Category Archives: policy

Iceland’s food system at risk


Photo by Holly Jacobson, 2016

There is no doubt that islands are particularly vulnerable to climate change. This leads to an array of risks, one being threats to food security. Cheap agricultural imports, one way of trying to ensure food security, can undermine the financial stability of small farm businesses in a country like Iceland. Farmers around the world are already a vulnerable to the physical effects of climate change, but in a country like Iceland the lack of a contingency plan and the failure to adopt adaptation measures for food security are shocking. Holly Jacobson, MCP’16 investigates why Iceland is in this situation. She explores the way governmental and non-governmental actors think about risk and resilience. Understandably, economic concerns are at the top of many people’s list. However, moral, sentimental and ideational values also shape risk perception and ought to be taken into account. How can planners take account of different kinds of vulnerabilities in formulating resiliency plans?


Continue reading Holly’s thesis by downloading it here.

The role of Massachusetts in making a case for the adoption of a nationwide carbon tax policy


Massachusetts’ Global Warming Solutions Act (GWSA) passed in 2008 committed the state to reducing carbon emissions 25% below 1990 levels by 2020 and 80% by 2050. Progress towards meeting these targets has been uneven, especially when it comes to transportation improvements and land use policy. This is especially worrisome given that transportation emissions are likely to rise over the next few years. One possible solution, supported by much of the environmental community, is the adoption of a revenue-neutral carbon tax or carbon fee. This would levy an additional fee on fossil fuel consumption, but distribute the revenue back to the state’s residents instead of adding it to the state budget. MCP 15 Elizabeth argues that this would be a mistake. She draws from a spatial analysis of passenger vehicle driving patterns in Massachusetts, a case study of British Columbia’s successful revenue-neutral carbon tax, and analysis of the current political landscape in Massachusetts to make her case. What are the flaws in this potential strategy? How do the state’s efforts relate to nationwide efforts to adopt a carbon tax? You can find the answers to these questions and more by downloading Elizabeth’s thesis in the following link:


Female Entrepreneurs, the Building Block of a New Economy?


In her 2015 thesis, MCP Ellen Chen, studied how female “social entrepreneurs” have spurred micro-level reforms, and how their efforts have fueled broader institutional changes in Malaysia. These innovators are working on topics ranging from transportation safety to sex education. Most have left lucrative professional careers to pursue causes that are important to them, either as organizers or volunteers. From what Ellen was able to document, policy changes at the national or regional level are not enough. Widespread action by risk-takers on the ground is essential to realize greater sustainability. On the other hand, fighting for the rights of disadvantaged groups or using the media to lift up voices for change are also important to achieving sustainable development.

Ellen investigated the proposition offered by political economists that nations can grow their economy more rapidly if they are willing to break with past institutional patterns. Ellen’s research suggests that this has been difficult to do in Malaysia, especially with regards to women’s roles. The state-influenced system of education continues to promote Islam’s gender-specific norms of virtuous behavior. While Malaysia has embarked on an aggressive effort to promote economic growth and launched multiple programs to encourage female entrepreneurship, there is still a prominent cultural aversion to risk-taking. Ellen’s thesis consists of both a traditional written portion, available here, and a video presentation, viewable here.


Urban Agriculture Contributes to Sustainable Development of Cities: How do we make it permanent?


In the 21st century cities have increasingly adopted sustainability as a guiding principal, offering a window of opportunity for the incorporation of urban agriculture into city land use planning efforts. In addition, the engagement of commercial urban farms with local economies has allowed urban agriculture to enter the realm of economic development. Despite these advancements, many still frame their understanding of urban agriculture as interim land use while waiting for appropriate real estate development to happen. In his 2014 thesis, Andrew Cook (MCP ’14) argues the sustainable development characteristics of urban agriculture can only be accessed by treating it as permanent rather than a temporary land use.


