University of Vermont

Jonathan Cummings: Structured Decision Making Simplified

Graduate student research profile

Jonathan Cummings
Jonathan Cummings

Most of these Graduate Student features focus on our research.  However, instead of describing my research questions, I want to tell you about a way of thinking and the problems this thinking helps to address.

Everyday I think about my frustration with certain aspects of our civilization, how bad the news can be, and how I want to make things better.  I’d like you to take a minute to read the earnest RSENR mission and acknowledge how far we are from achieving it in the wider world.  Because maintaining the integrity of natural systems and achieving a sustainable human community is my mission as well trying to disseminate my knowledge and skills to help everyone become environmentally responsible and accountable people.

Everyday each of us makes about 3000 decisions.  Most of these decisions are virtually inconsequential, some are of moderate importance, but from time to time they can impact the entire course of our own or others’ lives.  Imagine if there was a practical, common sense process for making important decisions that results in transparent, well-reasoned decisions.  Now imagine if the world used this process and applied it to addressing our ecological challenges.

The process for making better decisions is called structured decision making (SDM).  If you are at all familiar with this approach, you may think of it as a complex process, but the beauty of SDM is that it is a scalable, common sense method that can be tailored to any problem.

While I’ve seen SDM used for challenging environmental problems, at its core, it consists of five components:  1) identify the problem, 2) clarify the objectives, 3) name the alternatives, 4) predict the consequences, and 5) evaluate the trade-offs and decide.  It can be quite simple, for example: 1) It might rain tomorrow, 2) I want to stay dry but unencumbered, 3) I could take an umbrella, or not, and 4) the weather forecast says 20% chance of rain. 5) I will stay dry with the umbrella, but the umbrella is heavy and there is little chance of rain, so I leave it at home.

That quick process allowed me to identify the important trade-off of being dry vs. being unencumbered and select the option (no umbrella) that best meets those objectives given the low chance of rain.

Some of the more difficult decisions my efforts have contributed to include sea-level rise adaptation strategies in San Francisco Bay salt marshes, cormorant management plans, adaptive management of New England cottontails, and improved quota allocation for Fraser River sockeye salmon.  While each step for these decisions required more detail, the process remained the same.

Because there are too many problems for myself and other SDM practitioners to address ourselves, I’ve collaborated closely with several leaders in the field while taking and assisting courses at the National Conservation Training Center (NCTC).  I also developed and taught an intro SDM course for students here in RSENR last fall.

Student feedback included comments such as, “After coming into this class with little to no knowledge of how to make an informed decision in a structured way, besides using a pros and cons list, I now feel as though I have some really useful resources at my disposal. and “I’m surprised there hasn’t been something like this course before! Seems like learning how to make management decisions is pretty important for aspiring natural resources professionals!” This enforces my belief that SDM is a crucial skill for natural resource management.

In the near future, I will have articles on a technique for estimating the value of mapping information and evaluating the ability of many techniques to estimate harvested populations.  I will also be sharing my skills both locally through consultation for an environmental decision making course at Champlain College and nationally back at NCTC in June for a SDM workshop focused on Gulf of Maine Atlantic salmon management. 

If you are interested in more about my work or anything SDM related, don’t hesitate to contact me at or check out either the UVM overview of SDM website ( or the NCTC SDM website (