Ron Cossman (L), Sandra Guzman (R)

A new project at the Social Science Research Center (SSRC) is using measurements of human behavior to accelerate water quality strategies. The project, which is in cooperation with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the Mississippi Department of Environmental Quality, sees the SSRC and the Water Resources Institute using different variables associated with knowledge and social indicators such as attitudes, beliefs and practices regarding nutrient management.

During the two-year project, researchers and scientists at MSU, the University of Wisconsin and the University of Minnesota will examine the current use of social indicators to assess water quality issues throughout the country. The project is led by Richard Ingram, the Associate Director of the Mississippi Water Resources Research Institute and the Director of the Center of Excellence for Watershed Management. He is assisted by Co-Principal Investigators Ron Cossman, Kenneth Genskow, and Mae Davenport. Dr. Cossman is also joined by Dr. Sandra Guzman, a Postdoctoral Associate.

“The EPA deals with environmental damage and remediation or clean-up,” said Cossman, a social scientist and demographer at the SSRC. “One characteristic is that the environment changes very slowly. It can take decades for an improvement to be measurable. But, social indicators such as people’s knowledge, beliefs and habits, can change relatively quickly, maybe in the span of a few months or a year. The EPA has charged us with exploring these social indicators to see if they are a reliable, short-term, measure of environmental improvement.”

A visual guide of the Mississippi Watershed.

Typically, environmental metrics are monitored over time and are used to determine the success of a program. However, environmental monitoring is expensive and time consuming, as it can years and even decades for watersheds to show improvement. The team hopes that social indicators can prove to be a more efficient measure of change with a shorter time frame.

According to Cossman, the first year of the project will be used to determine if social indicators are an effective measure, while the second year will bring in civic engagement principles.

“In the first year we are focusing on social indicators as a shorter time frame measure of environmental improvement. In the second year we will focus on characteristics of civic engagement,” he said. “What conditions are necessary for grass roots organizations to spring up and take additional responsibility for the environmental quality of their community? Can we project where that might take place? Can we nurture the birth of civic organizations?”

As a social scientist, Cossman also noted the importance of diving into the social aspects. “It there weren’t people, there wouldn’t be this problem. People are both the cause and the solution, so they must be involved in the discussion. That can include everyone from the farmer, rancher and forester to the regulatory agencies and ultimately the consumer.”

For more information about the project, contact Richard Ingram at 601-927-5657 or

SSRC Spotlight: Social Indicators for Environmental Scientists
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