Nebraska’s model for linking science and decisionmaking

Innovative natural resource management: Nebraska’s model for linking science and decisionmaking

David W. Cash

Like many regions in the developed and developing worlds, the communities of the Great Plains of the United States are struggling with the question of how to maintain economic and social viability while preserving the environmental systems on which livelihoods depend. It is a region faced by complex and interrelated problems, and there is widespread belief that understanding the problems and crafting viable sustainable solutions will rely on linking science to decisionmaking throughout the region and at all levels. As such, the Great Plains can be seen as an archetype of areas faced by the challenges associated with human-environment interactions and achievement of sustainability. (1)


In Nebraska, it is water that hangs in the balance: In 2001, 73 of the 85 townships within Chase, Dundy, and Peckins Counties. Nebraska, were designated as “critical.” ‘This meant that groundwater levels had dropped so low that special rules were implemented to severely restrict farmers from pumping water from the aquifer. In other parts of the state, rural and urban communities wrestled with how to balance muricipal water needs, irrigation demand, the growth of cattle feedlots, and requirements for flow regimes in the Platte River to maintain populations of federally listed endangered species. And beginning in the summer of 2003, federal, state, and local scientists began a comprehensive modeling, monitoring, and data collection effort to help decision makers comply with a Supreme Court settlement on water rights between Nebraska and Kansas.


Former Nebraska Governor Ben Nelson (1991-1998) once noted that “It’s a worn out phrase to say that ‘water is the lifeblood of the state,’ but it is worn out because it’s true.” For a region that produces significant quantities of food and fiber for U.S. and international markets, threats to this lifeblood by the interaction of drought, overpumping from aquifers, and contamination from agricultural inputs increase the vulnerability of communities.


Born from the need for innovative management to address such vulnerabilities was a novel form of governance in Nebraska: Natural Resources Districts (NRDs), local management agencies based on watershed boundaries with broad authority to research and regulate natural resource use and to provide environmental protection. Since their establishment in the late 1960s and early 1970s, NRDs have addressed a broad array of issues, evolved strategies for integrated assessment and management, and co-evolved with state and federal agencies and the private sector. At the same time, a network of research and technology development efforts became more fully integrated into the new management system. Such a network encouraged scientists, managers, and stakeholders to coproduce a variety of kinds of science and technology–from hydrologic-modeling capabilities for managers to test regulatory options to well-monitoring systems to track the status of water resources to irrigation technology development to provide farmers with water-efficient choices and on-farm management strategies.

In a world that increasingly recognizes the importance of harnessing science and technology to achieve economic as well as environmental goals, (2) can the NRD system serve as a model for linking science and management for sustainable development?

Changes in the Great Plains

The current environmental and social condition of the Great Plains is one influenced by several periods of large-scale change. The region evolved rapidly from the mid-nineteenth century through the early twentieth century, as Euro-American settlements, agriculture, and industry eradicated a Native American culture/economy based on the prairie grasslands ecosystem. Agriculture grew as the dominant economic activity of the region in the early 1900s, but the region was devastated by social, economic, and ecological upheaval in the 1930s, caused by the interaction of poor land management and extended drought–the kind of degradation spiral we currently are witnessing throughout the world. In response to the experience of the 1930s, the U.S. and state governments sponsored programs to improve management and apply technological solutions for agricultural development. Mechanization and the intensification and use of pesticides, herbicides, and fertilizer began to increase dramatically. By the 1950s, advances in irrigation technologies (drilling, pumping, and delivery), government subsidies, favorable crop prices, and inexpensive energy (for pumping) made withdrawing water from the High Plains Aquifer–which underlies a large portion of the Great Plains–economically feasible. (3) From World War II through the 1990s, irrigated acres in the Great Plains increased at a steady pace, solidifying the dominant economic system (see Figure 1 on page 11). (4)

From an economic development perspective, irrigated agriculture has allowed the region to enjoy enormous economic growth. Supporting rural livelihoods based on agriculture and agricultural services, the farm sector produces significant shares of U.S. outputs for many commodities.