To illustrate his argument, Andrew draws on a case study of Baltimore City, specifically the temporary use on city-owned land programs: Adopt-A-Lot and Homegrown Baltimore Land Lease Initiative. Andrew traced the historical relationship of urban agriculture to city development, Baltimore’s shrinking population, Baltimore’s policy environment as well as the histories of each program. He found that Baltimore’s view that urban agriculture runs counter to the economic growth objectives of a city, has limited the sustainability, economic, environmental and social benefits of urban agriculture projects. Through his evaluation of several urban commercial farms, community farms and demonstration farms, Andrew provides an alternate view, showing how urban agriculture can drive rather than hindering economic development. He offers a series of recommendations that woucl allow cities to realize the maximum benefit of urban agriculture. To learn more, read Andrew’s full thesis here.

Can grass-roots innovation be scaled-up through the design and maintenance of social and policy networks?

Solar1*600The states are the “laboratories of democracy. ” They are often the source of new policy ideas, including new strategies for encouraging investment in renewable energy. Some of these ideas spread; others don’t. The process of diffusion is inherently a social process; implementation is achieved via a network of actors.  Ryan Cook’s thesis looks closely at the way in which Solarize, a community-based energy program has moved across the country.

Ryan Cook  (MCP ’14) examines the way policy actors adopt and adapt innovative ideas to their particular needs. Through a study of Solarize on both the west coast and the east coast, Ryan documents the way in which network structure can facilitate the spread of energy programs. He argues that policy innovations are rarely entirely original. Instead, they are often an amalgamation of ideas which have been implemented elsewhere. The pathways that new policy ideas follow lead to substantial differentiation. For example, the core elements of Solarize include competitive contractor selection, community-based outreach, public education, and limited sign-up campaigns. However, as Solarize moved around the country, there are some versions that involve multiple contractors as well as different technologies.

By analyzing the social networks underlying the process of policy adoption, Ryan has discovered that issue-specific relationships that cross multiple policy networks are important. He has also identified organizational creativity, programmatic flexibility, and a commitment to continuous learning (rather than just imitation) as important explanations for why and how policy innovations diffuse.  Read more about the ways in which grass roots innovation can be scaled-up through the design and maintenance of social and policy networks. Ryan’s thesis complete thesis can be accessed here.

The Role of the Political Scientist

In an ideal world, environmental management policy would follow directly from scientific research, which would spell out clear courses of action for decision-makeImagers to adopt. Unfortunately, this is rarely the case. The policy-making process is notoriously messy and science may be interpreted differently by multiple audiences and actors, severely diminishing the impact that scientific knowledge can have on policy outcomes. In this frustrating context, how can scientists ensure that their work is contributing positively to sound environmental management practices?

1748687107_4bdbba89eb_o In her thesis, Erica Simmons (MCP ’13) looks at three ways in which scientists have attempted to influence the political process in the case of the management of the San Francisco Bay-Delta. The first was the CALFED Science Program, which in the early 2000s adopted an approach of political neutrality, emphasizing instead the strengthening of relationship between scientists and policymakers of all perspectives. This was succeeded by a partnership between scientists at UC Davis and policy researches as the Public Policy Institute of California, which from 2007 to 2013 took on the role of political advocate and advanced explicit policy recommendations informed by scientific research. Most recently, the San Francisco Estuary Institute partnered with KQED, a regional public radio station, to develop a package of radio and interactive web content to educate the public about environmental management issues in the Bay-Delta.

These three approaches offer very different ideas about how scientists should approach policymaking, whether as a non-biased researchers, data-backed advocates, or public informers and educators. As Erica notes, these efforts have built upon one another and addressed the weaknesses of prior models: the UC Davis-PPIC partnership was purposely more politically assertive than CALFED, and the SFEI-KQED collaboration more actively drew the public into the policy discussion.

In the end, there is no blueprint for how scientists should approach policy issues, and the issue does not appear to be getting any easier. Still, scientists must adopt a strategy for how to interact with the policy discussion, and the methods they adopt can have important implications both for policy outcomes and for the public perception of scientific research. Read about these issues and more in Erica’s thesis.

As discussed in Erica Simmons theses, do you think it is possible for scientific findings to retain enough of their legitimacy inside the scientific community when they are being tailored to communicate and influence the broader populous?