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May 1, 2003, Gazette

Coasts Under Stress project reaches midpoint
Coastal collaboration

Dr. Barbara Neis with research assistant Danny Ings.
Dr. Barbara Neis with research assistant Danny Ings.

Milestones are often a way to mark time, to reflect upon the past and look to the future. Coasts Under Stress (CUS), a bi-coastal research project involving Memorial and the University of Victoria, has just passed its midterm review, and is about halfway through its five-year mandate. Coasts Under Stress is headed up by principal investigator Dr. Rosemary Ommer of the University of Victoria, who has a long relationship with Memorial’s History department, and is a former director of Memorial’s Institute of Social and Economic Research.

One of the strengths of the project is that it allows students to research in an environment different from traditional research, thus helping to produce a new generation of researchers. Even its funding reflects this unique partnership, as CUS is funded through both the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada and the Natural Science and Engineering Research Council of Canada, as well as government, First Nations groups, non-governmental organizations and participating universities.

A massive project, CUS is comprised of five research arms (representing the metaphor of a sea star) that incorporate its specific goals. There are more than 200 faculty and students working with local communities in British Columbia and Newfoundland and Labrador.

Although there are 20 research sub-components contained within CUS, overarching themes tie it all together. Research focuses on the impact of environmental and social restructuring on human and environmental health. In the end, CUS hopes to inform policy makers on the implications of this restructuring on both people and the environment.

“We hope to synthesize the environmental and social and health issues related to these coastal areas in Newfoundland and Labrador and in British Columbia, and make suggestions as to how policies could be developed to make a difference.” said Dr. Bill Montevecchi of Memorial’s Psychology department and CUS east coast co-chair.

At the heart of CUS’s interdisciplinary nature lies a reliance on scientific, local and indigenous knowledge. For example, graduate student Heather Chaffey’s M.Sc. thesis integrates scientific and local ecological knowledge (LEK) through consultation with hunters and fishers on the changing conditions of eider duck populations in southern Labrador. Dr. Montevecchi, one of Ms. Chaffey’s supervisors, finds it interesting as a natural scientist to integrate LEK with hard scientific data. He states, “we use our information and use their feedback, look for matches and mismatches, and hope to provide some kind of validation.”

Dr. Barbara Neis, Sociology, Ms. Chaffey’s other supervisor, also remarked that there may be “tensions between fitting local information and the data collected at larger spatial scales.” However, utilizing LEK to complement the scientific data is integral to CUS as a whole, and can provide a unique perspective when making recommendations to policy makers.

A number of other researchers within the CUS program are examining various facets of health: health of environments, communities and people living in these communities. By studying communities impacted by fishing, forestry, mining and oil and gas developments these researchers want to understand how human and environmental health has been affected. Dr. Stephen Bornstein’s research involves health policy. Dr. Bornstein’s project at Memorial, scheduled to begin in the middle of CUS, is just now getting underway. He and other colleagues will look at the ways in which the health of a community changes over time, and how local and provincial decision makers in Newfoundland and Labrador have experienced these changes. A parallel investigation will be conducted in British Columbia at the University of Victoria.

Different disciplinary approaches can, in the words of Dr. Montevecchi, “provide a debate that is interesting, engaging, and sometimes frustrating. We have to work it through with each other, and find common ground.” However, all involved value the results that interdisciplinarity brings.

Dr. Bornstein added, “[CUS] is complex and interdisciplinary. I’ve never seen anything like it before. There is a real intellectual cross-fertilization between humanists, historians, natural and social sciences.”

And that kind of debate is, as reflected in the work completed thus far, working well for all.