Thursday, July 13, 2017

Science and Social Science

          So far I’ve spent a few days working on other students’ projects: two days with the biology team and one with sociology.  The two days I spent with the biology team consisted of helping them prepare for an experiment on plants that could potentially uptake phosphorus from polluted water. They eventually had to scrap that project, but they’re continuing with their second experiment on testing whether sediment can be used as an effective fertilizer. As I see it, both measures, if effective, could be novel ways of reducing nutrient loads in water. If they are, I wonder to what extent either practice is economically feasible. Sediment used in this way is a good analogy to what I’m studying this summer. Manure can be used as a fertilizer, and there’s evidence that it, if applied correctly, can improve soil quality and reduce runoff. But in some areas the high cost of transport for manure compels farmers to use commercial fertilizer instead. Is it possible that sediment use would run into a similar problem? And what can be done to mitigate those costs?
            Last week the economics team I’m on went with the sociology team to survey farmers. I went with Sadie to Rice Lake while Elise and Andrew went to Chetek. While not many farmers had the time to talk to us, I did learn a few things from the interactions we had—one of them being seeing first-hand how skeptical some people were about being questioned over their farming practices.
The distrust between many farmers, policy makers and academics isn’t a secret. But at the same time, I think this may be an overlooked part of the water pollution problem (and other problems regarding common-pool resource use).  I’m under the impression that, at least for some people, problems such as nutrient runoff in the Red Cedar watershed are just seen in economic and/or scientific terms. For example, it may just be the case that it’s in the farmer’s economic interest to adopt environmentally-suboptimal practices. Something like a subsidy is thus necessary for meaningful change. Otherwise some technological advancement is needed.
But while material conditions are important and highly significant, this view probably makes humans out to be more helpless than they really are.  Environmental and social problems hinge more on what people actually do, rather than some technological frontier or some inexorable law. It’s not inevitable, for example, that stakeholders over-exploit common-pool resources (the “tragedy of the commons” view). To that end, I’m very interested in seeing about what we can learn from the sociology and anthropology projects this summer. Science can tell us a lot about what is and isn’t possible, but after we have identified the set of feasible choices, there is definitely a lot of work that still needs to be done.

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