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Water Resources: Synergistic Science Links Sea Grant and Water Resources Research Institute

By Diana Hackenburg, North Carolina Sea Grant science writer

When the whole is greater than the sum of its parts, there’s usually more than just simple addition at work.

Organizations frequently attempt to create synergy through mergers, but most of these endeavors fall short. A positive relationship manifests most often from common interests and values, as well as complementary talents — criteria met by the partnership forged between North Carolina Sea Grant and the Water Resources Research Institute of the University of North Carolina system, also known as WRRI.

The NC WRRI, housed alongside Sea Grant at NC State University, is one of 54 institutes organized as the National Institutes for Water Resources and funded by the United States Geological Survey. Both programs are federal-state partnerships — Sea Grant is housed within the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration — and inter-institutional centers of the UNC system.

“It made a lot of sense, as both programs are charged with addressing natural resource issues through university science and public outreach,” remembers Mike Voiland, former North Carolina Sea Grant director and the first joint director of the two programs.

When Voiland joined North Carolina Sea Grant in 2006, no plans existed to join together the programs. A few years into the job, Voiland recalls, “they were searching for a new WRRI director, so I proposed the idea of doing both jobs on a trial basis. After eight months, having a single director for both programs seemed the right thing to do, and was made official.”

“Fiscal realities were one driver, but this also created special opportunities to address saltwater and freshwater issues, as well as coastal and upland resource problems” Voiland explains.

Interest in bringing together these two programs isn’t confined to North Carolina. Wisconsin started the movement in 1999 by housing its Sea Grant and Water Resources programs together in the University of Wisconsin Aquatic Sciences Center. Five states now boast partnerships, and others are investigating new ways to collaborate.

A push at the federal level for NOAA and USGS to work more closely together led to a 2015 meeting, hosted by North Carolina Sea Grant and WRRI with leadership from both agencies and the five joint state programs. They discussed benefits of working together, as well as potential challenges. That meeting prompted a session and panel discussion at the Universities Council on Water Resources/National Institutes for Water Resources annual conference in June 2016.

Typically, WRRI works from North Carolina’s mountains to its estuaries, whereas Sea Grant’s influence spreads eastward from Raleigh to the ocean. “You combine these programs’ areas of expertise together and create opportunities to efficiently address important landscape-scale questions from the mountains to the sea,” says Susan White, director of North Carolina’s WRRI and Sea Grant programs.

“Our joint efforts require researchers address the mission and goals of both organizations,” notes Sea Grant and WRRI Deputy Director John Fear, who also oversees the two research programs, including a joint graduate fellowship. “We had 28 fellowship applicants this year. Some were new to both programs, which shows the proposal was of interest and disseminated to a broad group of people.”

Shared staff positions also promote cross-cutting research and outreach, like the N.C. Watershed Stewardship Network, coastal-focused sessions at the annual WRRI conference and a policy analysis of numeric criteria for managing nutrient pollution in state waters.

What began in North Carolina as a unification of leadership has grown into a thriving relationship — recently taken to the next level when staff co-located in a new office. “Working side-by-side,” White explains, “allows us to better leverage talents and resources to move forward in addressing the state’s most urgent and long-term resources issues.”

Issues that will require teamwork, creativity — and a boost of synergy — to overcome.

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