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A Century of Ecosystem Science: Planning Long-Term Research in the Gulf of Alaska 8 Conclusions and Recommendations The Exxon Valdez Oil Spill Trustee Council is to be commended for its foresight in setting aside funds over the years to create the trust fund to provide long-term funding to the Gulf Ecosystem Monitoring (GEM) program. The GEM program will offer an unparalleled opportunity to increase understanding of how large marine ecosystems in general and Prince William Sound and the Gulf of Alaska in particular function and change over time. The committee believes this program has the potential to make substantial contributions of importance to Alaska, the nation, and environmental science. Since this committee was formed in June 2000, it has met five times to learn about and discuss the GEM program. We have conveyed our comments and recommendations in a letter report (November 2000) with advice on program timing and a more detailed interim report (February 2001) that critiqued an early draft of the program science plan. These reports focused on the early planning, were specific to the draft planning documents, and were primarily directed to program staff. In this final report we provide broader comments and a document that has more general and far-reaching lessons about which elements are essential to the success of a long-term research and environmental monitoring program such as GEM. GEM’s mission as stated in EVOSTC (2000a), is ambitious: “to sustain a healthy and biologically diverse marine ecosystem in the northern Gulf of Alaska and the human use of the marine resources in that ecosystem through greater understanding of how its productivity is influenced by natural changes and human activities.” The purpose of any mission state-
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A Century of Ecosystem Science: Planning Long-Term Research in the Gulf of Alaska ment is to serve as a general guiding principle and statement of underlying philosophy and approach, and this mission statement accomplishes this purpose. However, putting this statement into practice is likely to prove difficult. According to an early EVOSTC document (EVOSTC, 2000b), GEM was conceived to have three main components: long-term ecosystem monitoring (decades in duration); short-term focused research (one to several years in length); and ongoing community involvement, including use of traditional knowledge and local stewardship. The committee still views this early vision of the program as a sound foundation on which to build. In a later document (EVOSTC, 2000a) the purpose of the GEM program is further delineated to contain five program goals: detect, understand, predict, inform, and solve. The committee understands the general intent of these goals and the necessity of making the program respond to both the needs of science and the needs of its political constituency. But as discussed in earlier reports, the committee remains concerned that these five goals are extremely diverse and farreaching. While the GEM mission is a good general statement of intent, the committee’s concern is that addressing all five goals will present the risk that the research and monitoring program will be spread too thin to be effective. In its review of the evolving GEM long-term research program the committee noted some positive strides. We believe that the GEM planners tried to include the interests of diverse stakeholders (Trustee Council, scientists, various advisory groups). We are pleased to see that the planning process has caused an evolution in the draft and the thinking behind it. We commend GEM planners for not taking the easy route of simply picking stations and starting data collection, and that they took the time to think about the conceptual foundation and develop the hypotheses that are necessary to define data needs. We find the conceptual foundation is much improved; however, placing the conceptual foundation deep in Volume II of the plan is not appropriate. That late placement implies that it is an afterthought and not the foundation upon which the program is built. It is, however, a good point of departure for GEM, and we assume it will evolve as the program moves toward implementation. We believe that GEM planners have made progress on the development of hypotheses, although there is still room for more work in this area. GEM staff members have made a good effort to reach out to the science community. They have a good start on their discussion of and ap-
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A Century of Ecosystem Science: Planning Long-Term Research in the Gulf of Alaska proach for using modeling effectively; and they have made very good progress in setting up a strategy for data management. We found that the science review section is very useful. Although it may seem obvious, many of these positive strides have occurred because the Trustee Council and GEM staff have set up a planning process and are allowing time for the evolution of thinking. The committee has struggled, however, with its basic charge (to review the GEM program) because the program was literally evolving as we worked and we often were dealing with a “moving target.” We also struggled because, as scientists, we are more accustomed to dealing with research programs instigated and directed by scientists, such as the Global Ecosystem Dynamics program, or by agencies with clear mandates, such as Mineral Management Service’s Environmental Studies program. Instead, GEM is a research program directed by a Trustee Council made up of