Communicating complex science for policy

Posted December 6th, 2007 by Sylvia S Tognetti and filed in Interfaces of science and policy

Besides the PNT, I also write an occasional e-bulletin on payments for watershed services, that is now another blog! Since communication of science for policy is an underlying theme of the PNT, below I have cross-posted the latest one. There have been a number of other good posts on the subject recently, that I haven’t blogged because I haven’t had the time to add any thoughts, but for now I will just call your attention to a post by Andrew Revkin, which, among other things, discusses the tendency to “normalize” a bad situation. More on that soon, I promise. In the meantime, the most recent Flows bulletin:

Forests and water: Communicating complexity and shaping policy

Whether or not the absence of trees causes flooding or water shortages, is a question that persists perhaps because it produces overly generalized answers that fit easily into existing preconceptions. It also fits easily into policy frameworks and stories that paint the world in black and white. Depending on the latest scientific publication, newspaper headlines can proclaim trees to be a menace that is advancing the desert – or failing to regulate floods. But single scientific studies generally only address fragments of a larger puzzle, and few if any experts endorse the one-size-fits all approach that the media implies (Nambiar 2006).

These kinds of generalizations also support rigid land use policies, and conveniently eliminate nuances that can be better addressed with a more flexible place-based approach which is necessary to manage an ecosystem. The tremendous interest in payments for watershed services is driven in part by the popular appeal of this generalized model, in which the flow of water that links upstream practices to downstream consequences also provides scientific justification for a market-based approach to conservation. As an added benefit, payments for watershed services would also contribute to poverty alleviation in marginal upper watershed areas. In practice, there are often trade-offs between meeting these diverse objectives, and implementation is never as elegant as the model.

A set of ICRAF (2006) policy briefs that synthesize two decades of research in this field, assert that what matters is not the presence or absence of trees but the types of tree and where they are located. Also of importance, is what happens to land after forests are removed (Bruijnzeel, 2007). These factors all have implications for the amount of water trees consume, and the extent to which they control erosion. It is also important to keep in mind the pathways of water and sediment flow, some of which have created today’s fertile land. Rivers may be muddy because of landslides, erosion of banks during peak flows, or sediment from roads and paths – rather than due to open fields.

Mosaics of mixed land use – combining forestry, agroforestry and upland cropping – are typical of traditional upper watershed systems and can support denser populations than forested areas. However, they generally don’t fit into the discrete classifications found in land use policies, in which land is designated for either forested or agricultural use. As a result, farmers are often excluded from access to traditionally used land areas, causing conflict with states.

Controversies aaabout forest and water relationships are deeply rooted, going back at least as far as the late 1800s during the promotion of settlement to the arid American west. Following what had been a wet period, Ferdinand Hayden claimed that, if trees were planted across theGreat Plains , “aridity would give way to well-watered fertility” and rain would follow the plow (Worster, 2001). Based on the results of an extensive survey, John Wesley Powell doubted these claims in his prophetic 1878 Report on the Lands of the Arid Region of the United States. He had, however, observed an association between increased streamflow and upland deforestation, which became a justification for more centralized authority over land use and resource management (Worster 2001). Eventually this resulted in policies of state control over forests to assure the steady flow of water for irrigation and other downstream uses, and for efficient management of timber resources (Hays 1959). It also reinforced existing European land use policies rooted in the feudal period, and became a model for colonial and exclusionary resource management and state ownership of forests elsewhere in the world (Fay and Michon, 2003).

Under this historical context, scientists can no longer play the role of disinterested bystanders. Instead, they need to engage interactively with the public and be aware of the potential uses of their findings in the policy arena. According to Jasanoff (2007), interactive engagement by scientists can help the public think critically about science and bring a healthy skepticism to its claims – instead of accepting it as an arbitrary set of well-established facts. As with climate change, greater public appreciation of the scientific process can help reduce manipulation of the facts in the policy arena, where scientific uncertainty is often cited as justification for arbitrary or delayed decisions.

Given the inherent uncertainties of watershed processes – particularly in the context of highly diverse upland environments, participatory processes are essential for assessing the science and establishing policy-relevant facts. Place-based assessments can also support more nuanced messages that enable mutual learning and more flexible approaches to management. As a more interactive approach to communication, this mutual learning can help broaden the frame of reference for decision-making and enable consideration of trade-offs between the various kinds of ecosystem services and the multiple ways they support human well-being.

References, further information, and new resources are listed below the jump.

References and further information 

ICRAF policy briefs:

Rumley, R. and C. Ong (2006). The right tree for a dry place. Synthesis 1Nairobi ,Kenya , World Agroforestry Center (ICRAF).

van Noordwijk, M., B. Verbist, et al. (2006). Muddy Rivers – Lack of Trees? Synthesis 2 Bogor ,Indonesia , World Agroforestry Centre (ICRAF).

