Gober continues working at interface of research and policy

ASU professor Patricia Gober at Tempe Town Lake

Half a year into her official retirement from Arizona State University, Patricia Gober’s schedule is as full as ever. She continues to co-direct the Decision Center for a Desert City at ASU, a National Science Foundation center that focuses on how to make better water management decisions in the face of climatic uncertainty. This fall she will teach an ASU course in global water security. Meanwhile, she has accepted a faculty position at the University of Saskatchewan’s Graduate School of Public Policy and is beginning to take on responsibilities there.

Gober retired in December 2010 from a full-time joint appointment as professor in the School of Geographical Sciences and Urban Planning in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, and the School of Sustainability. She describes retirement as “a transition point when we have the freedom to do what we want. For many of us, it is to continue to write, teach, and contribute to our communities in a variety of ways.”

Gober made another significant transition about 12 years ago. At that point, she had established herself as a population geographer and urban geographer, had helped build a nationally-ranked geography doctoral program as chair of ASU’s Geography Department, and was serving as president of the Association of American Geographers (AAG). As president, she focused her efforts on considering the role of geography in society. In her presidential address she asked, “How do we move from our current status as a small, academic discipline to one that plays a more prominent role in societal debates about climate change, sustainable development, urban growth, health, social and environmental justice, and poverty and inequality?”

“When my term as president came to an end, I thought I should follow my own advice and looked seriously for leadership positions that were interdisciplinary, synthetic and policy-oriented,” Gober explains.

This quest led her to apply to the National Science Foundation’s Decision Making Under Uncertainty Initiative. “Twenty-four billion dollars had been spent on climate change research, but our nation was unable to translate results into public policy,” Gober recalls. “So here I sat in Phoenix in the midst of what was then an eight-year drought. We are growing like gangbusters, and there is serious discussion of the climate warming and drying the watersheds that supply us with our sustainable supplies. Clearly something needed to be done.”

The grant proposal was funded, and seven years later, a second phase of the Decision Center for a Desert City (DCDC) project is underway, building on the findings of the first phase to foster better decision-making under climatic uncertainty, and applying these principles to water-management decisions in the urbanizing desert of central Arizona.

“Pat’s leadership of DCDC should set an example for all of us”, says Chuck Redman, co-director of the center. “She has pulled together effective interdisciplinary teams, provided her own unique insights to those teams, and has ensured that this research is relevant to the decision makers of our region. At the same time she is mentoring graduate students and overseeing a talented staff. It is no wonder that colleagues at other universities, community members, and NSF program officers all see her as the personification of DCDC’s success.”

Carol Atkinson-Palombo, a former doctoral student who now is an assistant professor at the University of Connecticut, describes Gober’s role as mentor: “An important objective of the way in which Pat mentors people is to provide them with the foundation and tools to be self-sufficient. I do not talk to her very often since graduating but I do hear her voice when I am advising my own students, responding to papers, formulating grant proposals, working with collaborators, and even parenting. For that reason, she may not realize how much she has impacted people. To be sure, she has inspired generations of academics, especially women, and not just the ones with whom she has worked directly.”

Gober has received numerous awards in recognition of her research: She is a fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, together with Redman was awarded the Prince Sultan Abdulaziz International Prize for Water in 2008, and was selected for the ASU Alumni Association’s Faculty Research Award in 2009. In April 2011, she received the Association of American Geographer’s Presidential Achievement Award. Her most recent book, “Metropolitan Phoenix: Place Making and Community Building in the Desert,” was published by the University of Pennsylvania Press in 2006.

As she settles into her new set of activities, with time in both Arizona and Saskatchewan, Gober looks forward to continuing to work at the interface of science and policy. She’ll continue to work with Phoenix’s water management community together with researchers and graduate students at ASU. In her position at the University of Saskatchewan, she’ll learn about the political and environmental setting of that area, and will look for ways to contribute to her job and new second home using the expertise she’s built through her work with DCDC and through the course of her career.

Written by Barbara Trapido-Lurie
School of Geographical Sciences and Urban Planning

Carol Hughes, carol.hughes@asu.edu
College of Liberal Arts and Sciences