Racing Ahead for the Mississippi River

A Wall Street Journal article headline caught my attention last Saturday. The New Einsteins Will Be Scientists Who Share. The sub head was even more timely: From cancer to cosmology, researchers could race ahead by working together – online and in the open.


Could this be true for river management, too?


The WSJ article would support the America’s Waterway approach to decision making for the Mississippi River – online and in the open. It also addressed the need to move away from institutional cultural constraints that reward performance based on technologies of the past in favor of the new tools the internet provides.


The article uses a math experiment by Tim Gowers at Cambridge University as an example. He posted a difficult math problem in his blog and the online discussion that followed resulted in a solution in six weeks, apparently a record time, as complex math problems go.


But the insightful part of the article focused on obstacles to this quantum leap in research and problem solving. Laboratories have no systematic methods for sharing. In fact, the biggest determiner of success is papers published in scientific journals. “Even if scientists believe in the value of contributing, they know that writing a single mediocre paper will do more for their careers,” the author writes. “In the years ahead,” he adds, “… we must choose to create a scientific culture that embraces open sharing of knowledge.”


Could it be that systemic cultures within Mississippi River governing bodies are at the root of blocked sharing? Would moving collaboration on line be all that’s needed to overcome these barriers for the sake of America’s Great Waterway? I don’t think it’s as simple as that, but engaging the available tools for problem solving and doing away with some old ones might help.


The subject came up recently at the Horinko Water Resources Summit. Water Governance Panelist Alexandra Dunn of the Association of Clean Water Administrators cited the persistent problem for water as the players’ sense that it’s a shared responsibility and nobody has responsibility outside their specific realm of water, infrastructure, transportation and so on. “It’s not just science,” she said. “It’s politics, economics and [other human areas]. Our solutions must be much more elegant.” Could moving the discussion out into the open better pinpoint the nuances that would result in more elegant solutions?


On the same panel, Ann Mills, Under Secretary for Natural Resources and the Environment in the Department of Agriculture said, “Regulation alone is not going to get us to the finish line. We need greater innovation.” She called for more public input in a 21st Century Conservation framework. Could civic engagement that’s webcast for a day of dialogue result in more innovation?


And, Mike Shapiro, Deputy Assistant Administrator for the Office of Water at EPA commented, while elaborating on successes of the Chesapeake Bay, “…collaboration has come together over time as people have gotten involved.” Another plug for public involvement, although I don’t think he was thinking online when he said it.


So how do we get to the elegant, innovative and collaborative solutions for the future of the Mississippi River? The answer, I believe, lies within our grasp and within easy access. We just haven’t quite gotten over the last of the institutional cultural barriers to embrace the new ways of engaging our colleagues and the public to race ahead for the Mississippi River.


Please join us in this race and on our Facebook page. The time is now to start this conversation and collaboration, and move this race to the starting line.


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