six agency representatives, each carrying responsibilities for mission-oriented state and federal agencies. Their role is made especially difficult because of the legal requirement that all their decisions be unanimous. GEM is supported by a staff that includes both scientists and non-scientists who have the unenviable job of balancing not only the expectations of the science community (the norm when developing a new science program) but also the expectations of various other Alaskan stakeholders and the inevitable political forces of the Trustee Council itself. While this committee whole-heartedly endorses the idea of a long-term ecological research program in the Gulf of Alaska and commends the Trustee Council and other decision makers for creating such a program, we must stress that this report is not an endorsement for implementation of the GEM program as currently designed. Our proposed changes are described in the following conclusions and recommendations. CONCLUSIONS AND RECOMMENDATIONS Opportunity for Sustained Study Conclusion: GEM is an important opportunity to do truly long-term research in a marine ecosystem, and this long-term approach is essential to distinguish natural variability from human impacts. The long-term nature of the program, intended to cover a period of many decades, is the flagship contribution of the plan. Long-term monitoring by definition must include sustained, consistent observations over a long period and thus requires a long-term commitment from the highest levels of decision makers. This commitment will require a substantial financial investment.
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A Century of Ecosystem Science: Planning Long-Term Research in the Gulf of Alaska Short- and medium-term research is an appropriate way to address current questions and management needs, but the fundamental importance of the long-term program should not be lost. Recommendation: The majority of GEM funds should be spent on long-term monitoring and research, that is, sustained observations of ecosystem components and ecological processes over decades. This long-term perspective will be the GEM program’s special contribution to scientific understanding in Alaska’s marine environment; most other research programs are short-term. These long-term measurements will be necessary to differentiate the effects of natural variation from human-induced changes on the Gulf of Alaska ecosystem. The coastal Long-Term Ecological Research sites funded by the National Science Foundation provide good models of such long-term research. Elements of a Sound Long-Term Research Plan Conclusion: A sound, long-term research plan must clearly define its conceptual foundation, scope, organizational structure, data management methods, and methods for periodic synthesis and review. The conceptual foundation presented in the draft science plan is adequate and with modest restatement as a hypothesis could be a useful focus for research. The science plan and research objectives need to be directly linked to this conceptual foundation. Recommendation: The current draft science plan (EVOSTC, 2001) needs to be shortened considerably by removing tangential materials so that it is a clear guide for the future. The conceptual foundation needs to be discussed early in the GEM planning document because that placement captures its importance as the fundamental building block on which the rest of the program depends. The science plan should include a broad conceptual foundation that is ecosystem-based. It should seek to understand natural and human-induced changes and it should be flexible to accommodate changing needs without compromising core long-term measurements. These hypotheses will provide a bridge between the conceptual foundation and the eventual implementation of the science program. Because the conceptual foundation states that the ecosystem is affected by both natural variability and human-induced change, as the plan is implemented both of these drivers should be addressed in studies. Implementation of the GEM Program Conclusion: The planning process for GEM has been difficult and costly,
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A Century of Ecosystem Science: Planning Long-Term Research in the Gulf of Alaska but the investment in planning is critical for success. Long-term measurements cannot begin until after the appropriate variables have been identified, and these must be based on the conceptual foundation and hypotheses. The planning and design of sampling will continue to take considerable time and effort in the early years of the program. It is more important to identify the right variables than to rush to collect data. Recommendation: The GEM plan and planning process need to provide careful consideration of what to measure, how often, and where, based on input from a broad cross-section of the scientific community, local communities, and managers. These decisions on hypotheses and attendant measurements should be made by the chief scientist working with the Scientific and Technical Advisory Committee and other independent scientists and stakeholders over the course of several years as program implementation gets under way. GEM’s Role in Gulf of Alaska Research Conclusion: GEM’s primary goal should be to develop a comprehensive and eventually predictive understanding of the Gulf of Alaska ecosystem. The long-term nature of GEM will enable it to serve as a framework for marine research in the Gulf of Alaska. Other programs will come and go on shorter time frames and should be encouraged to coordinate with GEM, but GEM