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Lake Pepin, Science, and the Role of a University

May 6, 2011Patrick NunnallyUncategorizedComments Off on Lake Pepin, Science, and the Role of a University

The murky waters flowing into Lake Pepin have generated more than their fair share of public comment and debate.  Last fall’s controversy over the film “Troubled Waters” was not explicitly about Lake Pepin, but the issues it raises are perhaps most immediately felt there.

Quick summary:  Lake Pepin is a more or less “natural” (i.e. dating from centuries ago) widening of the Mississippi River south of the Twin Cities in Minnesota.  It is generally thought of as beginning around the city of Red Wing and extending pretty much as far as Wabasha.  Its wide open sweeping vistas are beloved by sailors, fishermen, and are an important part of local economies based on tourism and outdoor activities.

And the waters are filling in with sediment.

This filling in is the subject of an op-ed piece in today’s Minneapolis Star Tribune, written by two retired officials with the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency.  The authors argue that the science of how the sediment is entering the lake, and its origins, is pretty well established, and that scientific research, underwritten by agricultural industry groups, is essentially, to use their words, a “misuse of academic freedom.”

Hmmmm.  I’m not so sure about that.  I’m certainly not an expert on academic freedom, but my understanding is that the concept protects researchers’ rights to follow their research wherever it may lead, regardless of the political overtones of the outcome.  I’m idealistic enough to hope that, even in these polarized times, the concept of academic freedom still has some currency.

I’m not an expert on Lake Pepin and the controversies around the origins of its sediment, either, so I’m not going to weigh in on who’s right, whose research may or may not be influenced by its funding source, or what policy differences may arise from this controversy.

But I have thought a bit about the relations and obligations a University has to the public (s) that it serves, and I think the airing of “both sides of the argument” is one of our essential functions.  We must be recognized as a reasonably “honest broker” of diverse intellectually respectable viewpoints.  “Reasonably” because, of course, no one is “objective.”

Where we fall down somewhat is conveying those debates, and their results, to the public.  I had a very good undergraduate Honors student this spring who looked into where the interested, educated public could go to find good credible scientific information on precisely this issue of sediment in the Mississippi River.  She couldn’t find a source that was not either pretty completely biased by the advocacy nature of the source or that required advanced scientific training to understand.

So the call for the University to act as a forum for debate also carries with it an obligation to convey the results of those debates to the interested public.  Research carried out with inadequate methods, or reaching fallacious conclusions can then be understood as such, and discounted as such in the courts of policy and public opinion.  Of course, in the era where the non-issue called “Climategate” continues to hinder important policy movement, I have to say I am hopeful, not optimistic.

The University devotes considerable resources to conveying the results of researchers’ investigations to the public.  What more do you think we should be doing?  How should we reach out to folks like the readers of this blog?

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