Environment, Legislature

NC Policy Collaboratory: Solid science, but legislature’s timeline rushes process

Hurricane Matthew rainfall totals: Some parts of eastern North Carolina received more than 20 inches in the week prior to, and during the storm. Two projects funded by the NC Policy Collaboratory would study flooding and resiliency related to natural disasters. (Map: NASA)

The NC Policy Collaboratory has an enviable challenge, but a challenge nonetheless: How to spend more than $200,000 in a hurry.

Only six months old, the environmental think tank at UNC is charged with funding and sponsoring research related to natural resources and the economy, then delivering those findings to the General Assembly. In turn, the legislature will, well, we don’t know what they’ll do. But it is clear that in hastily establishing the collaboratory, lawmakers didn’t think the process through.

Today the group, composed of a well-rounded advisory board of scientists and public policy experts, recommended funding all three research projects that it received: two that would explore hurricane impacts and rebuilding, and another that would study wildfires. The two hurricane projects included requirements that researchers get input from local governments and emergency management directors.

The concept of “input” was lost on the state legislature when its leadership concocted the collaboratory last June. Without information from UNC faculty and administrators, lawmakers didn’t consider how the state’s financial deadlines could collide with the university’s. For example, money for all the projects must be not only allocated, but also spent by June 30, the end of state government’s fiscal year.

And because there was no guidance on how to set up the collaboratory, the establishment of which was inserted into the state budget, the group couldn’t hold its first meeting until last November.

“This legislation was developed in a vacuum without understanding the academic calendar,” said Brad Ives, interim director of the collaboratory. He is also the UNC chief director of sustainability and an associate vice chancellor. “Working with new vice-chancellor [Clayton Somers, formerly House Speaker Tim Moore’s chief of staff] we can help the legislature understand that we have to have graduate students and professors lined up to fit into the cycle.”

The legislature appropriated $1 million in annual recurring funds for the collaboratory through at least Fiscal Year 2017-2018. Lawmakers also approved matching funds of $3.5 million. But the budget language is vague, Ives said, regarding how quickly the that money would have to be spent or if the funds could be carried over into the next budget year.

“Even if we raised the money, we might not get the match to use unless we can spend it before the end of the year,” Ives said. “Hopefully that wasn’t anyone’s intent when the language was written.”

Ives added that he would seek clarification from lawmakers and the state budget office.

The tight turnaround also didn’t allow enough time for a lot of proposals to come before the collaboratory. There were only three for this round of funding. Although all met the scientific, academic and policy requirements, collaboratory members did weigh the implications of their recommendations.

“What we fund in 2016 will signal to researchers what we’re interested in in 2017,” said member Anita Brown Graham, UNC professor of public law and government. “We don’t want to send the wrong signals.”

Ives said the process has been “very ad hoc and rushed.”

“We have to ask ‘Is this a project that UNC wants its name associated with? Does the project set the tone we want?'” Ives said. “There’s not a lot of the fiscal year left, but let’s not put the money to work just to put the money to work. We’re not trying to shovel money out the door.”

In addition to checking off all of the scientific and methodology boxes, the projects must have real-world applications — satisfying the sweet spot between policy and research.

“Once we get this money spent and close the books on this year, we’ll look to next year so we can hit the ground running,” said collaboratory chairman Al Segars, a distinguished professor and faculty director of the Center for Sustainable Enterprise. “The project criteria will be more stringent.”

Here are the projects:

  • James Johnson Jr. of the UNC Kenan-Flagler Business School would lead research in rebuilding communities after Hurricane Matthew. The focus would be on senior housing and aging in place. This project would be folded into an existing one that explores resiliency and natural disasters. The budget is $45,000.
  • Chris Lenhardt, a domain scientist with the Renaissance Computing Institute has asked for $100,000 to develop near-real time flood mapping data and inland flood maps of North Carolina. The coastal plain received the brunt of the damage from Hurricane Matthew. First-responders, emergency management staff and policy-makers could use the maps and data for evacuation plans, for example.
  • Uma Shankar, a researcher with the UNC Institute for the Environment would study what are known as “fuel loads” and their effect on wildfires. In other words, drought dries out the forest floor and part of the understory. That parched brush, wood and vegetation can ignite, either naturally or intentionally, and contribute to the spread of wildfires.
    Land managers could use this information to increase public awareness about wildfire causes and help communities cope with the smoke and poor air quality. The project budget is $58,000.

 

 

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