To Samuel Fielding, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers’ (USACE) Engineering With Nature (EWN) initiative seemed like a perfect fit.
As a prospective John A. Knauss Marine Fellow, Fielding was searching for a host organization where he could utilize his interdisciplinary education in economics, international relations and biology. His doctorate research was focused on the economics of coastal adaption and the socioeconomics of coastal hazards within flood insurance markets.
The graduate student’s expertise sounded like an ideal match for the USACE’s EWN initiative to Dr. Jeff King as well. As EWN deputy national lead, King was looking for a scholar from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s (NOAA) Sea Grant John A. Knauss Marine Policy Fellowship Program with a special skill set who could help EWN take projects to the next level.
King described how Fielding has become involved with several different EWN efforts since starting in February 2020; the Knauss Fellow is contributing state-of-the-practice knowledge accrued from his doctorate research.
“Sam has been looking at ways we can justify natural infrastructure and natural and nature-based feature projects, because the usual justification methods haven’t been working for us,” King said. “We need to identify new strategies that accurately quantify the economic, environmental and social benefits these projects offer; we’re getting so much more from them in coastal environments than we do from traditional or ‘hardened’ infrastructure, such as levees and sea walls.”
Fielding has seen the variety of benefits natural infrastructure and natural and nature-based features deliver, including protection from storms, water quality improvements, aesthetics, and better fish and wildlife habitats, which result in better fishing opportunities for communities.
“These are real benefits not typically brought to the table in planning discussions,” he said.
“Historically, when we try to prioritize natural infrastructure projects, we encounter several challenges when attempting to achieve a favorable benefits-to-cost ratio, which is what’s needed for these projects to be implemented,” King said. “To do this, we must find better ways to quantify all of the benefits derived from natural infrastructure projects. Having this ability would make natural infrastructure projects more competitive with traditional infrastructure.”
Fielding is also investigating a business case project for resilience with Margaret Kurth, a research engineer who has been working with the U.S. Army Engineer Research and Development Center’s Environmental Laboratory’s Risk and Decision Science Team as a contractor for six years.
“For this project, we’re thinking in terms of projects that achieve USACE-specific missions to create the most actionable information possible for the agency,” she said. “We’re moving the needle on what resilience means for the organization; we just published a paper on what sorts of resilience benefits we could get from coastal natural and nature-based features. The next step is to be able to quantify it as a project benefit so it can be incorporated into the USACE practice alongside other costs and benefits.”
Kurth feels that if the USACE is not able to quantify costs and benefits of innovative projects, internal mechanisms for these projects won’t exist. She stresses the necessity of having measurements and the resources to monitor them in order to foster innovation.
From Fielding’s perspective, the opportunity to work on these projects with the USACE has been wonderful.
“In doctorate work the research is very theoretical,” he said. “It’s great to see how professionals deliver in a real-world setting ⸺ I’m exposed to high-level thinkers, and I’ve learned something new every day.”
Maddie Kennedy, a program analyst for NOAA’s National Sea Grant Office and manager of the Knauss Marine Policy Fellowship, agrees.
“I am very excited for Sam and the work that he is doing at USACE, making a difference and moving the needle forward on ecosystem-based management,” she said.
“The NOAA Sea Grant Knauss Marine Policy Fellowship was established specifically to engage graduate and very recent graduate students in marine and coastal policy-making,” she continued. “I hope that Sam can gain meaningful connections with individuals inside and outside USACE.”
Kennedy sees value in positioning a NOAA Knauss Fellow in the USACE and other agencies.
“By offering opportunities outside of NOAA, we not only provide a wide range of opportunities for our fellows; many times, fellows or alumni work together to develop these long-standing partnerships for the successful protection of our coastal spaces.”