The growth of this irrigation-based system has come with resource, environmental, and social costs, however. With relatively low natural recharge rates, a semi-arid climate, and the dramatic increase in the use of groundwater throughout the region, declining water levels have plagued the region since the 1940s. Today, with some parts of the aquifer showing declines of more than 50 percent, concern about the health of the aquifer remains acute (see Figure 2 on page 12). (5)

While local and regional concern about depletion of the aquifer date back 50-60 years, water quality issues only recently arose on the agenda in the 1980s. Atrazine, an herbicide widely used in the region on crops, and nitrates from fertilizer applications are examples of the kind of agricultural inputs that have had negative human health and ecosystem impacts. (6) Such impacts include a range of developmental problems, acute and chronic illnesses, and ecosystem damage, especially in aquatic environments.

The severity of water quantity and water quality issues has been exacerbated by the recent expansion of the feedlot industry in the region. A favorable climate, easy access to feed corn, and relatively inexpensive land prices have caused a surge in the number of cattle in feedlots in the region (see Figure 3 on page 13).


The region has also been the recent stage for disputes over endangered species management. Several federally listed endangered species are permanent residents or migrate through the Great Plains. One of the most contentious debates in the region centers on the flow of the Platte River to sustain migrating populations of whooping cranes and piping plovers. Withdrawal of surface water directly from the river and indirectly from groundwater has narrowed the channel and reduced suitable habitat.

Institutions for Science and Management

Against this backdrop of social and environmental change, elected officials, managers, and farmers have a history of crafting an array of institutions. In the mid–nineteenth century, to help spur expansion west of the Mississippi River, the U.S. Congress passed the Morrill Act, laying the foundation for a national-state-county system of agricultural research, education, and extension. The Cooperative State Research Education and Extension Service is now a well-coordinated network of federal, state, and local partners producing scientific research and technological advances to aid in agricultural development and natural resource management. (7)

During this time, the federal government also created the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS), a scientific agency originally tasked to provide an inventory of natural resources to be developed by the westward expanding population and growing industrial base in the eastern United States. It has evolved to address a wider range of issues and become better connected to state and local concerns.

The upheavals of the Dust Bowl years in the 1930s led to a variety of novel conservation and management programs, most notably the creation of county Soil and Water Conservation Districts by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) in partnership with state governments. Created jointly by federal and state legislation the 1930s, soil and water conservation districts were created in virtually every county in the country and were overseen by the Soil Conservation Service (the precursor of today’s USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service). Leveraging federal, state, and local funds, these districts conducted demonstration projects, made conservation technologies available, and trained farmers in new management techniques.

Despite the advent of Soil and Water Conservation Districts, depletion of the aquifer posed challenges for problems that crossed county boundaries. States of the region took different approaches to solve this problem. Texas legislation in 1949 enabled groups of counties to form Underground Water Conservation Districts. In the early 1970s, Kansas enacted similar legislation, which enabled the creation of local Groundwater Management Districts. Like the districts in Texas, they managed groundwater of the High Plains Aquifer. Many other states in the region have also established special local management, advisory, or planning districts. While some have been established to address groundwater issues, others have been created to manage surface water, flood control, or other issues.



The Experiment in Nebraska: Building NRDs

While Texas, Kansas, and other Great Plains states were experimenting with management districts that focused on specific issues, Nebraska sought to experiment with a different structure of governance. By the 1960s, Nebraska had established watershed planning boards, rural water districts, and flood control districts in addition to the existing soil and water conservation and irrigation districts. With overlapping functions, authorities, and boundaries, there often was confusion about who had responsibility for what issues, and coordination from the state to the local level was extremely difficult. It was not easy, for example, to determine who would administer large water projects that cut across county boundaries or to solve disputes between surface water and ground water managers. Through the 1960s, several legislative and district association committees studied the problem and in 1969, legislation was passed consolidating the 154 existing resource-related districts into 23 Natural Resources Districts. (8)

NRD legislation established a suite of innovative institutional structures. While each by itself was not particularly novel, taken as a package, this architecture created a new system of natural resource management and assessment with broad-reaching abilities to coordinate and integrate science and decisionmaking. The box on page 14 contains selections from Nebraska statutes that define five of these important structures: multipurpose districts, NRD boundaries, institutionalized integration of science and decisionmaking, cooperation between agencies, and funding. In addition, Nebraska’s NRDs have a robust portfolio of clear but shared state and local powers.

