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Oklahoma researchers to explore complex issues through new statewide collaborative research project

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Oklahoma researchers are exploring a new approach to the development of science-based solutions for complex problems through Oklahoma’s Established Program to Stimulate Competitive Research. 

According to a press release, OU’s National Institute for Risk and Resilience co-directors Carol Silva and Hank Jenkins-Smith will act as science leaders for the project. The project will address “wicked” problems. 

According to the release, “wicked” problems are problems in which there is widespread disagreement on what the true problem is or if the problem exists. 

The project began on July 1 and will continue through the next five years. According to the release, the project was funded by a $20 million grant from the National Science Foundation.

Researchers from across Oklahoma, a science peer-review group, state opinion leaders and public participants will address complex problems regarding land use, water availability and infrastructure. 

Jenkins-Smith said communications between the groups is an important part of the process. 

“We view this as an iterative process in which the science teams are presenting what they’re learning to decision-makers and the public,” Jenkins-Smith said in the release. “At the same time, the scientists are going to learn about ways to work with these groups and take into account their ideas, preferences and concerns.”

The researchers have been divided into five teams, each focused on a different area of study. According to the release, the teams must identify a group of peer scientists to evaluate their work. 

The five teams will research specific topics including seasonal and subseasonal weather patterns, terrestrial water and carbon dynamics, water reuse and sustainability, infrastructure implications and social framework. 

According to the release, some of the “wicked” problems involve multiple areas of study. Jenkins-Smith said that is the purpose behind this study. 

“We get a pattern of growing problems of great complexity overlapping into multiple areas for which potential solutions are bogged down by polarization within our population and political system,” Jenkins-Smith said in the release. “This project aims to break that cycle by taking advantage of the overlapping array of problems to find solutions that can be both innovative and acceptable by very different populations, making it possible to come to agreements over these shared challenges.” 

Silva and Jenkins-Smith said in the release this project offers a new approach because it incorporates social science and stakeholders outside of academia in the process. 

Silva said she hopes this approach can expand to other areas of research. 

“How do you create solutions for polarized recommendations like wearing masks when they have become a political statement whether you wear a mask or don’t, or to collectively come up with solutions for community policing, social justice or race issues in our cities and towns?” Silva said in the release. “We’re really hopeful that this framework could be useful beyond technical and engineering domains.”

Emmy is a professional writing and modern dance senior, and a news reporter for The Daily.

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