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Interview with a NatCapper: Melissa Kenney

We sat down with Melissa Kenney, Associate Director of Knowledge Initiatives at the University of Minnesota’s Institute on the Environment

We sat down with Melissa Kenney, Associate Director of Knowledge Initiatives at the University of Minnesota’s Institute on the Environment (IonE) to talk environmental decision science, fostering interdisciplinary research, and leveraging the Natural Capital Project network. IonE is one of the oldest core partners in the Natural Capital Project partnership.

Melissa Kenney

Melissa Kenney: I’m the Associate Director of Knowledge Initiatives at the University of Minnesota Institute on the Environment. I manage the entire portfolio of research and scholarly activities that the Institute pursues to progress the work we’re doing to help people and the planet prosper together. One of the reasons why I’m really excited about that work–and why NatCap is a big piece of the research that we do here at UMN–is that we are evidence-based solution seekers. We are looking for information and knowledge that helps advance the way that we make smart decisions. We need to be thinking critically about the implications of the choices we make for the future, the impacts of those choices on the environment, and how we value the environment as part of the decision-making processes. 

So that brings me to the other piece of “who I am.” I’m also a research faculty member in environmental decision science. I think about the processes and tools that enable organizations like local, state, and national governments, as well as private sector businesses, to make smart decisions based on their own goals and objectives. I think about how we can make sure science is at the table when decisions are being made. That’s one of the things that we do really well here at the University of Minnesota. We have a number of researchers affiliated with NatCap at IonE with expertise in structured decision-making. We’re hoping to bring those skills to the forefront in a much more visible and prominent way. The methods and tools of structured decision-making offer a way to think more holistically about how to include ecosystem services in organizational decisions.

What led you to become interested in your field and want to tackle issues like these?

I grew up in a rural area in the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia, so I was always surrounded by the natural environment. I really grew to love the mountains and streams; being in the Chesapeake Bay watershed and the interconnectedness of all of the systems that were around me. I knew pretty early on that I wanted to do something related to the environment and work in a realm where I could think about not just understanding the wonders of the natural world, but about how to make good choices that balance our society’s mutual goals.

One of the reasons doing work at a university ends up being so beneficial is because you’re ultimately trying to think about the trade-offs between maximizing environmental protection and other types of societal and economic goals. I find that piece of the work inherently fascinating, because there’s not a singular solution. Science is one piece of decisions. Decisions are a combination of scientific evidence, decision-maker values, and constraints (like laws and regulations). That combination means we have to be thinking about these things in more interesting and complex ways, including engaging and understanding an individual or organization’s values and goals.

It also means there’s not one single discipline that has ownership over the solution, that inherently we have to work together. That was really appealing to me. I initially thought as an undergraduate that working in “the environment” was doing field work, studying the environment, and doing live experiments, and I did that. But once I learned how to do it, I became a little bored and went looking for a new challenge.

I moved on to thinking about how data and information intersects with people and decisions. For me, that never grows boring, because people are one of the hardest systems to understand. Environmental management is a really hard problem. It leaves an endless array of possibilities and interesting research opportunities that will never get dull and are also really important to solving and progressing some of the biggest grand challenges that we’re facing now and into the future.

What excites you the most about NatCap, the network, the work that you’re doing, and how they all connect to each other?

I think the strength of the partnership is the diversity of perspectives that we each bring to the collective whole. It’s really great to see partners who have expertise in various research methodologies, approaches, and systems. And it’s great to see partners who are really working on the ground to affect decision-making and action.

I think the beauty of doing this research is that it helps to highlight where there are trade-offs between different environmental goals. Making an apparently “pro-environment” management choice does not always have unqualified benefits for all. It might provide environmental benefits for some ecosystem services, but not for others. That is a really important story to tell.

There’s a lot of work being done at the University of Minnesota in natural capital that my colleagues are very humble about. It’s nice to be able to share with the broader community the great things that we’re doing here. For examples, the work on natural capital valuation of urban ecosystems, the integration of natural capital via InVEST into large scale general equilibrium economic models via GTAP, and the use of decision analytic approaches to engage policymakers … these are the kinds of things that have never been done and are highly innovative!

The diversity of experience and expertise across our partners is what makes our NatCap partnership so strong.

In doing this work, what’s one of the most challenging parts of the job?

Universities typically incentivize researchers to work in more individualistic ways and on projects that may not be as societally relevant for choices we’re making today. I think an opportunity I have is to re-envision what the future of universities can be and how we can give more space for those of us who want to do work that is highly impactful and highly collaborative. I think that’s really critical for our work within the NatCap community. We need interdisciplinary thinkers, we have to work as a team. We can’t be islands in singular labs. We have to do participatory-based research with decision makers, so that we can shape our research to be actually useful in addition to rewarding basic research that may be useful at some point in the future.

What is your favorite part about your job?

Oh, it’s always people. I get to work with such a great team here at the University of Minnesota working on natural capital. It’s wonderful to be able to work with people within the larger NatCap partnership, to be immersed in this very welcoming community that is interested in the kinds of perspectives that both I, as well as our larger Minnesota team, can bring to find solutions to problems.

Looking into the future, where do you see NatCap science and research?

From my perspective, I see two opportunities. First, I think there’s a huge opportunity to bring more expertise and approaches related to decision science into the NatCap world. There are a lot of federal agencies and other organizations who are starting to adapt structured decision-making approaches into their own decision processes. Over the next couple of years, I think we’ll be able to make a lot of progress in being able to engage with decision-makers and to think about the way that we develop the processes that would enable natural capital to be part of the conversation. One way to do this is to integrate new innovations in ecological forecasting which are aimed at predicting nature. And doing it at the spatial and temporal scales that are relevant for decisions. Because decisions are all about the future, predicting changes in ecosystem services is a necessary advancement. If we can’t project natural capital changes in a way that’s relevant to decision making, then it makes it more difficult for that information to actually be incorporated into choices that organizations are making in a meaningful and useful way. Folks interested in learning more and engaging in the community can join the Ecological Forecasting Initiative.

The second opportunity that I see is the work that Justin Johnson and Steve Polasky, amongst others, are doing to incorporate ecosystem services (through InVEST) into a widely used global trade model (called GTAP). This innovative new work creates opportunities for integrating natural capital into decisions, valuing natural capital in resource dependent countries, and creates a level of scalability we haven’t seen before.

Our last question could be the easiest or the hardest: when a NatCapper visits Minneapolis/St. Paul, what restaurant do you recommend they go to?

That is actually one of the hardest! The reason is that I have never lived in the Midwest before so I’m enjoying exploring lots of new places. Since I just moved into a new house, my current favorite restaurant is the one that I can walk two to three blocks down the road to called the Birchwood, where I can get amazing farm to table foods. They promote a living wage, so the tip is already included in your bill. It’s just a great, local restaurant where you can sit outside and run into your neighbors.

If any NatCappers come to the Twin Cities, let me know so I can show you the things that make Minnesota so great (including the restaurants).


Interview with a NatCapper is published quarterly alongside our newsletter. If you have a NatCapper in mind you’d like us to interview next, please contact Sarah Cafasso at

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