does not have the resources to be the central coordinating body for all such efforts. Recommendation: The focus of GEM should be its long-term program, and GEM decision makers should not try to do too much or this will dilute GEM’s limited resources and impact. Because of the long time frame of GEM, it can provide a building block for partnering with other programs that will come and go, but it should not be distracted by the idea of assuming leadership of Gulf of Alaska marine research. Recommendation: GEM should not see its role as filling the gaps in other programs, because adding these kinds of activities will inevitably erode funding for the GEM core measurements. This does not preclude GEM from involvement in other programs in which the research is addressing issues or collecting data that has been identified as necessary for addressing the central hypotheses of GEM. Recommendation: It simply is not possible for GEM, given its resources, to play a leadership role in both scientific research and day-to-day support of resource management. GEM should not be involved in the types
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A Century of Ecosystem Science: Planning Long-Term Research in the Gulf of Alaska of monitoring that are typically the responsibilities of agencies. GEM should not subsume routine surveys, stock assessments, and data collection that have been the normal province of resource management agencies. Of course, a large monitoring program like GEM will supply much information that is useful to resource management agencies as a result of its own activities. Community Involvement Conclusion: The GEM plan does not currently describe effective and meaningful ways to involve local communities. This involvement should occur at all stages, from planning (e.g., selecting the questions to be addressed and variables to be monitored) to oversight and review. Local knowledge and traditional ecological knowledge can be used to generate ecologically sound and socially relevant research ideas. Science and community partnerships can lead to achievements that neither could attain independently. Specifically, such collaborations provide scientific knowledge as well as community education and local support of science. These outcomes are important especially because of the long-term nature of GEM; such involvement might be less critical in shorter programs, but the century scale requires the establishment of long-term bonds. Recommendation: The Trustee Council and GEM program staff must continue to seek ways to build meaningful community involvement at all stages of planning and implementation, from selecting the questions to be addressed and identifying the variables to be monitored to providing program oversight. It was outside the scope of this committee to advise specifically on what programs or methods to use; neither are we as experienced as GEM staff in dealing with Alaska’s diverse communities of interest. Nonetheless, we are certain that the community involvement debate will continue until better resolution of this issue is found. Geographic Scope Conclusion: No program can be expected to meet the needs of all potential data users, and tradeoffs are inevitable between the intensity and spatial range of sampling. That is, if the scope of GEM is physically large, then its long-term research component will be able to collect less information at any one site (because there is a finite amount of information that can be collected with finite financial resources). If the scope of GEM is physically smaller, there can be more monitoring sites or more types of information collected. Research projects and sampling will need to be selected very carefully to avoid diluting activities so that their usefulness is
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A Century of Ecosystem Science: Planning Long-Term Research in the Gulf of Alaska limited. GEM planners can choose to obtain more limited information from a large area or more in-depth information from a smaller area. Recommendation: GEM planners must make an explicit choice on how to focus the program’s research. There are many options for carrying out coordinated research that avoids piecemeal projects. One option is to concentrate on a particular geographic area, as the committee recommended in its interim report. Another possibility is to target a few variables across a broad geographic range, such as measuring physical oceanographic variables over long time periods (temperature, salinity, currents). It is possible to concentrate attention on particular habitats in a large geographic range. These choices must be guided by the conceptual foundation and the hypotheses selected for investigation. Using Habitat as an Organizing Concept Conclusion: GEM or any large research program can organize its effort and funds in many ways and still be successful. The habitat approach described in the GEM science plan is one way of dividing attention and funds, and it has the advantage of being understandable to many of the program’s key stakeholders. GEM planners need to be aware of its one critical disadvantage: a habitat approach can fail to address key linkages, flows, and processes between habitats, which is where many of the most interesting lessons of the long-term GEM program might be seen. Recommendation: Given the habitat approach selected GEM planners must make a concerted effort to ensure that the program has clear, concrete mechanisms to address cross-habitat links. This does not necessarily mean creating a linkage subcommittee but rather building into each habitat study the opportunity to make measurements of flows among habitats and highlight other interactions. Across-habitat connections must be addressed during synthesis and modeling. These efforts are essential to creating a truly integrated program, where the whole is greater than the sum of the parts. Organizational Structure Conclusion: The GEM research plan is being developed to carry out long-term research, short-term research, and synthesis and modeling of data sets. Soliciting proposals, evaluating proposals, and the time frame for the research effort and its funding will differ for these scientific activities. The current science plan does not distinguish among these activities in terms of the procedures necessary to manage them and achieve useful results,