Multipurpose Districts

The fundamental impetus to reorganize resource management in Nebraska was the multiplicity of single-issue districts, districts whose managers had authority over only one topic, such as flooding, or soils, or irrigation water. With single-issue districts, managers had difficulty solving problems in their jurisdiction related to problems in other such districts (for instance, surface water and groundwater problems). Moreover, the collection of single-issue districts provided fundamental obstacles to statewide, integrated management of resources. By contrast, NRDs, with their authority over all resource-related issues, allow integrated resource analysis, planning, and management in which linked issues can be addressed in a coordinated and efficient manner. Management of the Platte River, which runs through Colorado, Wyoming, and Nebraska, exemplifies this. The river is currently the focus of disputes about water quantity, water quality, endangered species, flood control, and recreation. NRDs take an integrated approach to solving these varied and interrelated problems, and management efforts consciously address the interactions. Thus, groundwater and surface water are conjointly regulated, and both are regulated in concert with managing floods and dealing with endangered species. Further, the seven NRDs with jurisdiction over the Platte are cosponsors with state agencies in partnering with state and local research organizations to undertake the Nebraska’s Cooperative Hydrology Study. The study is designed to provide a wide range of geological, hydrological, and ecosystem information to help guide the state and NRDs in implementing integrated management called for by the Platte River Cooperative Agreement, signed with Colorado and Wyoming.

In contrast, Kansas has maintained single-issue districts. Surface and groundwater are managed separately, and Groundwater Management Districts do not map onto Basin Advisory Councils (entities designed to provide advice on surface water planning to the state water office). The result has been water management and planning that does not integrate surface and groundwater management as effectively as possible. The result can be over-allocation of water rights, as surface water regulations do not account for the hydrological movement of groundwater into streambeds, and vice versa.

NRD Boundaries

The ways in which NRD boundaries were created–by using watershed boundaries that cover the state–have a critical effect on how resources are managed in Nebraska. The idea was to match institutional boundaries to boundaries of consequence for resources, avoiding problems of poor institutional fit–a mismatch between social institutions and relevant biophysical domains. (9) Second, they were created to be large enough to capture efficiencies of scale and minimize transboundary problems yet small enough to manage effectively. Third, because perceptions of what is efficient and effective might change from issue to issue or over time, boundary drawing is somewhat flexible. By law, NRDs can formally merge or split apart (this was done once in 1989 when two NRDs merged), and they can formally collaborate with neighboring NRDs to address transboundary issues (this is the case, for example, for the Platte River, because the Platte cuts through several NRDs) (see Figure 4 on page 17).


A Robust Portfolio of Clear but Shared Powers

Debate is often polarized about local control versus state control. In weighing the tradeoffs between more centralized control (efficiencies and providing public goods) and more local control (gaining local political legitimacy and place-specific solutions), Nebraska attempted to avoid the dichotomy and create a hybrid system that had the positive qualities of both extremes while avoiding the pitfalls of either. Locally elected NRD board members are given a broad range of authority to manage in the context of state laws. This includes powers to tax, regulate, educate, perform monitoring and research, provide financial incentives, and enforce regulations. Such a suite of functions provides a flexible toolbox from which to manage. Thus, for groundwater management, the state ultimately controls the resource (all underground water is owned by the state), but the NRDs have broad leeway in devising regulations tailored to the needs, interests, and environment of their particular place.

Kansas and parts of Texas, on the other hand, illustrate the pitfalls of a lack of balance between the extremes of local and central control. In Kansas, more powers are ultimately vested in the state, especially those of enforcement. But the state is hesitant to exercise these powers; administrators understand their lack of political legitimacy at the local level. Thus, Groundwater Management Districts in Kansas are left in the position of creating regulations that are not credibly enforced. At the other extreme, parts of Texas that are not within Underground Water Conservation Districts (UWCD) have pure local control. For instance, farmers are governed by the absolute ownership doctrine in which landowners have full rights to underground water regardless of whether it influences a neighbor’s access. Texas state administrators therefore have no ability to manage a resource that crosses boundaries.

Institutionalized Integration of Science and Decisionmaking

As noted above, in many areas in the Great Plains, there have been efforts to harness science to assist decisionmaking. The creation of the NRDs included institutionalizing the relationships between districts and research entities; providing broad powers to undertake, contract, or collaborate on studies; and providing analyses of the state of resources and options for actions. NRDs have their own technical staff (such as hydrologists, soil scientists, and foresters) but take advantage of the expertise in the extension system, at area research centers, in the state geological survey (University of Nebraska’s Conservation and Survey Division–CSD), USGS, the USDA Agricultural Research Service, and private firms. These efforts produce such outputs as hydrogeographic maps, user-friendly models that can test policy options, reports, and innovative technology, such as new nozzles for irrigation systems that are more efficient.

