Monday, January 23, 2006

4 words:

This is a draft of a foreword I am writing with a colleague...
Over the last two decades, governments around the world have acknowledged that changes in the environment affect human activities in ways that are increasingly important. Supplies of essentials--shelter, water and food--can be affected by decadal cycles in climate and disasters that are either more intense, more frequent, affecting more people, or often, all of the above. Governments are acknowledging that the environment is no longer a reliable invariant, resources are not inexhaustible, and we can no longer count on "business-as-usual."

Much financial support has been given to the scientific research community by governments to observe and investigate Earth processes, trends, abrupt events, and disasters. Governments are especially interested in what might be "tipping points," or bifurcations in chaotic systems like the climate. Fundamental scientific inquiry--discovery--will always remain one driver of such studies, however relevancy has become increasingly important. Governments need Science (and here Science is the larger enterprise of the natural and social sciences) to actively contribute towards solutions to the problems caused by the complex, non-linear interactions between the changing environment and our social structures.

Other communities also are becoming focused on this need for integration of Scientific research with the policy process. The international development community is concerned with sustainability of agriculture, water management and desertification issues, as well as urban planning--all topics in which global change is a factor, and for which Science should have significant input. In the non-governmental world, conservation efforts are becoming aware that ignoring climate change may make resource allocation decisions about particular locations and species moot.

National and international donors are also becoming focused on global change. The coming decade of global environmental change research will result in increasing pressure to ensure connections with the decision needs of Governments. Member states of the United Nations are striving to achieve the Millennium Development Goals, which are inextricably linked to closer integration of Scientific information with policy development.

For many scientists and research institutions, this is a new context. It is also a new context for many science funding agencies, which have not previously had to manage the interactions between different areas of science and policy that this approach implies. There are very real needs for scientific input into the policy and research management worlds. There are examples of past successes like the 1987 Montreal Ozone Protocol. However, in retrospect, despite the significant difficulties associated with the science underlying the negotiation of that protocol, the scientific community is well aware that the larger issue of global environmental change is much more complex than the ozone-related subset. Most of the simple Science problems have already been addressed.

The global environmental change science landscape is evolving rapidly. Earth systems science has done well in transitioning to team-based work, within Earth systems science, but it is just starting to tackle team-based work with social scientists, and with non-scientists like policy and media specialists. Other disciplines, like engineering and medicine, have worked in this interactive mode for much longer (centuries in some cases), and will certainly respond to this new challenge effectively. The global environmental change science community and its institutions must adapt to this new mode of collaboration if they are to contribute to a sustainable future.

Future climate-related crises may actually decrease the amount of funding available for global environmental change science. Three factors contribute to this possibility: first, extreme events such as the hurricane-related damages on the Gulf Coast in the United States cause enormous reorganization in government funding structures, and the disciplines able to respond on short (and therefore perceived as relevant) timescales will generally benefit: medical services, social services, reconstruction logistics, et cetera. The ability of Science to provide answers on timescales of hours, days or even weeks is limited--the immediate value of the information currently provided is extremely low. Second, these extreme events are usually geographically restricted compared to many global change issues. Paradoxically, regional and local crises can have greater impact on funding priorities than global ones, even if the local events are exacerbated by global change. A third factor contributing to the possibility that funding will decrease for global environmental change research is that this science is framed within fundamentally different time-scales from those governing political and public interest. Without a concerted effort by the Scientific community at consciousness-raising and education on global environmental change issues, phenomena that occur on decadal timescales (not to mention century, millennial, or beyond) will have little 'traction' in the political and popular world that determines funding.

If Science does not rise to the occasion, it will become irrelevant in the policy decision chain addressing sustainability, and possibly worse, lose ground in funding for basic science.

Ensuring Science's relevance will require increased internal coordination between the natural and social sciences and their governance structures, and ongoing dialogue with important external social actors: the policy sector, business and industry, and labour. These types of stakeholder interactions will require adaptive management, which has fundamental implications for all levels, including the ultimate government funding agencies. Project management (by scientists, by the grantee institutions, as well as by the overseeing granting agencies) will have to allow for flexibility in project objectives, and for changes in the basic metrics used for scientific research and productivity. Budgetary allowances will have to be made to accommodate the increased need for science communications, additional dissemination modes, and interactions specialists.

The historic reluctance of science to engage in this process is, of course, related to the perceived trade-off between Science's long-term credibility and the relatively short half-life of policy interests. A carefully tended dialogue with governments on what is currently "policy relevant," and what the related policy impact indicators are, must be maintained.

This volume explores the interactive frontier between science and policy, and looks at bridges between the two in the context of transformative research carried out in the Americas, primarily under the sponsorship of the Inter-American Institute for Global Change Research, an international treaty organisation. In spite of the difficulties in organizing new research networks, there are several successes in the included Chapters that demonstrate that the interactions described above between Science and policy can indeed change local and national government policies. Interestingly, one of the Institute's greater achievements has been the formation of a cadre of academic administrators in the region who are now capable of administering multi-institutional, multi-currency, and multi-disciplinary research projects, and who are now pursuing funding from regional development agencies.

The processes of science and policy-making almost always differ from our preconceived notion: rather than being linear processes that lay out a question, analyse it, and propose a solution based on that analysis, they are both complex non-linear iterative processes that deal with multiple, interlinked, and changing questions. Closer cooperation between two such processes cannot be expected to be simple. All actors must learn something about the peculiarities of the other's culture.

We look forward to that conversation.


At 7:41 AM, Anonymous Matthew said...

Hmm, those are some interesting thoughts there Paul! More please! What do you think of the idea though that, say, climate scientists in the US aren't as vocal as they should be, given the current administration, lest they lose even more funding? Is climate science in the US really all that well funded? My sources say no.


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