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Protecting Coral Reefs in the Face of Climate Change

As an academic scientist, Jordan West was unfamiliar with the policy world when she applied for a S&T Policy Fellowship, but she was eager to see how science was used in the government to inform decision making. Although West was enjoying her time as an assistant professor at Pacific University in Oregon, she was interested in exploring new ways of applying her academic training in support of environmental problem-solving on the ground. West had earned a PhD from Cornell University in evolutionary ecology with an emphasis on marine ecology and invertebrate zoology, and she was excited to immediately put her expertise to use working on coral reef and climate change issues when she arrived in Washington D.C.

Her experience in the Revelle Fellowships at ICUN - The World Conservation Union prompted a desire to gain additional policy experience from inside a federal agency. West was selected for a AAAS Fellowship at the Environmental Protection Agency's (EPA) Office of Research and Development, National Center for Environmental Assessment, Global Change Research Program, where she quickly became involved in efforts to better understand the impacts of climate change on coral reefs and how to inform management adaption strategies in response.

Working closely with colleagues from The Nature Conservancy, West helped convene a workshop that brought together a small group of top international coral reef experts from governments, non-governmental organizations, and academia. The aim was to analyze the current state of the science on temperature-related coral bleaching and use that information to develop novel management approaches to maximize the long term resilience of coral reefs in the face of climate change.

This effort led to the publication of a workshop report and a series of scientific papers on how to incorporate concepts of coral reef resilience into the planning and management of marine protected area networks. It also inspired a much larger workshop that was carried out subsequently under the auspices of the U.S. Coral Reef Task Force, with West working as the EPA lead along with counterparts from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the Department of the Interior. Building on the results of the first workshop, a group of more than 100 scientists and managers shared information and ideas that resulted in the 2006 publication of A Reef Manager’s Guide to Coral Bleaching. This guide was widely distributed as a compendium of information and tools that represented the best understanding of why climate-related coral reef degradation was occurring and what managers could do to halt and reverse the decline.

West accepted a full time post with the EPA’s Global Change Research Program because she found herself in the great position of being able to continue working on challenging technical issues while also remaining close to the interface of science with policy.

“True to the spirit of the AAAS Fellowships, my job is to support ecosystem managers and other decision makers by providing them with the best science available to inform their decisions,” she explained. “I help synthesize the full range of existing scientific information and translate it into a form that can shed light on how best to protect climate-sensitive ecosystems.”

West, now a senior scientist in the Global Change Research Program, runs into current and former Fellows across the Agency. “The term 'AAAS mafia' is a testimony to how pervasive the S&T Policy Fellows’ influence is in Washington,” she says. “The EPA is lucky to continue to have new Fellows come aboard each year to share their expertise, enthusiasm and creativity.” 

Although the Global Change Research Program is small it is very productive, thanks in no small part to the ongoing contributions of AAAS Fellows to a wide variety of projects, notes West. “Everyone in our group mentors AAAS Fellows, and the program offers them a balance of supportive guidance and creative freedom.” It’s a mutually beneficial partnership.

Jordan West PhD, Evolutionary Ecology, Cornell University 1999-2000 AAAS Roger Revelle Fellow in Global IUCN-The World Conservation Union 2000-02 AAAS Science & Technology Policy Fellow at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency

Disclaimer: The perspectives and opinions expressed in this article do not necessarily reflect the views of AAAS, the Science & Technology Policy Fellowships, the U.S. Government, or the federal agencies/offices mentioned.