College of Ag Sciences faculty help guide workshop in Iceland

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. -- An international initiative co-led by a professor in Penn State's College of Agricultural Sciences recently brought experts from around the world to Iceland to explore the potential for innovation in natural-resource governance.

Participants in the week-long "Soils, Governance and Society" workshop, held in early June, traveled to Iceland from Australia, Canada, Ghana, Kenya, Mongolia, New Zealand, Spain, Sweden, the Netherlands, Uganda, the United Kingdom and the United States. They included Penn State researchers from the disciplines of agricultural economics and soil science.

The workshop was sponsored by Penn State, the Soil Conservation Service of Iceland, the University of New England in Australia, the Global Soil Partnership and the United Nations University's Land Restoration Training Program.

The workshop attracted a small team of selected scholars and practitioners from a variety of disciplines and countries to explore how natural-resource governance might be radically improved to meet the many challenges to sustainability, according to Theodore Alter, Penn State professor of agricultural, environmental and regional economics, who co-led the event.

"The workshop focused on soils -- which are, of course, foundational, along with water and energy -- in natural environments," he said.

Also participating in the workshop from Penn State were Jack Watson, professor of soil science; David Blandford, professor of agricultural and environmental economics; John Becker, professor emeritus of agricultural economics and law; and Glenn Sterner, doctoral candidate in rural sociology.

Alter, who is co-director of Penn State's Center for Economic and Community Development and an adjunct research fellow with the Australian Center for Agriculture and Law at the University of New England, presented a paper on the intersection of environmental and social change in both Australia and the United States.

The presentation outlined the importance of new approaches to sharing power and expertise between technical experts and "community experts." In the paper, he reinforced the view that the innovations that are needed will require a new spirit of partnership between the community, government and technical specialists.

"The research reviewed at the workshop is the platform for our larger agenda to improve research and practice of natural-resource governance," Alter said. "And we already are investigating further opportunities in the United States and other countries based on this collaboration."

Blandford stressed the importance of adopting a multidisciplinary approach in understanding natural-resource use. "We need to improve our understanding of what drives the behavior of farmers and other resource users in managing land, water and other natural resources," he said.

"It is essential to integrate the body of knowledge from a range of disciplines in the social and natural sciences if we are to enhance sustainability."

Soil scientist Watson noted that the greatest challenge scientists often face in working with solutions to soil quality or natural-resource concerns are those related to learning and understanding the perspectives of local citizens.

"Many 'experts' can design quite satisfactory solutions to many problems," he said. "But what they require is the ability to incorporate the knowledge and viewpoints of individuals living in the area where a solution is implemented, so the solution designed actually will be put into practice successfully."

Doctoral candidate Sterner was impressed by the scholarly collaboration related to natural-resource governance in Iceland. "This workshop is a prime example of how to handle complicated issues that affect our world," he said. "Interdisciplinary innovation is the best way for these issues to be properly understood and handled."

At a public seminar in Reykjavik associated with the workshop, Paul Martin, professor from the University of New England who worked with Alter to develop the event, stressed that natural-resource governance researchers around the world must communicate better and collaborate more closely.

"The aims of this research consortium are to create a scientific approach to advancing knowledge and practice, with an emphasis on breaking down the technical and organizational 'silos' where knowledge is being developed and applied in isolation," he said.

Martin highlighted the many "natural experiments" in regulation, community participation and the use of markets that could provide opportunities for technical specialists to test and refine their knowledge about natural-resource governance, and to apply it to the benefit of the environment and of rural people.

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Last Updated July 16, 2012