A University of Arizona professor has been elected to a United Nations panel charged with translating science into potential policy around the issue of desertification, the process by which productive drylands become so arid that they eventually are stripped of vegetation and wildlife.
Barron Orr, a professor in the Office of Arid Lands Management in the UA School of Natural Resources and the Environment, is one of 20 scientists selected from around the world to form a group called the Science-Policy Interface, which falls under the United Nations Convention to Combat Desertification. The UNCCD is one of three UN conventions designed to unify countries around policies to protect the environment and support sustainable practices.
Orr has extensive experience in bringing science to bear on environmental challenges with often complex social and cultural dynamics in a way that involves concerned stakeholders. He has served as a contributing scientist to the 194 signatory nations within the UNCCD since August 2010 and is the only U.S. researcher selected for the Science-Policy Interface, which is known as the SPI.
"I think my primary strength is a significant amount of experience in participatory research processes, in knowledge transfer and in what we might call translational science," Orr said. "All of that is due to my experience here at the University of Arizona in Cooperative Extension, because that's where we have essentially come up with these kinds of tools – ways of reducing that boundary between science and society through engagement, and ensuring representation of local needs in the scientific process."
In June 2012, the UN Conference on Sustainable Development made it a goal to achieve a land-degradation-neutral world. The creation of the SPI is one of many steps being taken to support that grand ambition, Orr said.
"Our goal is to proactively respond to requests from the convention and its 194 country parties to bring science to bear on global policy decisions," said Orr, who also is a geospatial extension specialist and associate director of the UA/NASA Space Grant Program.
Desertification is particularly challenging because it is a global problem with both biophysical and societal causes and impacts, Orr said.
"The desertification convention therefore must lead to on-the-ground solutions. It's about what's happening 'at home' for those affected: erosion in a particular community, loss of soil productivity or a decline in biodiversity. The local response is critical because success in combating desertification is directly tied to the well-being of people."
Orr and the other 19 members of the SPI will meet for the first time at the UN campus in Bonn, Germany, this month. They will work together over the next four years using collaborative technologies before presenting their final report to the UNCCD during the 2018 Conference of the Parties. The scientists selected for the initiative were chosen by a vote of committees from each of the UNCCD member nations.
The UA is "one of the most important universities in the world for drylands research," Orr noted. "We have the Office of Arid Lands Studies, which is a globally recognized name, working collaboratively across all environmental disciplines at the UA, from the Institute for the Environment to the School of Geography, School of Natural Resources and the Environment, Soil Water and Environmental Sciences, Hydrology, Geosciences, and others."
Being selected to lead a global effort is "a great honor that brings even greater responsibility," Orr said. "Environmental change brings daunting challenges, but bringing science independently into the policy realm is certainly part of the solution."
He noted that his work at the UA has laid the groundwork that led to his selection.
"It's extraordinary, the strengths that we at the UA have and the interdisciplinary nature of our work," said Orr, who received his doctorate in the UA Graduate Interdisciplinary Program of Arid Lands Resource Sciences. "We've often had international projects so, in a way, I've been well-trained by exceptional mentors over the past two decades to assist with something like the SPI."