: Peter Gleick
Facilitator: Linda Mantel
Rapporteur: Peggie Hollingsworth

Sigma Xi should investigate partnering with NGOs to bring about change. Engineers Without Borders and Rotary may be two potential international partners.

Education is important, with an emphasis on the complex problems of water. We need to go beyond a scientific focus to include social and economic facets of water issues. Perhaps Sigma Xi should approach the United Nations to assist them in education and action in this area.

Informal forums sponsored by Sigma Xi on water issues could be very helpful.

It’s important to bring together different points of view and make our approaches to the water crisis interdisciplinary, involving various groups of people (academics, business, local people).

Develop a Sigma Xi water report designed to be used for outreach.

Water should be tied into larger questions and issues, such as energy, transportation, health and infrastructure.

Breakout Group 2
Panelist: Andras Szollosi-Nagy
Facilitator: Antonio Pita
Rapporteur: Pamela Kerrigan

Sigma Xi should explore working with UNESCO on water issues.

We need to work together. Propose water institutes at universities that can be interdisciplinary.

Sigma Xi chapters could sponsor programs based on the theme for the year.

Put more energy into educating K-12 youth. Educate Sigma Xi members, policymakers and business leaders regionally, locally and statewide. Link local chapters to study abroad programs with water themes.

Engage all other professional societies. Promote this as a special issue. Relate water issues to climate change.

Sigma Xi headquarters needs to support chapters with all of the information that they have.

Breakout Group 3
Panelist: Thomas Mattia
Facilitator: Bryant Nelson
Rapporteur: Tucker Patterson

Chapters can offer to be science advisers or form advisory committees for their local Congressmen. Show politicians how you can help. This could promote scientific literacy among politicians and raise awareness of your institution as well. Intersperse members from different disciplines on the committee. Get emeritus members involved.

To involve local business, seek out Sigma Xi members in those businesses.

Behavioral science may have a mechanism to help solve these problems. What are the important values represented and the methodology that will work? What are we aiming for and how do we get there? Find the best scientific solutions to meet those local values.

Put together a proposal of what Sigma Xi wants to do and then find the people who want to partner with you. Reach out to business schools around the world. Sigma Xi headquarters can help us to reach out to different disciplines.

It would be helpful for headquarters to formulate what the issue is. Before we can harness our local resources to move the dialog ahead, we need to know what questions or issues to address. Sigma Xi should target specific problems and set goals.

Organizational power is the strength of Sigma Xi. Encourage chapters to get involved with K-12 education on these issues.

Local chapters may have water issues in their areas. Start at the local level and involve campus service organizations.

Breakout Group 4
Panelist: Peter Thum
Facilitator: Joseph Whittaker
Rapporteur: Monique Harris

Educate local communities on water consumption to effect behavioral changes. Work with the local K-12 schools. Work with teachers/schools on curriculum content to build awareness of water issues. Encourage local schools to support or participate in World Water Day (March 22).

Develop partnerships with the military to educate young officers; educate during basic training; educate senior personnel to set policy on water use.

Disseminate information through Sigma Xi headquarters to all chapters to keep ideas in the forefront and encourage national engagement.

Partner with Boy Scouts, Girl Scouts and other youth groups to address these issues.

Connect with and involve public health, social and political sciences; become more interdisciplinary.

Sigma Xi should participate in World Water Week in Sweden.

Partner with international NGOs. Sigma Xi headquarters should publish a list of all NGOs and their missions/activities and send the list to chapters as a means of encouraging partnerships with these groups.

Four Global Water Crisis Workshops were also held on Saturday, November 22, at the Sigma Xi Annual Meeting. The topics and speakers included:

Water Policies in West Africa with Jon C. Cooper, a scientist, lawyer and senior manager with 25 years experience in environmental conservation.

Dry Land Farming in the Hopi Peoples of Arizona—Continuation of Traditions from Centuries to the Present Time: A Study in Hands-On Approach to Sustainable Agriculture with Vernon Masayesva, executive director of Black Mesa Trust and a chief in the Hopi Tribe.

Climate Change and Environmental Groundwater Across Southern Australia with Collin Walker, senior environmental scientist, Geo and Hydro Environmental Management P/L.

Water, XXIst Century Technology and Adoption with Mark A. Shannon, James W. Bayne Professor and director of the Center for Advanced Materials for the Purification of Water with Systems, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign; and Fedro S. Zazueta, professor of agricultural and biological engineering and director of the Office of Academic Technology, University of Florida.

About Sigma Xi
Founded in 1886, Sigma Xi is the international honor society of research scientists and engineers, with more than 500 chapters at colleges and universities, government laboratories and industry research centers. Membership is by invitation, in recognition of research potential or achievement. Over the years, more than 200 Sigma Xi members have received the Nobel Prize. In addition to publishing American Scientist, the non-profit society awards hundreds of grants annually to student researchers and sponsors a variety of programs that support science and engineering.


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