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Professor Matthias Ruth hosts symposium at AAAS

February 19, 2013

Professor Matthias Ruth, who holds appointments in the department of Civil and Environmental Engineering and the School of Public Policy and Urban Affairs, hosted a symposium at the American Association for the Advancement of Science focusing on how environmental changes will affect water. At this symposium, Prof. Ruth stressed the importance of transcending boundaries. CEE Professor April Gu presented an example of where this type of interdisciplinary work is crucial: access to clean water. Until there are preventative policies which justify the cost of research and new technology with comprehensive analysis of all co-costs and co-benefits associated with the entire life cycle, it will be increasingly difficult to find better ways to manage water quality within the current regulation framework. Strong collaboration between policymakers and researchers across discipline can help overcome this challenge.

Source: iNSolution Research Blog

If we want to use research to inspire action by cities and have that research be inspired by what cities currently do to affect their vulnerabilities, it really means we must work closely together with decision making communities and stakeholder groups,” said Northeastern professor Matthias Ruth, who holds joint appointments with the School of Public Policy and Urban Affairs and the department of civil and environmental engineering.

Ruth hosted a seminar at the AAAS annual meeting this weekend focused on how urban environments can and must adapt to environmental changes. “It’s impossible in an hour and a half to cover all of this in any great detail,” said Ruth, so he and his colleagues chose to focus the seminar on one slice of the urban environment: Water.

“The challenges and issues with water sustainability are so concisely summarized by one of the 21st century’s grand challenges recently given by the National Academy of Engineering,” said associate professor of civil and environmental engineering, April Gu. “Access to clean water.” For many of us that seems simple enough, but one in six people around the globe still go without clean water every day.

Pollutant levels in 50 percent of country’s streams and nearly 30,000 of its watersheds are impaired to various extents, said Gu. Yet the problems going forward lie not only in increasing pollution, but also our uncertainty about the effects of such changes. “We don’t know the risk associated with larger parameters for contaminants,” she said. Without knowing the risk, regulators cannot make informed decisions on how to manage those contaminants.

On the other hand, as regulations approach smaller and smaller thresholds for pollutant levels, they present new challenges in economically feasible treatment technologies and in water quality monitoring systems. “Without the ability to measure things, you cannot regulate things,” said Gu.

Our monitoring capacities also break down when it comes to contaminants of emerging concern, or CECs. Today’s wastewater treatment technologies were not designed to remove these compounds, so they pass treatment and get into receiving water and potentially our drinking water. But in order to develop new technologies — both for monitoring and remediation — we need proactive, preventative policies to justify the added cost of such development. And therein lies the real grand challenge.

Every dollar spent today in a proactive way would save more than ten times as much money over the long term, said another session speaker, Paul Kirshen of the University of New Hampshire. But convincing policy makers and stakeholders of this economics is a challenging task. Together, Kirshen and Ruth implemented a first-of-its-kind study of the environmental impacts of climate change on an undeserved community in Boston. A few decades from now, the shoreline will have retreated enough that a storm like hurricane Sandy could have devastating impacts on the neighborhood of South Boston.

Ruth and Kirshen worked with the local population to increase awareness both about the impacts of climate change on their community but also ways that they can protect it from those impacts through minimal interventions.

“Uncertainty about the geological mechanisms here make negotiated solutions among property owners problematic,” said Porter Hoagland of Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute. “It’s likely that retreat from the coast is now optimal in many cases.” Hoagland’s work looking at the shorelines of coastal communities in Massachusetts and Virginia has demonstrated hard structure flood mitigation strategies, like seawalls and jetties, can cause more harm than good.

As coastal urbanization has become a predominant form of land development in the last few decades, the research of people like Gu, Hoagland, Kirshner, and Ruth is indespensible. But without effective communication between scientists and engineers and stakeholders like community members and policy makers, their work will have little impact. Interdisciplinary projects like Northeastern’s Urban Coastal Sustainability Initiative aim to provide effective routes for that communication.

Source: News @ Northeastern

To under­stand and over­come the com­plex­i­ties of cli­mate change, sci­en­tists, engi­neers, social sci­en­tists, and policy makers must tran­scend the bound­aries that have tra­di­tion­ally con­fined their work, according to North­eastern Uni­ver­sity pro­fessor Matthias Ruth. He deliv­ered the state­ment on Sunday at a sym­po­sium he hosted on urban adap­ta­tion to envi­ron­mental changes.