Soon after the Upper Republican NRD (see Figure 4 on page 17) was formed in 1971, it began a model-building effort with USGS and the University of Nebraska to study depletion of the High Plains Aquifer and groundwater management. Complementary expertises at different levels and at different agencies produced a scientifically credible and policy relevant output. The Upper Republican NRD brought hydrologists, geologists, economists, and crop scientists to the same table as farmers and other water users to build and test the model jointly. Modelers from USGS have the technical capacity and expertise to create system-wide models of the aquifer (thus capturing the dynamics within and outside the Upper Republican NRD), but they do not have the capacity or legitimacy to collect local-scale data from farmers who might not trust the intentions of federal scientists. As the model was developed, the Upper Republican NRD brought together users and scientists, creating discussions in which farmers can provide inputs (“The model doesn’t capture that we can switch crops easily–that will change the economic impacts”), and managers can request option testing (“Can you see what will happen to water levels if you impose a range of pumping fees?”). The modeling effort was iterative and ongoing. It was flexible enough so that when new issues arose–such as interactions between surface water and groundwater in the 1980s–new expertise could be brought to the effort. The models have been used to identify what townships within the district would be classified as “critical” and how long that designation would remain in place before it could be removed.


By contrast, areas of Texas–including some areas that have Underground Water Conservation Districts–have been unable to create the same kind of decision support tools. Why? Because there has been little effort within the management districts to formally integrate their work with the research efforts at state and federal scientific organizations. The result: Managers began realizing in the late 1990s that they had serious depletion problems but had few scientific tools to convince constituents that regulations were needed or to test different management options.

Cooperation between Agencies

While NRDs possess many tools to manage in an integrated way, the framers of NRDs also recognized that for many issues, NRDs would not be able to address problems without collaborating with other agencies and organizations. The kinds of situations that require collaborative efforts include solving transboundary problems, accessing technologies and scientific information outside the NRD, making sure regulations are consistent from state to local levels, and pooling resources with neighboring NRDs to solve joint or related problems. In response, legislation enabled NRDs to form a variety of different relationships with other agencies through contracts, memoranda of understanding, courtsanctioned interstate compacts, or cooperative agreements. For instance, NRDs routinely collaborate with the USDA/Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) on administering the Conservation Reserve Program, and they have longstanding relationships with USGS and CSD. In addition, there are multiple examples of two or more NRDs combining efforts to address joint problems, and on multistate resource problems, they have become partners with federal and state agencies. This is seen, for example, with the variety of agencies with which NRDs collaborate to encourage the adoption of a water-efficient irrigation technology, center pivot systems. The systems (visible from airplanes as huge circular patterns), were first developed in the 1970s and consist of a pipe and spigots that swing in a circular arc around a central point. Recent technological developments have included highly efficient nozzles, attachments that allow accurate application of fertilizer through the system, and computerized control that integrates information about local soil moisture and evapotranspiration data uploaded from the Internet. NRDs spearhead collaboration with NRCS on providing financial incentives, with the extension system on studying best management practices and farmer demonstrations, and with private firms on developing new technologies. As a result, counties in Nebraska have some of the highest rates of center pivot use compared to similar counties in Texas or Kansas (see Figure 5 on page 18).


Several mechanisms provide NRDs with relatively stable sources of funding. First, as allowed by statute, NRDs have the authority to levy taxes on property owners and issue bonds. Second, there are several funds established by the legislature from which NRDs can draw funding: The Nebraska Resources Development Fund and the Nebraska Environmental Trust are two examples. (10) NRDs can also receive grants from federal agencies like USDA and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). Thus the system as a whole has a combination of relatively stable funding derived from taxes or bonds and competitive funding derived from state and federal granting. Finally, NRDs leverage their own funding with funding from state and federal agencies to collaborate on joint projects–such as providing financial incentives to farmers to switch to water-efficient irrigation technologies (with NRCS)–and engage in long-term assessment projects (with USGS and EPA).


