Environmental media systems : innovations at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's National Exposure Research Laboratory

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Costelloe-Kuehn, Brandon James
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Electronic thesis
Science and technology studies
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This multi-sited ethnography analyzes challenges and opportunities in the design and development of digital media systems in the Office of Research and Development (ORD) at the United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). Drawing heavily from interviews conducted over the course of three years, primarily with scientists at the ORD's National Exposure Research Laboratory (NERL) in Research Triangle, North Carolina, this dissertation documents and describes the forces behind emergent practices in the communication of environmental science that go beyond the limitations of a transmission model of communication. To describe the practices of my interlocutors, I introduce a model of science communication as context production. The contexts of interest are environmental media systems (EMSs), sociotechnical systems marked by diverse forms of expertise and the creation of collaborative, interactive, open, multi-directional, digital spaces. The EMSs I focus on are the National Atlas of Sustainability and the Community Multiscale Air Quality (CMAQ) modeling system. Both projects could be described as virtual laboratories. The Atlas, which is not yet available for public use, will be a publicly accessible, web-based, easily usable mapping application that draws together a multitude of demographic and ecological data sets, along with a number of tools, including an Eco-Health Relationship Browser. CMAQ is an open-source modeling system used primarily to guide regulatory policy on air quality.
This dissertation aims to describe and analyze how producers of the Atlas and CMAQ articulate the matrix of forces (technological, political, economic, legal, historical, ecological, cultural) that shape and are shaped by the design and effects of EMSs; the need for innovation in the circulation of environmental information and in forms of collectivity that enable better design of EMSs; the design imaginaries or logics guiding the assemblage of EMSs capable of fostering new forms of environmental and scientific literacy and the cultural critique practiced through production of EMSs and imaginaries of (scientific) communication and literacy that challenge traditional notions of what communication is and can do. The EMS producers I engaged with understand their communities of practice--and the publics using the systems they design--as marked by heterogeneous expertise and goals; recognition of this diversity opens up possibilities for collaboration and interdisciplinary problem solving.
August 2012
School of Humanities, Arts, and Social Sciences
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Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, Troy, NY
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