Who is "The Science"? What does "The Science" do in its spare time? Why do we ask "The Science" so many questions? I don’t know. I have never actually met “The Science” and as far as I know there actually is no entity known as “The Science” to whom I might address a question (or a thank you note, or even send a chain letter, etc.).
I spent last week at a workshop on translational ecology with Mark and an impressive group of ecologists, climate scientists, and land managers. At the risk of being incomplete (or potentially introducing a new term for an older idea), I am not going to define that term, but I do want to think a bit more about what seems to be an increasing (or renewed) focus on the role of science in informing policy (which for me usually means natural resource management or conservation, but I’m guessing this discussion extends beyond those realms). Thankfully we (at least some of us) have moved beyond the notion that science does not have a role in determining policy, but I still consistently struggle to determine how to make that actually happen. There has been quite a bit of discussion on the role of science communication and co-production in increasing the impact of science on policy. I agree, for the most part, that these things are necessary for elevating the role of science in the decisions we make. I also do not think they are sufficient. I write this blog trying to make some sense of a series of half-thoughts that have been swirling since last week’s working group.
I think it is relatively safe to say that as a group we (conservation scientists) are generally poor communicators. We get hung up on uncertainty and complexity and often neglect the simple rules of story-telling. The Twitter-verse is full of resources for people looking to improve their ability to tell compelling stories about their science and connect their work to the public or decision makers acting on behalf of the public. This connection is crucial, but for a story to have an impact it needs a good listener. Improved science communication can help here too by helping improve science literacy in the public and among decision-makers, but that is likely (at least as I’m arguing here) not entirely sufficient.
This brings me to the next advancement in our approach to ecology: knowledge co-production. Despite being a somewhat unwieldy term, it essentially describes a fairly obvious idea: that science produced with decision-makers actively involved in developing the questions (and even the methods) improves the likelihood that the results will be integrated into the decision-process (and by extension, improve the actual outcome of the decision process). My experience with these kinds of things is limited, but it seems a few ingredients are necessary for this to truly provide a path towards science-impacted policy. First, there must actually be a decision-process that serves to set expectations for what information is necessary, when it is needed, and what ecologists can provide. Second, there must actually be a need for ecological information – this is critical and often overlooked (or at least under-appreciated).
…I’m just not sure we’re focused on the right sources of uncertainty. I spent the beginning of this week at the Southwest Climate Summit in Sacramento. The conversation among the scientists, natural resource managers, and bureaucrats inevitably turned towards uncertainty. I say inevitably because in my work with the Southwest Climate Science Center I often hear that climate models are “just too uncertain to be useful”. This seems reasonable. After all, there are at least 30 different models that describe our best estimate of how future climate will look (or feel)*. If one of these models was “right”, wouldn’t we simply get rid of the other models? Some of the models predict a warmer, wetter future – others predict a warmer, drier future. How do we know which model to believe? These are challenging questions to answer (especially for someone who is not a climate modeler), so I’m not going to try. I’m also not going to try because I don’t think these questions are the real roadblock to our collective ability to begin taking actions to plan for a warmer future**. I say this because making decisions under uncertainty is normal and because we are actually not that uncertain about how warm the future will be.
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