As Con­gress races to find a solu­tion to impending cuts to research and other funding, com­mu­ni­cating across dis­ci­plines and other tra­di­tional bound­aries was a recur­ring theme at the 179th annual meeting of the Amer­ican Asso­ci­a­tion for the Advance­ment of Sci­ence, where Ruth’s ses­sion was one of hun­dreds aimed at high­lighting the “Beauty and Ben­e­fits of Sci­ence” — the summit’s theme. An esti­mated 8,700 scholars from around the globe descended on Boston’s Hynes Con­ven­tion Center between Feb. 14–18 to share their work at the meeting, which is billed as the world’s largest sci­en­tific conference.

Throughout the con­fer­ence, North­eastern fac­ulty led pre­sen­ta­tions high­lighting their work to address real-​​world chal­lenges in areas ranging from health to tech­nology to sus­tain­ability. April Gu, a civil and envi­ron­mental engi­neering pro­fessor at North­eastern and one of three scholars pre­senting in Ruth’s ses­sion, noted that our cur­rent strate­gies for water resources man­age­ment may not stand the test of time. “Water quality reg­u­la­tion itself is not enough,” she said. “We need a gov­er­nance way beyond that.”

David Lazer, pro­fessor of polit­ical sci­ence and com­puter and infor­ma­tion sci­ence, hosted a ses­sion on Friday on the sci­ence of pol­i­tics, in which he and five other scholars from around the nation argued for a more rig­orous sci­en­tific approach to under­standing and working with gov­er­nance struc­tures. “The ques­tion is can we come up with an objec­tive sci­en­tific under­standing of polit­ical processes,” Lazer said.

“Astronomers do not have to worry that when they point that tele­scope to the heavens, that the stars are going to twinkle because you’re looking at them,” said Lazer, whose work focuses on using net­work sci­ence to under­stand the spread of polit­ical memes. “But when you look at social sys­tems that’s cer­tainly a challenge.”

The same chal­lenge was dis­cussed on Sat­urday in a ses­sion on pre­dicting human behavior, which was hosted by world-​​renowned net­work sci­en­tist Albert-​​László Barabási, Dis­tin­guished Pro­fessor of Physics with joint appoint­ments in biology and the Col­lege of Com­puter and Infor­ma­tion Sci­ence. In this ses­sion, Alessandro Vespig­nani, Stern­berg Family Dis­tin­guished Uni­ver­sity Pro­fessor of Physics, pre­sented new research using math­e­mat­ical mod­eling to map the spread of epi­demic diseases.

“As soon as you plug in some level of aware­ness of the dis­ease, you get the dis­ease spreading slower and there’s a little less impact on the pop­u­la­tion,” said Vespig­nani, who holds joint appoint­ments in the Col­lege of Sci­ence, the Col­lege of Com­puter and Infor­ma­tion Sci­ence, and the Bouvé Col­lege of Health Sci­ence. Nonethe­less, his work, which aims to inform dis­ease mit­i­ga­tion and con­tain­ment strate­gies, showed that travel restric­tions would need to limit human mobility around the planet by a stag­gering 99 per­cent to have any mean­ingful impact.

Throughout the con­fer­ence, it was evi­dent that Ruth’s com­ment about the com­plexity of cli­mate change could easily be extended to all of the major chal­lenges facing our planet today: Dis­ease man­age­ment, just like secure and sus­tain­able infra­struc­tures, requires a com­mit­ment to cross-​​pollination by our scholars and policy makers.

But none of this will be pos­sible without a cul­tural shift toward under­standing and appre­ci­ating the ben­e­fits of sci­ence. Christos Zahopoulos, an asso­ciate pro­fessor of engi­neering and exec­u­tive director of Northeastern’s Center for STEM Edu­ca­tion, spoke at the asso­ci­ated Inter­na­tional Teacher-​​Scientist Part­ner­ship Con­fer­ence, noting that his Retirees Enhancing Sci­ence Edu­ca­tion through Exper­i­ments and Demon­stra­tions, or RE-​​SEED pro­gram, has been inspiring the next gen­er­a­tion of sci­en­tists for more than two decades.