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Ryerson Urban Water
Dr. Carolyn Johns, Photo Credit: Nation Wong

Carolyn Johns is an Associate Professor in the Department of Politics and Public Administration at Ryerson University.

She holds a PhD in Comparative Public Policy and a Master of Arts in Public Policy and Administration from McMaster University, a Bachelor of Education from the University of Toronto and an Honours Bachelor of Arts in Political Science from Wilfrid Laurier University.

Dr. Johns’ is the Director of the Great Lakes Policy Research Network and her research interests include water and environmental policy, intergovernmental administrative relations, public administration, network analysis and policy capacity issues in the public sector.

Restoring the Great Lakes to a healthier state will take more than just rejuvenation efforts, says Carolyn Johns, professor in the Department of Politics and Public Administration. Johns said her research is showing it will take input from the social sciences to create awareness about policy outcomes and stewardship from the general public.

“The public needs to know a lot more about the current state of the great lakes,” said Johns. “There have been policies for decades, but serious challenges remain.”

In very basic terms, the goal for the health of the lakes would be that they be “fishable, swimmable, drinkable waters,” said Johns. “Those goals sound very basic, but we are not achieving them.”

As the director in the Great Lakes Policy Research Network (GLPRN), Johns has been conducting research using a framework developed by the International Joint Commission (IJC), the organization which oversees the stewardship of the boundary waters between the U.S. and Canada. Johns and the GLPRN are examining why, despite ongoing policy efforts and scientific tracking of the lakes’ health, the implementation, governance and engagement of the general public remain ongoing issues. In order to improve policy outcomes and the health of the lakes, social science and policy research is critical said Johns.

“There needs to be behavioural change,” said Johns. However, Great Lakes governance is complex. “There are a lot of actors and organizations involved,” she said, noting that there are thousands of cities, hundreds of Indigenous communities, several states/provinces and two distinct countries involved in trying to address many issues such as climate change, invasive species, and the re-emergence of severe water quality issues in Lake Erie.

While scientists regularly assess and report on the quality of the water in the Great Lakes, it is rarely broken down in a way that the average individual would understand its broader impact on their community or their own lives.  Social scientists focus attention on the value of the Great Lakes and how we are doing as a society in protecting this global freshwater resource.

Johns’s research is also showing that the government “needs high-level indicators that the public can understand of whether progress is being made or not.” Her research shows that the involvement of social scientists in applied policy research can help policy makers and the public break down complex issues and translate scientific findings and policy implementation challenges into relatable terms for the general public in order to advance stewardship.

In a recent report published by Johns and other GLPRN members for the IJC, Testing a Framework for Assessing the Effectiveness of Programs and Other Measures under the Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement, participants surveyed noted that standardized indicators and basic data, such as the number of days beaches are closed and the causes for the closures, could help increase public access to information that matters.

Obtained from