How NRDs Link Science and Decisionmaking

The architecture outlined above reflects a particular solution to problems of institutional design in a specific context–that of a western state in the U.S. federal system where allocation of authority and responsibility are relatively well established. But are there generalized functions of the Nebraska system that might be supported by other institutional structures in different places? This research and an emerging literature on science and technology for sustainable development that has examined agriculture, El Nino/Southern Oscillation forecasting, fisheries management, forestry, climate change, and biodiversity protection, suggest several hypothesized characteristics of effective systems that harness science for decisionmaking. (11)

Intermediaries and Boundaries

The institutional structure in Nebraska is a network of management and research nodes at multiple levels. One can think of these nodes as having boundaries between one another–delimited by different missions, roles, cultures, and responsibilities. An NRD serves the function as intermediary between these nodes, acting as a gatekeeper (sometimes bridging, sometimes blocking) between different agencies and organizations. The professional managers of NRDs (hired and fired by the elected NRD board) act as agents between the local constituents and state agencies, with communication going both ways. As an example of this two-way process, NRDs act within parameters set by state law, while state agencies craft regulations and legislation based on input from NRDs.

Boundary Organizations

Recent work in the field of social studies of science characterizes institutions that serve the intermediary role described above as “boundary organizations.” These organizations help negotiate the boundary between science and decisionmaking and across levels (for instance, between state and local actors); straddle two distinct social worlds but have responsibility and accountability to both sides of the boundary; and provide a space to coproduce information. (12)

NRDs fit this description, and as such they provide several critical functions in managing the boundaries that separate scientists and decision makers: convening, communicating, translating, and mediating.

The convening function is one that easily falls under the auspices of NRDs. Having subsumed the single-issue districts and possessing authority to collaborate with other state and federal agencies and research organizations, NRDs sit in a particularly advantageous position for bringing multiple perspectives and multiple types of expertise to the table. For example, they regularly host meetings in which local constituents, area research scientists, and researchers from the state land grant college are brought together for the purpose of addressing a problem that is of interest to each of these perspectives.


Bringing multiple views together, however, does not assure constructive interaction. NRDs build on their convening function by facilitating communication across the multiple boundaries that characterize science and decisionmaking in Nebraska. The NRD acts as a conduit through which local farmers can communicate with extension researchers, developers of products from the private sector (such as irrigation equipment and seeds), regulators, and even the courts. Likewise, NRDs facilitate communication from state and federal agencies to local constituents.

But facilitating communication only gets multiple parties partway toward mutual understanding. Even with good communication, actors on different sides of a boundary use different jargon and have different interests, perceptions of causal relationships, and histories. Bridging these gaps requires translation, and NRDs perform such a function in their intermediary roles. NRD staff, for example, translate research findings into language, charts, figures, and maps that are understandable and usable by farmers, ranchers, board members, and other community members. They also translate concerns, questions, and agendas into to terms that are usable by researchers and technical staff.

Finally, even with convening, communicating, and translating functions, contentious issues and deep divisions based on different interests across boundaries still challenge management. NRDs routinely provide a mediating function between the multiple parties in disputes–whether these are disputes about resources (such as water rights), disputes about how science should be done (for instance, what should go in a hydrogeologic model), or disputes about the institutions that manage resources (or where enforcement authority should be vested).

Producing Salient, Credible, and Legitimate Information

Analysis of NRDs and comparable institutions in the Great Plains suggests that the combination of the four functions outlined above are associated with the production of information that is important in linking science and decisionmaking. This line of work “suggests that scientific information is likely to be effective in influencing the evolution of social responses to public issues to the extent that the information is perceived by relevant stakeholders to be not only credible [scientifically accurate and technically believable] but also salient [relevant to decision makers’ needs] and legitimate [procedurally unbiased and fair].” (13) The challenge faced by NRDs is to make sure there is a balance between these three attributes. Increasing salience by bringing more stakeholders to the table can decrease credibility; for instance, scientists might ask why there are nonscientists at the table. By artfully employing convening, communicating, translating, and mediating functions, NRDs have been able to contribute to the production of salient, credible, and legitimate information.

The Upper Republican NRD, USGS, and University of Nebraska model-building effort described previously offers a case in point. In this effort to study groundwater depletion and management of the High Plains Aquifer, the Upper Republican Natural Resources District acted as a convener of multiple perspectives from across many boundaries–farmers, feedlot owners, hydrologists, economists, and managers. They helped parties who otherwise might not have communicated with one another to share ideas and where necessary helped translate information (or encouraged others to package their information in understandable media). They helped mediate discussions about acceptable ways to establish credibility, and they arrived at jointly agreed-upon methods: In this case, they decided that USGS would use its standard peer review process, university researchers would publish in their respective fields, and model outputs would be vetted with the elected board and at public meetings. The result is an evolving model that is salient, credible, and legitimate. That is, it answers the questions that matter to managers and water users; it accurately reflects small-scale and large-scale dynamics of the aquifer as judged by accepted norms in the field and testing over time; and the process was transparent and inclusive, engaging stakeholders at appropriate times. The model has effectively been used to determine regulations, test the impacts of regulations, educate water users and decision makers, and plan future management efforts. Few other parts of the Great Plains have used such integrated model-building with such effectiveness.


