How organizations and institutions respond to innovative information when making natural resource and environmental decisions—some contributions of Denise Lach

Through her basic and applied research, sociologist Denise Lach illuminates a wide range of environment and resource issues (including water, forest, fish, and bioremediation), from an unusually rich combination of angles, with dissemination to a range of outlets and audiences (including publications in sociology of science, public understanding of science, geography, environmental management, and more general reports and anthologies).

Lach’s primary research focus has been “on how organizations and institutions respond to innovative information—both scientific and traditional—when making natural resource and environmental decisions.” This focus has opened up in recent years to encompass the conditions for collaboration and for change in how different constituencies relate to one another around environmental and natural resources science.  As befits this interest in organizational and institutional development, her scholarship is collaborative and interdisciplinary in nature; she is actively involved with colleagues across the country and in the UK who are promoting and experimenting with new forms of interdisciplinary interaction and training.

Lach’s work builds on a non-traditional trajectory that has combined, very fruitfully, basic and applied research, teaching, institutional development, and other service.  The diverse projects she has undertaken provide an unusually rich basis, not only for understanding the interactions between scientists, policy-makers, and the public as they respond to environmental challenges, but also for facilitating their productive collaborations and guiding students as they undertake interdisciplinary, change-oriented projects of their own.

The concepts of “dynamic synergy” and “collective learning” come from a 2003 paper, “Using the challenges of diversity for collective learning about sustainability: the Oregon Story” (with K. Williamson).  Here we see a scholar who appreciates the social and environmental qualities of the region to which she and 55% of other Oregonians have migrated—a scholar who can make sense of the “individual and social actions” that have transformed “individual attitudes into a collective plan for sustainability,” which has rarely been the case elsewhere in the USA.  The theme of “collective learning” reflects her recognition of the structuredness of relationships among people with different interests (evident also in her 1994 paper with Gwartney-Gibbs on sexual harassment), as well as her recognition of the potential for new productive relationships to be created through well-facilitated conversations and dialogue.  Although worldviews resistant to new input (e.g., from climate science) are well documented in Lach’s joint publications with Rayner and Ingram on water policy, the Oregon story paper shows that she has a pro-active, not fatalist view of what is needed to address such resistance to change.

(“View” is too limited a term here.  Lach’s scholarship involves practice, exemplified in her active role as the evaluator in the InterAction! project that fostered a culture of listening  and collaboration at Oregon State.  “Developing Indicators” [1996, with Hixon] provides a detailed framework for evaluating efforts to involve the public in decision-making.)

The flip side of the Oregon story can be seen in the erosion of conditions for collaboration when, as a result of the Klamath Reclamation Project, farmers lost the water allocation on which they relied.  In her 2002 report (with Richards, Corson and Case) on this case Lach also shows her dexterity in qualititative methodology.  The study made good use of focus groups in addition to intensive, semi-structured interviews, which have been her primary data gathering approach.  The Klamath study was deeply grounded in one place and allowed her to illuminate the local frictions that will surely characterize the “human dimensions of climate change” as they emerge in coming decades—especially if policy-makers do not experiment and adapt, but spend their energies “domesticating” “wicked” problems until they explode in crisis (see 2005-6 papers with Rayner and Ingram).

There is an intriguing evolution in the ways that Lach’s co-authored papers address “wicked problems.”   In the 2005 papers (“Maintaining the status quo” and “Taming the waters”) we see the strategy of “domestication” beginning to eclipse the traditional engineers and economists’ strategies of reducing system complexity, but still not giving way to “civic science and soft paths” in which citizens, NGOS and other consultants have secured a role.  In 2006, in a volume on “clumsy solutions,” we see the three cultural types (sometimes labeled “hierarchist,” “individualist,” and “egalitarian”) on an equal footing, exhorted to make space for each other as so that progress can be made.  However, in the editors’ overview of a long volume on the future of wild Pacific salmon, we see a proliferation of proposals that cannot all co-exist so readily.  The path ahead is not so clear—wicked problems seem to have gone beyond domestication or clumsy solutions.  We can look forward to stimulating publications as the challenges and tensions in this line of theoretical and empirical inquiry are examined further.

One concern that runs through the “wicked problems” papers and Lach’s earlier work on “collective learning” and conditions for collaboration is how different constituencies relate to one another around environmental and natural resources science.  The BioScience forum (2003) and the 2006 Public Understanding of Science paper with Steel and others break open the scientists-public dichotomy into a detailed examination of the perceptions of five groups: scientists, managers, interest group (NGO) representatives, the attentive public, and the general public.  The conclusion, namely, that scientists should not envisage themselves apart from bureaucratic and political realms of policy, is well supported by the data and analysis.

