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Professor Matthias Ruth hosts symposium at AAAS
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.