Does the NRD system serve as a model for linking science and management for sustainable development in a complex and rapidly changing human-environment system? In many respects the answer to this appears to be a qualified “yes.” The NRD structure and attendant functions have allowed Nebraskans to cope with a variety of stressors, both social and environmental. The system they have constructed is adaptable and flexible and able to respond to new problems, issues, and demands; it is also able to incorporate (in fact, encourage) new science and technological development. Moreover, it produces management that is at once internally consistent (across issues–groundwater regulations do not generally constrain surface water regulations) and externally consistent (state-level and local-level planning is integrated).

While the particular structure of the Nebraska system might not be applicable to other contexts, perhaps the functions it supports can be. Whether in Nebraska, sub-Saharan Africa, or a small island state, boundaries–as gray as they might be–will divide and demarcate where knowledge is produced and where it is used. People will have different ways of perceiving what is salient, credible, and legitimate on different sides of a boundary. And institutions might be able to play a role in building salience, credibility, and legitimacy through functions of convening, communicating, translating, and mediating.

Actions in other parts of the Great Plains may be evidence of NRDs’ perceived effectiveness: Texas and Kansas are demonstrating interest in moving toward systems that share some of the functions, if not structures, of Nebraska. Over the last 30 years, counties (or parts of counties) in Texas have increasingly opted to join Underground Water Conservation Districts, which more and more frequently address both quantity and quality issues. They have done so not only to gain access to state conservation funds but to be better connected to state agencies and scientific organizations. This is also consistent with new state legislation that has provided an influx of resources to help regions (tens of counties) do more integrated water planning. These resources include funds specifically designed to encourage collaborations between districts, the state geological survey, and USGS in an effort to bridge historically insurmountable boundaries (see Figure 6 on page 20).

Likewise, Kansas is attempting to bridge the boundaries created by single-issue districts. Lawmakers and managers there are trying to figure out institutional solutions to the mismatches between Groundwater Management Districts and Basin Advisory Councils in a way that would support better integration of ground and surface water management, for instance.

Outside the United States, it is possible that the lessons learned from NRDs can be adapted in other highly developed countries. In fact, several countries–including Australia and Sweden–are moving in the direction of multipurpose networked systems. However, the prospect of an NRD-like system working in developing areas raises difficult challenges. The NRD system is resource- and technology-intensive, and it has been built on an already robust system of management, laws, and scientific research. It is also embedded in a relatively stable political and economic system. Developing countries facing urgent short-term problems may be in a worse position to make the investment for a long-term integrated system of science and management. On the other hand, many non-industrialized areas have established a long history of sustainable management of local resources, and Western social science has yet to understand the mechanisms through which knowledge has supported such management. (14)

There are, however, examples where the boundary management functions seen in NRDs effectively mediate the interaction of science and decisionmaking through partnerships of developed and developing countries. A most notable example is the international agricultural research and development system. The Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research (CGIAR), a consortium of funders of agricultural research, has a history since the late 1960s of sponsoring research and development through regional research centers linked with national agricultural research and extension systems that has brought new crop varieties and management techniques to areas throughout the developing world, with significant increases in yields. One regional center, the Centro Internacional de Mejoramiento de Maiz y Trigo (the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center, CIMMYT), has acted as a boundary organization, fostering the collaboration of agronomists, economists, crop scientists, the local extension system, and farmers in participatory plant breeding programs. These efforts seek to bridge the boundaries that hinder the integration of long-term knowledge accrued by farmers over many generations with the insights and methods developed by modern plant breeders. (15)

Perhaps it is exactly on these kinds of efforts that developed countries should be focusing their efforts in developing countries. Perhaps scientific and technical aid could be focused not on creating technologies and research in developed countries and transporting them to developing countries (an ineffective strategy at best), but on using aid monies and expertise to help build the role of intermediaries–boundary organizations–that can effectively connect existing domestic expertise and resources within countries with international expertise and resources. As with CGIAR, there are some examples of this, but as a whole, little attention has been paid to the process of producing information for decisionmaking. As Nebraska’s NRDs have shown, focusing on this process, and consciously creating institutions that manage multiple boundaries, is a promising next step on the path to sustainability.



