Science diplomacy students present their climate strategy to the State Department

By Mikayla Mace Kelley, University Communications


Fishermen in the Mekong.

Individual actions are important in mitigating climate change, but more and more often the overarching message has become: system-level change will have an even greater impact on the future. A group of University of Arizona students came together in the fall to drive change in this way.

Students in the Science Policy and Diplomacy class, taught by engineering teachers Kevin Lansey and Hassan Vafaiin a team with the students of the Adaptation to climate change class, taught by Gregg Garfinassociate professor at School of Natural Resources and Environment. Together, they took part in a project led by the Diplomacy Lab – a public-private partnership between the US State Department and a network of US academic institutions.

The Diplomacy Lab formalizes relationships between the U.S. Department of State and academic institutions so that faculty-led student teams can conduct research in collaboration with State Department agents around the world. Each semester, the Department of State provides approved university partners with a menu of topic projects offered by country offices and global embassies that can be undertaken by students of all levels and academic disciplines.

Through a competitive process, teams bid for a research topic, and once projects are awarded, the goal is for student groups to gain experience in policy development and present their recommendations to the Department of Research. ‘State. The State Department can then use this information to inform policy changes. The Diplomacy Lab was established in 2013, but the fall 2021 semester was UArizona’s first participation.

UArizona students were given a project, developed under the Mekong-US Partnership, which aims to find solutions to challenges in the region and identify opportunities for the United States and the peoples and states of the Mekong. The students focused on improving food, energy and water security in the lower Mekong Basin countries of Southeast Asia, which include Cambodia, Lao PDR, Myanmar, Thailand and Vietnam.

After months of research and brainstorming, four of the 12 students presented their policy recommendations in December via Zoom to Jung H. Pak, Assistant Under-Secretary of State for Multilateral Affairs. The students presented solutions to mitigate the damage caused to the region by climate change, to reduce the carbon footprint of the people who live there and to communicate these problems in innovative ways.

The Mekong River provides resources and services to 300 million people in Southeast Asia, but the ecosystem is threatened with collapse by overfishing, unsustainable development and poor agricultural practices, according to Conservation International, an organization environmental non-profit.

Screenshot of a group of people on Zoom

Students attending the Department of State in December 2021.
The State Department

Recommendations for food, energy and water

At the start of the fall 2021 semester, UArizona students divided into three teams to research and produce presentations to share with the State Department their research-based recommendations on three topics: diet, energy and water.

The water team, which focused on the region’s water quality, recommended installing new groundwater monitoring networks, expanding gender equity in management water resources, invest in flood response and promote environmentally friendly agricultural practices.

“Coming into the project, I was vaguely familiar with hydropower in the Mekong region,” said a member of the water team. Jen Steyaerta graduate student pursuing a doctorate in hydrology. “The lack of groundwater regulation in the region and its growing importance as a source of water in the face of climate change has really shaped our recommendations.”

The energy team’s goal was to improve the resilience of the energy grid while reducing dependence on fossil fuels and hydroelectricity. The team suggested investing in non-hydro renewable energy projects, providing technical assistance for the development of energy-efficient building codes, building on existing international collaborations in the region’s energy grid as well as than funding micro-grants for businesses and individuals to switch to more energy-efficient appliances.

“I worked with the energy team, and the recommendations we made reinforced something that I was already aware of – that some solutions to climate change are political, not technological,” said Sam Myersgraduate student in planetary science. “Every recommendation we made was about funding existing technology or communications to implement existing technology. This shows how political these issues are…just having the technology is necessary but not at all sufficient. .”

The food team looked for ways to improve land use, agriculture, smallholder sustainability and food security in the region. They recommended creating a climate mitigation strategy for land in the region, promoting education on climate adaptation and agricultural sustainability, and implementing food fortification and nutrition education. .

Genesis Martinezan undergraduate student molecular and cellular biology and biochemistrysaid she was thrilled that she was able to apply her knowledge of genetics to her work with the food team to recommend ways to get more nutrients into existing foods.

“I saw how my job could be tied to something unexpected, like food,” she said.

The three teams also worked together on an information dissemination plan aimed at reaching women, young people and local communities. They suggested the State Department use Facebook, YouTube, Instagram, and TikTok to disseminate important information, share policy implementation success stories, develop outreach campaigns, and more.

At the end of the presentation, Pak congratulated the students. She and the Department of State will decide how and when to use information shared by students.

“Thank you for your preparations, your passion and your research,” said Pak. “Don’t lose this passion and drive for excellence and data. I’m incredibly impressed and grateful for what you’re doing, and I’m excited about your future and the future of the Mekong region.”

The course instructors also applauded the performance of their students.

“These students are really stretching,” Garfin said. “They go to the cutting edge because they work on things they may not be experts on, but they do it with tremendous dedication.”

“That’s the kind of work a science policy person will have to do in the real world,” Lansey said. “They will have to expand beyond their field. It’s tough for them, but it will give them more confidence when they’re done.”

Even if their recommendations are not implemented, the students agreed that it was a useful experience.

“It was helpful to see how policymaking works at this level,” Myers said. “It’s an experience you don’t get in other classes or volunteer activism or reading the news.”

Real-world experience with science policy

Students in both classes included a mix of undergraduate and graduate students studying hydrology, neuroscience, astronomy, biochemistry, water policy, dendrochronology, architecture and more.

“The University of Arizona class was attractive because it offered expertise in key areas of the project, combined with a strong emphasis on science diplomacy – which is rare among applicants to this program,” Scott said. Wicker, National Academy of Sciences Jefferson Science Fellow with the State Department. Wicker strives to connect the regional strategies of the State Department office with academia. He led the development of the Diplomacy Lab project application proposal and coordinated with UArizona faculty.

Lansey and Vafai chose the Mekong Basin project because it was a political project with a strong science focus.

“We wanted to engage our students in finding real-world solutions and recognize some career options they have long-term,” Lansey said. “The State Department is a place for scientists to go and maybe have a career in science policy. I think the students were excited about that.”

Many students said that was exactly why they signed up for the course.

“Once I get my PhD, I want to be in politics or science policy and I need that knowledge and that experience,” Myers said.

Steyaert from the water team said she had always been interested in science, but would like to focus more on putting that science into practice.

Martinez, from the food team, said she would recommend her peers to take the course.

“If you’re insecure, it will give you exposure to a variety of things you can do with your degree,” she said. “This class experience has been great for my communication skills. We often get bogged down in details when talking about our research, but we can’t when talking to the general public. This class has also boosted my confidence in public speaking.”

“I was really proud of this class and what we were able to accomplish together – undergraduates and graduates from all different backgrounds and fields of study – and we worked together seamlessly,” said Shelley Littinwho is pursuing a master’s degree in systems engineering. “Yes, it was classroom work, but for the first time, it felt like we were also doing something with real impact.”

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