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A Century of Ecosystem Science: Planning Long-Term Research in the Gulf of Alaska or even that the goals of these three approaches differ. Strong scientific guidance is required through all the activities of GEM. Recommendation: GEM planners, with input from the science community, should identify how these three kinds of scientific endeavors will be incorporated and managed within the science plan. For instance, long-term research projects, short-term research projects, and synthesis efforts will require different mechanisms for proposal solicitation and evaluation and different time frames for funding. Recommendation: The scientific leadership of the GEM program should be in the hands of a chief scientist advised by a Scientific and Technical Advisory Committee. The chief scientist should have adequate assistance to execute the program. Conclusion: The organizational structure supporting GEM needs to ensure ongoing, independent scientific oversight and review. It should be easy for new researchers and local community members to be involved in planning and carrying out the research projects. If the Scientific and Technical Advisory Committee is to function effectively and play a leadership role in developing and directing the GEM scientific and technical program, its membership must be selected carefully. Recommendation: The Scientific and Technical Advisory Committee will play a key role in leading the GEM program and ensuring program credibility. Scientific and Technical Advisory Committee members should be chosen based on their scientific expertise and their ability to link across the marine habitats and disciplines. To obtain the best program oversight over time there should be regular rotation of the members of all advisory groups, such as the Scientific and Technical Advisory Committee. Advisory Committee members should be and should be perceived to be neutral parties who are focused on the long-term success of the program. Members may need to be compensated for their service; they should have term limits of three to five years with no direct GEM research funding during their period of service. Recommendation: The design of proposal solicitations and final recommendations for Trustee Council funding should be major functions of the Scientific and Technical Advisory Committee and chief scientist. In designing proposal solicitations, the Advisory Committee should be responsible for developing the scientific and technical subjects required to address GEM goals. Community workshops hosted by the Scientific and Technical Advisory Committee would be one method to help articulate
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A Century of Ecosystem Science: Planning Long-Term Research in the Gulf of Alaska community-generated research needs and could be a way to increase the participation of local communities that use Gulf of Alaska resources. The Scientific and Technical Advisory Committee and chief scientist should be responsible for organizing workshops designed to provide input on core variables to be measured over time. Final decisions on variable selection can be based on hypotheses proposing how each variable provides insight into human and climate-based changes in the ecosystem. Recommendation: There should be an open process for nominating individuals to serve on the Scientific and Technical Advisory Committee, both during its initial formation and as the GEM program continues. Various independent scientific groups can assist in the initial formation to help broaden the selection process and find candidates with suitable experience in the initiation and implementation of large-scale, long-term ecological research. The chief scientist should review the nominations and recommend selections, with appropriate documentation, to the Trustees, who are responsible for the appointments. Data and Information Management Conclusion: There will be significant costs associated with data and sample processing and with data archiving. It is a common mistake to underestimate the cost of data and information management. To extract the full scientific value of any research program data and information must be made available to the scientific community, resource managers, policy makers, and the public on a timely basis. Each of these audiences will require information in a different format. The committee commends the initial development of data management procedures; careful implementation of these procedures is key. Recommendation: GEM should create a comprehensive Data Management Office (not just an archive but a group of people who address these issues). Other large science programs spend as much as 20 percent of funds on data management. The multi-decadal scale of GEM will require a similar commitment.
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