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Kenny Broad doesn't shy away from tough physical conditions or tough issues. Through a unique combination of underwater cave exploration and environmental anthropology, he tackles challenging expeditions to unexplored caves and probes controversial problems ranging from climate change to inequity in natural resource management, focusing on the potential use and misuse of scientific information.
On the surface, underwater caves and pressing societal problems may seem unconnected, but Broad reveals important links. "Underwater caves may just look like dark, eerie holes, but they can be critical reservoirs of clean fresh drinking water and are integral to the health of the surrounding habitats," he says. "If pollution or climate change threatens that ecosystem, it also threatens local people." His fieldwork in the Bahamas and other countries is attempting to demonstrate how caves and fresh water supply are part of an interconnected system that plays a crucial role in coastal cultures.
Broad's long history of diving and documentary film expeditions includes the exploration of one of the world's deepest caves in the Huautla Plateau in Mexico. "You can't send a remotely operated vehicle in to explore caves because the technology simply doesn't exist," he says. "It's one of the few environments left on the planet where you must physically go to learn about it."
Underwater and aboveground, Broad is committed to an interdisciplinary approach—developing teams that bring together hydrologists, biologists, oceanographers, climatologists, psychologists, and anthropologists to see the big picture. "Traditionally, environmental and social problems have been looked at in isolation by different disciplines," he observes. "But until the sciences engage with people who actually experience problems and the policymakers who deal with those issues, we'll never find the best solutions."
Broad's interdisciplinary training includes a Ph.D. in anthropology from Columbia University and an M.A. in marine affairs and policy from the University of Miami. He is currently a professor at University of Miami's (UM) Rosenstiel School of Marine and Atmospheric Science, is the Director of the UM's Abess Center for Ecosystem Science and Policy, and is Co-Director of Columbia University's Center for Research on Environmental Decisions.
He also stresses the importance of recognizing and communicating the level of uncertainty inherent in any scientific information. Broad cites an example of this from his research to illustrate his point: "A climate forecast that's right eight out of ten years may be considered very successful in the science community. For a big farm, sustaining a loss two out of ten years for those 'missed' forecasts may be possible—even if it occurs two years in a row. But this may not be the case for a more vulnerable small farming household in northeast Brazil. Let's say that farmer changes his/her strategy to monocropping based on the forecast versus planting multiple crops to hedge against too much or too little rain. If the forecast is wrong the first two out of ten years, they'll have no seed for the next year's crop and may in fact face a critical food shortage. So while being right 80 percent of the time is impressive from a scientific standpoint, how the probability plays out may be devastating for some farmers."
Despite such disparities, Broad believes that scientific fact can have great practical utility if all aspects of a problem are studied within context, uncertainties are openly communicated, unintended consequences are anticipated, and issues of equity in distribution of benefits are considered from the start.
"I don't believe in setting boundaries or firm expectations—those are just limitations. That's why I find both underwater cave exploration and interdisciplinary research so engaging. You never know what you're going to discover until you get there. You never know what the answer—if there is one—may turn out to be."