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Setting the Ecological Agenda

Worldchanging guest writers David Zaks and Chad Monfreda are graduate research assistants at the Center for Sustainability and the Global Environment at UW-Madison where they work on understanding how human activities affect the biological and physical systems of our planet.

2006-01-14_Surface_waves.jpg There's no doubt that modern science has increased our knowledge substantially, but discoveries like the Yeti crab continue to surprise us. Despite everything we do know, we need a focused plan to manage the uncertainties we don't.

Policy-makers deal with uncertainty all of the time. Just think about the economy, national security, or public health - but for some reason there is a different standard when it comes to the environment. How often do we have to hear the call for more research before acting on global warming?

In an effort to reduce the uncertainties, scientists and policy-makers set out to compile a broadly agreed list of specific ecological questions that are a priority for policy development in the UK. In the past, hot lists of the top scientific questions have influenced other fields like mathematics. Now the target field is ecology:

A list of such questions for ecology should produce a greater synergy between policy, practice, and research, and could inform researchers and research funders as to where their efforts might best be focused.

The collaboration produced a paper in the academic Journal of Applied Ecology that identified the top 100 ecological questions of policy relevance in the UK. These 100 questions were winnowed from a longer list of 1000 suggestions from 654 people representing 10 academic institutions and 28 governmental and non-governmental organizations.

During a two-day workshop on "Prioritizing research questions for policy makers and practitioners", the policy community selected the final list of questions. Academics played an advisory role by facilitating discussion. The 100 questions are organized into 14 categories:

Ecosystem services; Farming; Forestry; Fisheries, aquaculture and marine conservation; Recreation and field sports; Urban development; Aliens and invasive species; Pollution; Climate change; Energy generation and carbon management; Conservation strategies; Habitat management and restoration; Connectivity and landscape structure; Making space for water.

While the questions are all about ecology, they have a strong relationship to current and future policies. Recent changes to the EU's Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) were a dominant theme in the agricultural and forestry related questions. Overarching themes include economics, biodiversity, human health, and sustainable resource management. The majority [of the questions] related to understanding the drivers of biodiversity change and the effectiveness of the conservation response.

The scale of the questions ranges from local to global. Many questions are particular to the UK, like the ecological effects of fox hunting. Others are important just about everywhere, such as the time lags expected between climate change and ecological change.

The most fascinating questions lie at the edge of global change research at the interface of several areas, such as water-land, land-air, and air-water. Not only are they scientifically and policy relevant, but they also require interdisciplinary teams of scientists to collaborate.

The little questions, however, best remind us of how much we don’t know. Who would have thought that the role of soil mites and nematodes in ecosystem function would make the list? Or whether or not the decline in common moths is driving the decline of bats?

A breakdown of the questions reveals policy priority in the UK...

44% greater understanding or predictive power

34% measure of impact of anthropogenically induced changes

13% measure of effectiveness of management interventions to support biodiversity

6% appropriate methodology

3% to optimize management

By prioritizing research questions, scientists and the policy community are working towards a unified agenda. Even with a unified agenda, however, science and policy work at disparate scales in both space and time. The differences in their approaches pose a challenge for effective collaboration:

The most striking outcome was the preference for general questions rather than narrow ones. The reason is that policy is driven by broad issues rather than specific ones. In contrast, scientists are frequently best equipped to answer specific questions. This means that it may be necessary to extract the underpinning specific question before researchers can proceed.

The authors hope that their efforts will open lines of communication between scientists and the policy community that will generate policies based on the most current science. A stronger synergy is needed between the policy and scientific communities, and forums like this are one way to turn science into worldchanging policies.

It's clear that policy-makers stand to benefit by steering researchers in relevant directions. And researchers stand to benefit by making their science accessible to the world outside of their narrow professional community. Disciplinary disincentives have traditionally discouraged scientists from engaging with lay people. But the mood is changing, and ecology is taking the lead. After all, applied ecologists conducted and participated in this project.

We're glad to see dialogue between scientists and policy-makers. If they're to provide solutions, they need to speak a common language and share a common vision. The collaboration is a big advance on a serial approach to science and policy deliberation where there is a one-way flow of information from scientists towards policymakers. A section of the paper titled From Science to Policy, however, reinforces a linear approach where scientists first get the facts straight and then decision-makers act on them.

A large body of evidence suggests the real world works otherwise. Science policy analysts like Roger Pielke Jr. warn that the linear model encourages the politicization of science. When facts precede policy it is easy - as we've witnessed in the prolonged climate debate - to derail action by challenging the science. Or rather, it would be more accurate to say that it is easy to confine action to a do-nothing approach because to decide not to act is a decision too. The linear model limits action when what we need to do is expand it.

Instead of politicized science, Pielke advocates a policy-based science where scientists help decision-makers assess the feasibility of alternative futures:

One way to depoliticize science may be to ask scientists to participate in the process of connecting science with policy alternatives - to explicitly consider what alternatives are or are not consistent with scientific understandings in relation to different valued outcomes. By working to expand the scope of choice available to decision-makers, scientists can depoliticize their science and offer the potential for the introduction of options previously unseen or outside existing political debates. (link)

To know the future is not to predict it but to plausibly imagine it. Knowledge as prediction is often impossible. Chaos, complexity, cascades, regime-shifts, tipping points, and ecopunkt introduce uncertainties that we can never eliminate - waiting for certainty means waiting until it's too late. But the conundrum goes further. Science creates more uncertainty by shaping the very planet it's studying into a human garden.

In increasingly dynamic times, we need new models of science to help us plausibly imagine an open, responsible, and responsive future. Although the UK collaboration between scientists and policy-makers is a positive step, there's much greater potential to use science to envision the ecological agenda.

Opening the future means stepping into uncertainty where science engages art. Here Wendell Berry offers a word of wisdom:

The real question that is always to be addressed is the one that arises from our state of ignorance: How does one act well - sensitively, compassionately, without irreparable damage - on the basis of partial knowledge?

Perhaps the most proper, and the most natural, response to our state of ignorance is not haste to increase the amount of information, or even to increase knowledge, but rather a lively and convivial engagement with the issues of form, elegance, and kindness. These issues of "sustainability" are both scientific and artistic.

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Comments

Chad and David, thank you for succession of excellent posts. I look forward to more from you.


Posted by: David Foley on 12 Jun 06

Very nice post...


Posted by: anonymous on 12 Jun 06



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