1. J. X. Kasperson, R. E. Kasperson, and B. L. Turner II, eds., Regions at Risk: Comparisons of Threatened Environment (Tokyo and New York: United Nations University Press, 1995).

2. R. W. Kates et al., “Sustainability Science,” Science, 27 April 2001, 641-642; and World Bank, World Development Report 1999/2000: Entering the 21st Century (New York: Oxford University Press, 1999).

3. J. Opie, Ogallala: Water for a Dry Land (Lincoln, Nebr.: University of Nebraska Press, 2000); and D. E. Kromm and S. E. White, eds., Groundwater Exploitation in the High Plains (Lawrence. Kans.: University Press of Kansas, 1992).

4. V. L. McGuire and J. B. Sharpe, Water-Level Changes in the High Plains Aquifer–Predevelopment to 1995 (Denver, Colo.: U.S. Geological Survey, 1997).

5. V. L. McGuire and B. C. Fischer, Water-Level Changes in the High Plains Aquifer–1980 to 1998 and 1997 to 1998 (Denver, Colo.: U.S. Geological Survey, 2000).

6. See;;;; and

7. Committee on the Future of Land Grant Colleges of Agriculture, National Research Council, Colleges of Agriculture at the Land Grant Universities; Public Service and Public Policy (Washington, D.C.: National Academy Press, 1996).

8. H. M. Jenkins and R. B. Hyer, A History of Nebraska’s Natural Resources Districts (Lincoln, Nebr.: Nebraska Department of Natural Resources, 1975).

9. C. Folke et al., The Problem of Fit Between Ecosystems and Institutions (Bonn, Germany: International Human Dimensions Programme on Global Environmental Change, 1998).

10. See; and Nebraska Department of Resources, Nebraska Resources Development Fund Biennial Report (Lincoln, Nebr.: 2000).

11. This line of research is built on a foundation of cumulative research on the role of science and technology in environmental issues going back more than a decade: The Social Learning Project, which fashioned a long-term, large-scale overview of the interplay between ideas and actions across multiple problem areas (stratospheric ozone depletion, acid rain, and climate change), has laid the foundations on which contemporary efforts in global environmental management are now building. See Social Learning Group, ed., Learning to Manage Global Environmental Risks: A Comparative History of Social Responses to Climate Change, Ozone Depletion and Acid Rain (Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 2001). The Global Environmental Assessment (GEA) Project has provided insights into the role that formal assessment activities play in the international environmental arena. See R. Mitchell, W. C. Clark, D. W. Cash, and F. Alcock, eds., Global Environmental Assessments: Information, Institutions, and Influence (Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, forthcoming); and The international Initiative on Science and Technology for Sustainability (ISTS) is a network of scholars and practitioners seeking to enhance the contribution of knowledge to environmentally sustainable human development, that among other activities, has sponsored a series of regional and topical workshops on science, technology and sustainable development. See R. W. Kates et al., note 2 above; International Council for Science (ICSU), ICSU Series on Science for Sustainable Development No. 9: Science and Technology for Sustainable Development (Paris, France: ICSU), accessible at; and The Research and Assessment Systems for Sustainability Program (SUST) explored the institutional dimensions of knowledge systems, trends and transitions, and vulnerability. See D. W. Cash et al., “Knowledge Systems for Sustainable Development,” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 100, no. 14 (2003): 8086-91; B. L. Turner et al., “A Framework for Vulnerability Analysis in Sustainability Science,” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 100, no. 14 (2003): 8074-79; and And the current Knowledge Systems for Sustainable Development project, a multi-institutional effort funded by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, seeks to understand and promote the design of effective systems to harness research-based knowledge for sustainability. See Together, this lineage of research has broadened the core of understanding of the interactions between knowledge, technology, and decisionmaking.

12. D. H. Guston, “Principal-Agent Theory and the Structure of Science Policy.” Science and Public Policy 24, no. 4 (1996); T. F. Gieryn, “Boundaries of Science,” in S. S. Jasanoff et al., eds., Handbook of Science and Technology Studies (Thousand Oaks, Calif.: Sage Publications, 1995); S. S. Jasanoff, “Contested Boundaries in Policy-Relevant Science,” Social Studies of Science 17 (1987): 195-230; D. W. Cash, “‘In Order to Aid in Diffusing Useful and Practical Information’: Agricultural Extension and Boundary Organizations,” Science, Technology, and Human Values 26, no. 4 (2001): 431-53; and S. L. Star and J. R. Griesemer, “Institutional Ecology, ‘Translations,’ and Boundary Objects: Amateurs and Professionals in Berkeley’s Museum of Vertebrate Zoology, 1907-39,” Social Studies of Science 19, no. 3 (1989): 387-420.

