Michael Kemp ~ Coastal Ecologist

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Building A Coherent Story

Dr. Kemp's background in environmental engineering naturally led him to his first job working with the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). Forty years later, he's still working with coastal managers, serving on numerous panels and committees. "When I first arrived in this region as a post doc there was an initiative called the Chesapeake Bay Program, with the EPA as the lead Federal agency," says Michael. Soon after arriving, he and his equally young colleague Walter Boynton received a large grant from the EPA to try to determine what was killing the seagrass in the Bay. "We were interested in management and consequences," says Walter. "One of the conclusions that emerged is you need to build a coherent, defensible story. That's what Mike and I do pretty well - put the pieces together in a form where it can become useful for managers and policymakers."

"Their job depends on making decisions based on their knowledge of the environment, and I can help them. That's very satisfying."
Working with coastal managers is a unique kind of outreach. For Michael, it meant he was able to establish the relevance of his work by interacting with managers who were interested in maintaining, preserving and restoring coastal resources. "Managers sometimes play a unique role for us in that they pose questions to scientists that haven't been addressed previously with research," he says. "That's really exciting, to be trying to tackle a problem that's never been addressed in the science, something we didn't even think of until we talked to the managers."

Combining scientists with coastal managers can be tricky, as they come from two different cultures – but not in the case of Michael Kemp and Rich Batiuk, chief scientist at EPA's Chesapeake Bay Program. Rich and Michael have been collaborating for 25 years. "Rich is a colleague and a friend," says Michael. "He is really important for EPA and the Chesapeake Bay program because he actually believes that science will make management decisions better." Rich claims to have contacts for hundreds of scientists in his Rolodex.

Kemp Lab + EPA
Hypoxia: Michael's research revealed that higher rates of hypoxia are connected to effects of the North Atlantic Oscillation, and that the EPA should continue their work reducing nutrient loading in the Bay.
Seagrasses: Michael collaborated with management to devise a sensible strategy for restoration of submerged aquatic vegetation in the Bay.
Collaborating with coastal managers requires excellent communication skills. "Scientists get criticized for not getting information to managers and policymakers in a form that's understandable," says Walter Boynton. "One of the things Michael's involved with is modifying that." Utilizing a two-way street makes their collaboration even more valuable. Rich recognizes the scientific reward system – publication, peer recognition, and presentations, and has also been on university search committees and written letters of support to funding agencies. "I can bring scientists to the table and help them communicate that science, and then reward them by helping them get the next level of science, which I can then come back and harvest two or three years from now," he says. "I help them fund it, and they help me synthesize it a couple years later."

Michael's collaboration with coastal managers also benefits his grad students. "We generate five to ten billion data points per year coming out of the monitoring program," says Rich. "One of the things we do is make getting access to that information easy. We can get grad students access to model code before it becomes public."

"I respect the managers for the incredible stress they have to deal with, trying to solve these problems and dealing with an angry public and politicians," says Michael. "And they are trying to help politicians make decisions based on what will work, not on politics. They really want to know what we have to say."