In the 1960s, we addressed our water problems with reservoirs, dams and treatment facilities. At that time, a water professional’s desired outcomes could all be written down and quantified in objective functions. Today, our World is globalized. Science, Policy, and Politics are interdependent. Change is inevitable. The pace and nature of change has accelerated at a rate that we have never experienced before. The world is continuously and dramatically being reshaped by the speed and intensity of scientific and technological innovations. As water professionals, we should ask ourselves: has the way we teach students and conduct research kept up with the changing realities outside the Academy?
For the last decade, we have been thinking deeply about this question; working with 27 PhD students, over 180 water diplomacy workshop participants, and more than 400 members of our Water Diplomacy Research Coordination Network. While we haven’t developed a recipe for success, we have learned some very important lessons, which are explored in depth in our latest book Interdisciplinary Collaboration for Water Diplomacy: A Principled and Pragmatic Approach.
This post is the first in a six-part series, in which we will introduce and showcase some of these important lessons, which span three thematic areas. We look forward to your critical assessment and refinement of these ideas, and invite you to join us in the conversation about how to operationalize them.
Nearly a decade ago, a diverse team of water scholars and practitioners – composed of members from Tufts University, several Boston area institutions, as well as international partner organizations – saw the need for a new approach to graduate education on complex water issues.
This founding group approached the US National Science Foundation (NSF) with a proposal for an interdisciplinary graduate program that would educate a new generation of water professionals who could think across boundaries, integrate knowledge, and link ideas into action.
The seed of the idea was a recognition that science alone will not solve our most pressing water challenges, nor will policy uninformed by science. What was needed was an AND proposition, not an OR. Not only would these new water professionals need to have basic proficiencies in both science and policy, they would also need the skills and training to recognize and respond to the complex boundary-crossing nature of many water problems, and the pluralistic interests and values often held by the affected stakeholders.
The NSF acknowledged this important need and awarded Tufts an Integrative Graduate Education and Research Traineeship (IGERT) grant that helped support 27 doctoral students from four schools across the university. To date, these students have given more than 100 national and international conference presentations and visited at least 24 countries in the pursuit of interdisciplinary scholarship and collaboration. Moreover, the Water Diplomacy program at Tufts has produced 46 refereed publications as well as three books.
Today, we are pleased to share with you our program’s fourth book – Interdisciplinary Collaboration for Water Diplomacy: A Principled and Pragmatic Approach.
This latest book draws upon more than a dozen years of Water Diplomacy research. Reflecting on how we came to this point – and where we hope to go – reveals the need for continued research efforts in this space. While the Academy – founded by Plato and transformed into the modern University – is an ideal institution to cultivate, create, and disseminate universal knowledge, it often falls short in preparing students for the ‘messiness’ of the world outside the classroom. We started our Water Diplomacy initiative with the ambitious goal of exploring new ways to “think and do” water scholarship for societal impact. The Tufts Water Diplomacy Program is an experiment to implement this idea through interdisciplinary pursuits, from theory to practice.
In the 1960s, we addressed our water problems with reservoirs, dams and treatment facilities. At that time, a water professional’s desired outcomes could all be written down and quantified in objective functions. Today, our World is globalized. Science, Policy, and Politics are interdependent. Change is inevitable. The pace and nature of change has accelerated at a rate that we have never experienced before. The world is continuously and dramatically being reshaped by the speed and intensity of scientific and technological innovations. We must ask ourselves: Has the evolution of our ideal Academy kept pace with the changing nature of our ideas to address the complex problems of our time?
In 2006, at the beginning of our Water Diplomacy journey, we argued that the nature of water as a resource is changing. A changing world requires a changing education in its ideals, ideas, and implementation. Science alone is not sufficient. Nor is policy-making that doesn’t take science into account. Sustainable solutions can, however, emerge from interdisciplinary scholarship that accounts for the interplay between science, policy, and politics within water networks, and the variables, processes, actors, and institutions that they consist of.
By way of comparison, consider the 1962 book Design of Water-Resource Systems: New Techniques for Relating Economic Objectives, Engineering Analysis, and Governmental Planning that summarized the evolution of the Harvard Water Program. This transformative program brought together professionals from several federal agencies and hosted them at the Harvard Graduate School of Public Administration alongside academics from engineering, economics, government, and public administration. Their goal was to create planning and design methodologies for maximizing the extractable benefits from “multiunit, multipurpose water resource systems.”
Design of Water-Resource Systems changed the way water management was taught and practiced in the United States. Over the course of more than 600 pages, it offered a series of operational recipes for the design and management of large-scale hydraulic infrastructure projects, many of which evolved into standard “best practices” within the engineering community. While there is no doubt that the book was an important and well-executed project, it is emblematic of a bygone era.
In the 1960s, large infrastructure projects were the answer to almost every water-related challenge. The question was how to execute these projects economically and efficiently. Planners and managers did not concern themselves much with the problematic nature of pluralistic societal values, the competing demands of industry and ecosystems, or political jockeying over transboundary water. Tellingly, although the Harvard Water Program was directed by a professor of government and was designed for economists and administrators in addition to engineers, the non-engineering aspects of water resources management were only briefly discussed in the closing chapter “System Design and the Political Process: A General Statement.”
Now in 2019, we understand that many of our current and emerging water problems are complex because they are interconnected and interdependent. Policy decisions addressing these problems cannot escape this complexity – the affected processes, actors and institutions are also interconnected and interdependent – making a range of solutions possible. But not all possible decisions are actionable or measurable. We argue that context creates the subspace where such decisions can be found. A deep understanding and appreciation of context reveals critical system capacities and constraints, which serve as guardrails that can keep us on a pragmatic path towards actionable and measurable outcomes.
Our Water Diplomacy Program was designed to educate Water Diplomats how to frame, formulate, design, and implement complex research projects that are sensitive to the need for actionable and measurable outcomes grounded in the principles of equity and sustainability. What have we learned about interdisciplinary scholarship and practice? What are the effective ways to impart interdisciplinary “thinking and doing” that are transferrable to different problems and contexts?
This newest title, Interdisciplinary Collaboration For Water Diplomacy, charts our Water Diplomacy journey, from our original conceptions of an interdisciplinary graduate program, to our latest thinking on addressing complex water issues. In the book, we document our original aspirations for the program, note important successes and shortcomings in its implementation, and present student research to demonstrate both how the program shaped students’ experiences – as well as how those experiences, in turn, shaped both the program and our understanding of complex water issues. By highlighting the importance of interdisciplinary research on complex water issues as well as providing practical implementation guidance – we hope to catalyze continued growth in collaborative, interdisciplinary research programs on water.
Over the course of this six-part series of posts we will introduce and exemplify our foundational ideas – spanning three thematic areas – to translate theory to practice as illustrated in our upcoming book. We will consider our effort worthwhile if it leads you to rethink as well as critique, refine, or replace the argument we are offering here. We look forward to sharing more highlights from the book in the coming weeks – and we invite you to engage with these ideas and to send us your critical feedback. If you are interested in more details about the book, you can visit the publisher’s website. Pre-orders are also available on Amazon.