Social Science for the Salish Sea

Puget Sound Partnership
Feb 4 · 4 min read

An action-oriented research agenda to inform ecosystem recovery

Authors: The Social Science for the Salish Sea (S4) Planning Team

Leah Kintner, Ecosystem Recovery Manager, Puget Sound Partnership

Sara Breslow, Social Science Lead, University of Washington EarthLab

Stacia Dreyer, Adjunct Faculty, Arizona State University

Heather Cole, Puget Sound Community Relations Manager, The Nature Conservancy

From snow caps to white caps, the Salish Sea includes the transboundary waters shared by Washington State’s Puget Sound and British Columbia’s Georgia Basin. It is a sea we share with each other and with all local life. It is ours to enjoy and also ours to protect and preserve.

Photo of snow geese flying with Mt. Baker in the background
Photo of snow geese flying with Mt. Baker in the background
Snow geese over Mt. Baker, photo credit: Leah Kintner

To understand the environmental condition of the Salish Sea, we must undoubtedly understand its biological and physical processes. We must also understand us, the people, who both negatively and positively affect the ecosystem that sustains us. Better understanding the diverse perspectives and values will facilitate a more effective and equitable approach to recovering and protecting the Salish Sea.

Venn diagram showing a social circle overlapping an ecologicial circle. The overlap is labelled “environmental problems”.
Venn diagram showing a social circle overlapping an ecologicial circle. The overlap is labelled “environmental problems”.
The S4 project begins with the premise that environmental problems are social problems as much as they are ecological problems. People largely create environmental problems, experience and perceive them as problems, and are the only ones capable of solving them. Therefore, we need to understand how people see these problems at least as well as we understand the ecosystem in order to achieve ecosystem recovery.

There is growing recognition that to solve environmental problems, we need to understand the human dimensions. The Puget Sound Partnership’s (Partnership) need for robust social science to inform regional ecosystem recovery strategies led to a novel partnership with the University of Washington’s EarthLab (formerly Center for Creative Conservation). We convened a dynamic team to develop an action-oriented social science research agenda that serves the pragmatic ecosystem recovery needs of the Salish Sea in a project called Social Science for the Salish Sea, or S4.

The S4 project brought together an interdisciplinary community of researchers, practitioners, and funders to come together to co-create a social science research agenda. Nathan Bennett, social scientist and geographer with the University of British Columbia, noted, “Ecosystems ignore international borders. If we are to effectively manage the Salish Sea, the people who live in this region must also work together.”

The aim of the S4 project was to scope a research agenda that responds to the social science information needs of entities leading ecosystem recovery, including governmental agencies, advocacy organizations, Tribes, and First Nations. Heather Cole, Puget Sound Community Relations Manager at The Nature Conservancy, commented, “We often talk about the importance of connecting humans with nature, but the S4 project and the priorities that were prioritized signified this critical interconnectedness. These priorities are not just for social scientists but for all of us working together on ecosystem recovery.”

The top five research topics recommended by the S4 project. These priority topics were identified via a survey of all project participants, who were asked to evaluate how effectively new research on a given topic would: address the region’s most urgent social-ecological challenges; fill knowledge needs identified by ecosystem managers and practitioners; expand decision-makers’ awareness of the social dimensions of ecosystem recovery; and attract funding (to conduct the research).

Fundamentally, the S4 project continues to seek to elevate awareness of the diversity of social science fields and their contribution to robust environmental solutions. The group involved in the S4 project included researchers in disciplines ranging from psychology to economics, geography to public health, anthropology to conflict studies, and law to marine affairs. Stacia Dreyer, Adjunct Faculty at Arizona State University, notes that, “The S4 is important, groundbreaking work because of its novelty, scale, and inclusion of social scientists and environmental practitioners. The S4 project is the first action-oriented social science research agenda that clearly identifies the recovery needs of the Salish Sea. It is rare to have both social scientists and practitioners from so many disciplines, organizations, Tribes, and First Nations come together to inform and co-create a research agenda such as this.”

The environmental challenges of the Salish Sea are complex and require a multi-disciplinary approach. The S4 team was comprised of researchers from a variety of social science disciplines

A series of in-depth workshops resulted in a framework highlighting four thematic goal areas (e.g., social, ecological, social-ecological, and human wellbeing) and 114 potential research topics. After a systematic effort to condense and prioritize the work, the S4 team landed on a final proposed research agenda of 33 primary topics, which included our combined and prioritized recommendations for the most urgent and impactful topics deserving immediate attention.

The S4 research agenda has already garnered extensive interest from organizations, both affiliated and not affiliated with the project, who are seeking ways to use this work to improve their own actions on the ground.

For more information the full S4 report can be downloaded here.

This project was generously funded in part by the Environmental Protection Agency, Puget Sound Partnership, Bullitt Foundation, University of Washington EarthLab, and University of Washington Canadian Studies Center.

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