13. Cash et al., note 11 above.

14. F. Berkes and C. Folke, eds., Linking Social and Ecological Systems: Management Practices and Social Mechanisms for Building Resilience (Cambridge, Mass.: Cambridge University Press, 1998).

15. M. R. Bellon, Participatory Research Methods for Technology Evaluation: A Manual for Scientists Working with Farmers (Mexico City: Centro Internacional de Mejoramiento de Maiz y Trigo, 2001).

RELATED ARTICLE: Nebraska Statutes that Established Natural Resources Districts

Selections from Nebraska statutes that are relevant to the architecture of the system: (1)

Multipurpose Districts

“The purposes of natural resources districts shall be to develop and execute, through the exercise of powers and authorities granted by law, plans, facilities, works, and programs relating to: (1) erosion prevention and control. (2) prevention of damages from flood water and sediment, (3) flood prevention and control, (4) soil conservation. (5) water supply for any beneficial uses. (6) development, management, utilization, and conservation of ground water and surface water, (7) pollution control, (8) solid waste disposal and sanitary drainage, (9) drainage improvement and channel rectification, (10) development and management of fish and wildlife habitat, (11) development and management of recreational and park facilities, and (12) forestry and range management.” (Section 2-3229)

NRD Boundaries

“[T]he entire area of the State of Nebraska shall be divided into natural resources districts…. The primary objective shall be to establish boundaries which provide effective coordination, planning, development and general management of areas which have related resources problems. Such areas shall be determined according to the hydrologic patterns. The recognized river basins of the state shall be utilized in determining and establishing the boundaries for districts and where necessary for more efficient development and general management two or more districts shall be created within a basin.” (Section 2-3203)

Institutionalized Integration of Science and Decisionmaking

“Each district shall have the power and authority to: (1) Make studies, investigations, or surveys and do research as may be necessary to carry out its authorized purposes … and publish and disseminate the results. To avoid duplication of effort, any such studies, investigations, surveys, research, or dissemination shall be in cooperation and coordination with the programs of the University of Nebraska, or any department thereof, and any other appropriate state agencies; and (2) Conduct demonstration projects within the district … in order to demonstrate by example the means, methods, and measures by which soil and water resources may be conserved and soil erosion in the form of soil blowing and soil washing may be prevented and controlled. Demonstration projects shall be coordinated with the programs of the Agricultural Research Division of the University of Nebraska Institute of Agriculture and Natural Resources.” (Section 2-3232)

Cooperation between Agencies

“Each district shall have the power and authority to cooperate with or to enter into agreements with and, within the limits of appropriations available, to furnish financial or other aid to any cooperator, any agency, governmental or otherwise, or any owner or occupier of lands within the district for the carrying out of projects for benefit of the district as authorized by law, subject to such conditions as the board may deem necessary.” (Section 2-3235)


“Each district shall have the power and authority to levy a tax of not to exceed four and one-half cents on each one hundred dollars of taxable valuation annually on all of the taxable property…. The proceeds of such tax shall be used, together with any other funds which the district may receive from any source, for the operation of the district.” (Section 2-3225)

“Each district shall have the power and authority to issue revenue bonds for the purpose of financing construction of facilities authorized by law.” (Section 2-3226)

“Any money in the Nebraska Resources Development Fund may be allocated by the commission … for utilization by the department, by any state office, agency, board, or commission, or by any political subdivision of the State of Nebraska, which has the authority to develop the state’s water and related land resources.” (Section 2-1588)

1. Nebraska statutes are available online at

David W. Cash is a research associate at the Center for International Development and the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs at Harvard University’s John F. Kennedy School of Government. His research focuses on the interaction between science, technology, and sustainable development and on the interplay of science and decisionmaking from international to local levels. He has studied agricultural development, water management, climate, biodiversity, and land use. He is a coeditor of the forthcoming volume, Global Environmental Assessments: Information, Institutions, and Influence (MIT Press) and has published in a variety of journals, including Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences; Global Environmental Change; and Science, Technology, and Human Values. Cash may be reached via e-mail at

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