Rethinking What’s Important — Meghan Hills

I think it’s fair to say that I’ve spent my life training to be a scientist. It’s been the result of both nature and nurture, as well as a healthy dose of self-motivation to learn about topics that caught my attention at a young age and never quite let it go. Generally speaking, the subjects of my longtime fascination have resided overwhelmingly in the natural sciences (e.g., biology, chemistry, physics) and less so in the social sciences (e.g., psychology, anthropology, economics). Whereas the natural sciences – sometimes called the “hard” sciences – strive to lift the veil on workings of the physical universe, the social sciences (or the “soft” sciences) aim to shed light on humanity and human life. The “hard” and “soft” monikers refer to the methodological rigor through which scientific insights are reached, and it probably goes without saying that the latter carries a hint of diminished prestige — and, arguably as a consequence, lower perceived value — compared to the former.

Interestingly, despite my great fondness for the natural sciences, I find myself realizing more and more the alarming counterproductivity of painting the social sciences in a light that suggests that their practical importance — especially in the context of environmental problem-solving and policymaking — falls below that of the natural sciences. In truth, the dreaded “wicked” problems of the environment can only be solved when both natural *and* social science disciplines are consulted and their bodies of knowledge drawn from. Environmental practitioners must take care to employ interdisciplinary approaches, as this is crucial for devising pragmatic, sustainable solutions that promote a global common interest while addressing environment-related issues.

I’ll be honest: the version of myself who existed one year ago would’ve had serious trouble swallowing the assertion that, in efforts to conserve/preserve/protect the environment, understanding and taking into account the human dimensions of an issue is at least as vital as understanding and taking into account the biophysical elements at play. For most of my life, I (unknowingly) believed that arguments and decisions founded on anything other than hard, quantitative data would, like an old brick building set in a seismic zone, be structurally unsound and prone to collapse. However, over my 1.5 years at the Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies, I’ve grown to appreciate that there’s far more to the world than just objectivity, erudition, and positivism-tinted rationality. Of course, I always knew that the world didn’t start and end with “hard” science, and I was aware that there are many facets to life as we know it that exist outside the jurisdiction of the natural sciences. What I didn’t fully recognize, though, is that some of that “else” is critically important to pay attention to, specifically in the face of environmental challenges. I’m immensely grateful to Dr. Susan Clark and a handful of my F&ES classmates for opening my eyes to something so essential.

At F&ES, I’m pursuing a Master of Environmental Science degree, the research-oriented program for non-forestry students. Armed with my undergraduate degree in biology and my trusty (and imaginary) “lifetime science fan” badge, I spent last (academic) year planning a research project for summer 2019: I intended to conduct a spatial analysis on the spread of chronic wasting disease (CWD) in deer of the Rocky Mountains. However, as is bound to happen in research endeavors, the project hit a few snags; unfortunately, in my case, said snags (which related to data acquisition) were insurmountable, and I was forced to think up some major revisions to the plan. By summer’s end, I had a new research direction that, while still centered on the topic of CWD, consisted not of a spatial analysis on the spread of this disease but, instead, a policy-process analysis on the management of it.

Woven throughout my experiences this summer was a lesson of enormous importance: the issues related to CWD management, like so many other shortcomings and dilemmas seen in policymaking spheres across the world, stem from far more than just incomplete science. While science and data are, of course, key components of any policy-making effort, so too are considerations regarding the people advocating for and against the policy, as well as those who stand to be impacted by it. In the midst of any policy process there exists a temporary yet exceedingly complex microcosm, consisting of factual content, social processes, and decision processes. Too often, the existence of this microcosm flies beneath people’s collective radar, inhibiting their true understanding of the policy process, and, ultimately, making it that much harder to achieve an outcome that serves the common interest. As a step toward remedying this, efforts to address environmental challenges must pay heed to the abundant, diverse, and meaningful human dynamics at the core of every policy process.

Student Researcher

Meghan Hills, Western Resources Fellow | Meghan is pursuing a Master of Environmental Science degree, where her research focuses on the spread of chronic wasting disease among deer and elk of the Northern Rockies. In her pre-Yale years, Meghan served with Montana Conservation Corps and attended the University of Texas at Austin for a B.S. in Biology. As an undergrad, she conducted independent research into the use of camera traps for identifying and tracking male deer. Despite what her undergraduate- and graduate-level research topics suggest, Meghan is not fixated on deer… Rather, she’s passionate about supporting and contributing to landscape-level conservation in the American West and around the world, and to exploring the possibility for keystone and umbrella species to serve as the basis of efforts to safeguard ecosystems. See what Meghan has been up to.  |  Blog