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Shaping the Science Translators of Our Time
A unique master's program trains students to use environmental science to develop effective, real-world policy.
By Renee Morad, September 1, 2016
Climate change. Scarcity of fresh water reserves. The need to increase food production for a growing population or shift toward more sustainable forms of energy. The loss of biological diversity and the collapse of ecosystems. Sea level rise and coastal flooding.
These are just a few of the global issues that the students and faculty of Columbia University’s Master of Public Administration in Environmental Science and Policy program work daily to overcome. “What’s at stake is the future—whether we’re going to live in a prosperous future or a future of environmental catastrophe,” says Matthew Palmer, senior lecturer at Columbia University’s Environmental Science and Policy (ESP) program, a joint initiative of Columbia’s Earth Institute and the School of International and Public Affairs.
Tackling such challenges can be daunting. But in this intensive, one-year graduate program in New York City, about 60 students each year learn to use science to develop effective, real-world policy. The ESP program builds on the traditional Masters of Public Administration (MPA) curriculum by introducing a foundation of scientific knowledge. Students learn to assess and understand the science behind complex environmental issues and to respond with sound policy decisions. “We’re training students to become science translators,” Palmer says.
Graduates routinely go on to work as analysts and managers in government agencies, global corporations and nonprofits. For example, recent ESP graduates have taken positions with the U.S. Department of Agriculture, Apple and the Ministry of the Environment in Ecuador. Popular areas of expertise include climate change, environmental research and land management, among others.
Students in the accelerated ESP curriculum pair courses on earth science, conservation biology, urban ecology and climatology with courses on ethics and justice, microeconomics, policy analysis and financial and sustainability management. Rather than simply learning about scientific theory—to observe, research, hypothesize and experiment—students practice it, joining studies in the field and in labs.
ESP students are also able to experience policy formation firsthand. In a two-semester workshop in applied earth systems policy analysis, students analyze a specific piece of environmental legislation and its scientific underpinnings. They then create a mock program to implement the bill, identifying key agencies with which to partner and determining the operational plan. In another workshop, students assist policymakers in organizations such as the United Nations Development Programme, the United Nations Population Fund, the United Nation’s Children’s Emergency Fund and the World Bank, on projects that sit at the intersection of sustainability, public health, human rights, corporate social responsibility, media and technology.
In the ESP program, students also learn a great deal from each other. The student body, which last year drew from 13 countries on five continents, represents a number of viewpoints, academic and professional backgrounds and career interests. Because conflict resolution often goes hand-in-hand with policy formation, students with different opinions and learning styles are often asked to work together, creating a microcosm of the real world. Sometimes students come to ESP with significant real-world policy experience of their own. Palmer recalls a recent student from Senegal who was interested in forest management and policy. “It turned out that he was working directly with the minister of the environment of Senegal to help shape the country’s national forest management policy,” Palmer says. In that sense, ESP is more than a program. It is an incubator for environmental policy change around the world.
After graduation, students become part of an alumni network of some 750 professionals, all of them passionate about environmental science and committed to making a positive impact.
“There’s a whole suite of challenges that humanity is going to face over the next decades, some of which we’re already facing,” Palmer says. “This program is about solving those environmental problems in the most effective ways possible.”