A comparative sensibility is another laudable feature of Lach’s work.  The papers with Ingram and Rayner result from research that compares water resource management among regions within the USA.  The five papers (2001-6, with List, Steel, and Shindler) on the credibility of scientists’ input in policy formulation brings in an international comparison (Canadian vs. US in the Pacific Northwest).  The use of cases that span the local to the international, as well as considering actors that range from the general public to the scientists, is a strength of Lach’s work and clearly informs her work as a teacher and advisor.  It has allowed her to consider key leverage points for improving policy-making and implementation on environmental and resource issues.  How can scientists structure their assessments so they can be taken up by policy-makers (see 1998 and 1999 papers with Jones and Fischhoff)?  How can policy-makers shift their mode of response from infrastructure-intensive to social interaction-intensive strategies (see comments on the wicked problems paper above)?  How can the divergent views of the role of scientists in policy formulation be reconciled (2001-6 papers noted above)?  What makes public participation successful (1994 report on Three Mile Island Advisory Panel, with Bolton, Durbin and Harty)?

Some other features of Lach’s work that should be noted:

• Intentionality, in the sense of knowing where one can make a distinctive contribution, especially evident in the formulation of the innovative bioremediation consensus workshop project, which incorporates Lach’s skills and experience (unusual for an academic) in facilitated group processes.

• Informed choice—the inquiry is informed by the scholarly literature (including, appropriately, her past research) as well as the need and opportunities for application and public engagement.

• Reflexivity or reflection-in-action, evident in exploring changes experienced by researchers as they worked towards the publication of the Salmon 2100 book as well as by the GIS researchers as they interacted over time with stakeholders who did not read the maps as straightforward depictions of the relevant factors.  GIS gets reframed as GICS—geographic information and communication systems.

• Cross-fertilization across disciplines, as illustrated by her bringing the “boundary object” concept from sociology of science into discussions of “visual analytics” by a multidisciplinary group of researchers (in which “boundary object” served as a boundary object).

References (incomplete)

Duncan, Sally and Denise Lach.  2006.  “Privileged Knowledge and Social Change: Effects on Different Participants of Using Geographic Information Systems Technology in Natural Resource management.”  Environmental Management 38(2): 267-285.

Gwartney-Gibbs, Patricia A. and Denise H. Lach.  1994.  “Gender and Workplace Dispute Resolution: A Conceptual and Theoretical Model.”  Law and Society Review: 28(2):265-296.

Jones, Sharon, Baruch Fischhoff, and Denise Lach.  1998.  “An Integrated Assessment for the Effects of Climate Change on the Pacific Northwest Salmon Fishery.”  Impact Assessment and Project Appraisal 16(3).

Lach, Denise.  2009.  “Moving Science and Immovable Values Regarding Old Growth Forests: Clumsy Solutions for Wicked Problems.”  Pages 233-243 in Spies and Duncan, Eds. Old Growth in a New World: A Pacific Northwest Icon Re-examined.  Washington, DC: Island Press.

Lach, Denise and Peter Hixson. 1996.  “Developing Indicators to Measure Values and Costs of Public Involvement Activities.”  Interact 2(1): 50-67.

Lach, Denise, Helen Ingram, and Steve Rayner.  2003. “Coping with Climate Variability: Municipal Water Agencies in Southern California.”  In Henry F. Diaz and B. J. Morehouse, eds.  Climate, Water, and Transboundary Challenges in the Americas.  Kluewer Press

——  2006.  “You Never Miss the Water ‘Till the Well Runs Dry: Crisis and Creativity in California.”  Chapter 10 in Verweij, Marco and Michael Thompson (eds), Clumsy Solutions for a Complex World.  Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Lach, Denise, Peter List, Brent Steel, and Bruce Shindler.  2003.  “Advocacy and Credibility of Ecological Scientists in Resource Decision-making: A Regional Study.” BioScience 53(2): 170-178.

Lackey, Robert, Denise Lach, and Sally Duncan, eds. 2006.  Salmon 2100: The Future of Wild Pacific Salmon.  Bethesda, MD: American Fisheries Society.

Larson, Kelli and Denise Lach.  2008.  “Participants and non-participants of Place-Based Groups:  An Assessment of Attitudes and Implications for Public Participation in Water Resource Management.”  Journal of Environmental Management 88: 817-830.  Also available on line at 10.1016/j.jenvman.2007.04.008.

Steel, Brent, Denise Lach, Peter List, and Bruce Shindler.  2001.  “The Role of Scientists in Natural Resource and Environmental Policy Processes: A Comparison of Canadian and American Publics.  Journal of Environmental Systems: 28(2): 135-157.

Steel, Brent, Denise Lach, and Vijay Satyal.  2006.  “Ideology and Scientific Credibility: Environmental Policy in the Pacific Northwest.”  Public Understanding of Science 14: 1-15.


About Peter J. Taylor
Peter Taylor teaches and directs programs on critical thinking, reflective practice, and science-in-society at the University of Massachusetts Boston. He studies the complexity of environmental and health sciences in their social context as well as innovation in teaching, group process, and interdisciplinary collaboration (see He is especially interested in conversations with others who are, in diverse ways, "troubled by heterogeneity" (

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