Charles Hernick loves research. While an undergraduate in the Department of Ecology, Evolution and Behavior, he worked with David Stephens on bluejay research. After graduating, he worked with Fumiaki Katagiri in the plant biology department. His most memorable course was led by David Tilman, one of the world’s leading ecosystem science researchers.
But Hernick isn’t a researcher. He’s a translator. He connects the dots between basic research, ecology and economics, and turns it into policy recommendations that can be adapted and put into practice by government agencies, cities and non-governmental organizations working on environmental issues.
After graduating from the College of Biological Sciences in 2003, Hernick went on to earn a master’s degree in International Relations and Environmental Policy at Boston University, a program that draws together threads of diverse but interconnected disciplines including economics, public policy and ecology. He and his wife, Michelle, a fellow U of M alum, stayed on in Boston and Hernick went to work for the Massachusetts Office of Coastal Zone Management before moving to the environmental consulting firm The Cadmus Group.
Hernick’s impulse to put knowledge into action reaches back to childhood. On a trip to Ecuador as a teenager, he witnessed firsthand the impact of human activity on ecosystems in a way he hadn’t back home in Eagan, Minnesota. “I saw the lasting effects of deforestation on water in Ecuador," says Hernick. "In an area once covered by a dry tropical forest, I saw lands threatened by desertification.”
Now, Hernick spends his days answering questions about the best way to take on dauntingly complex environmental issues for the likes of the Environmental Protection Agency and the Army Corps of Engineers. He mixes the latest basic research with a healthy portion of economics to come up with policy recommendations and best practices guidelines. Says Hernick: “I look at what academics are talking about and figure out how to make it happen.”
Making it happen often hinges on getting the cost-benefit ratio right. That’s where economics comes into play. “Economics is the study of how to allocate scarce resources,” says Hernick. “Often, the choice that could create the most environmental good is not so much more expensive when you take into account all the variables.”
The fusion of economics, policy and ecology falls under the umbrella of ecosystem services, a concept pioneered by the University of Minnesota’s Stephen Polasky, Tilman and others.
Ecosystem services provide a way for decision-makers to account for all those variables and assess the bigger ecological picture by looking at what ecosystems functioning on their own provide to humans and local communities such as carbon sequestration and water purification. Hernick cites New York City’s efforts to improve water quality through better land use practices and by purchasing land to protect the watershed as a prime example.
Taking a broader view of the value of ecosystems and the natural resources they provide reveals the potential for change and feeds Hernick’s optimism in the face of seemingly overwhelming environmental problems. “The great thing that continues to motivate me are the success stories out there,” says Hernick. “Small changes that people or communities have made that really make a difference.”