Swallow, B. and R. Rumley (2006). Rooting Policy in Science. Synthesis 3 Nairobi ,Kenya , World Agroforestry Centre (ICRAF).

Rumley, R., C. Muthuri, et al. (2006). More Trees with Less Water Nairobi ,Kenya , World Agroforestry Centre (ICRAF).

Other sources:

Bradshaw, C. J. A., N. S. Sodhi, et al. (2007). Global evidence that deforestation amplifies flood risk and severity in the developing world. (abstract/subscription required for access to article) Global Change Biology 13.

Bruijnzeel, L.A. , 2004. Hydrological functions of tropical forests: not seeing the soil for the trees? Agriculture, Ecosystems & Environment, 104 (1): 185-228.

Bruijnzeel, L.A., van Dijk A.I.J.M., van Noordwijk M., Chappell N.A. and Schellekens J. 2007 Tropical deforestation, people and flooding: A recent global analysis claiming that tropical deforestation amplifies flood risk and severity proves less than solid.

Brock, K. and E. Harrison (2006). Linking research, policy and livelihoods: challenges and contradictions (pdf).Brief Hemel Hempstead , Natural Resources Systems Programme (NRSP.

Eckl, E. 2007. Words that work — and don’t — to dispell myths and counter lies –blog post on Water Words that Worka blog about water related communication.

FAO-CIFOR. Forests and Floods: Drowning in Fiction or Thriving on Facts? (FAO-CIFOR, Bangkok-Bogor, 2005).

Fay, C. and G. Michon (2003). Redressing forestry hegemony – Where a forestry regulatory framework is best replaced by an agrarian one (pdf). Rural Livelihoods, Forests and Biodiversity, Bonn ,Germany .

Funtowicz, S. (2006). Why knowledge assessment? Interfaces between Science and Society. Â. Guimarães Pereira, S. G. Guedes Vaz and S. Tognetti. Sheffield ,UK , Greenleaf Publishing.

Hays, S. P. (1959). Conservation and the Gospel of Efficiency. The Progressive Conservation Movement, 1890-1920.Cambridge , Harvard University Press.

Jasanoff, S. (2007). Lecture given to Science Communication Consortium, Columbia University , September 27th, 2007. Based on summary by Kate Seip. Retrieved November 1, 2007, 2007

Kaimowitz, D. (2004). Useful Myths and Intractable Truths: The Politics of the Link between Forests and Water in Central America (abstract). Forests-Water-People in the Humid Tropics.Cambridge , Cambridge University Press. M. Bonnell and L. A. Bruijnzeel.Cambridge , Cambridge University Press.

MA (2003). Ecosystems and Human Well-being: A Framework for Assessment.Washington ,DC ,Island Press.

Nambiar, S. (2006). Responsibility of scientists for balanced communication. (pdf) Forests in the landscape for wood production and environmental care. Canberra ,Australia , Plantations 2020.

Van Noordwijk, M , Poulsen, JG , Ericksen, PJ, 2004. Quantifying off-site effects of land use change: filters, flows and fallacies Agriculture, Ecosystems & Environment 104: 19-34

Woodhouse, C. A., S. T. Gray and D. M. Meko (2006). Updated streamflow reconstructions for the Upper Colorado River Basin. Water Resources Research 42(W05415):doi:10.1029/2005WR004455.

Worster, D. (2001). A River Running West: The LIfe of John Wesley Powell.New York , Oxford University Press.

New Resources 

Bond,I. 2007. Payments for watershed services: opportunities and realities. IIED Policy Brief.

Porras,I. and Grieg-Gran, M. 2007. Watershed services: who pays and for what? IIED Policy Brief.

UN FAO (2007). The State of Food and Agriculture: Paying farmers for environmental services Rome , Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations. – Resources from IIED on markets for watershed services, including several new case studies.

World Bank (2007). World Development 2008: Agriculture for Development. Washington ,DC , The World Bank. (includes section on payments for environmental services)

ICRAF, Global Scoping Study on Compensation for Ecosystems Services, Working paper series:

WP No. 32 Swallow-2007-Compensation-and-Rewards-Environmental-Services
WP No. 33 Poats-2007-Latin-American-Regional-Workshop-Report-Compensation
WP No. 34 Raju-2007-Asia Regional Workshop on Compensation-Ecosystem Services
WP No. 35 Ochieng-2007-African-Regional-Workshop-on-Compensation-Ecosystem
WP No. 36 Iftikhar-2007-Exploring the inter-linkages- Environmental-Services
WP No. 37 van-Noordwijk-2007-Criteria-and-indicators-for-environmental-service
WP No. 38 Swallow-2007-Conditions-Effective-Mechanisms-Environmental-Services
WP No. 39 Bracer-2007-Organization-and-Governance-for-Fostering-Pro-Poor
WP No. 40 Scherr-2007-How-important-will-differen- type- of Compensation-reward

About the Flows Bulletin

Click here to download this bulletin as a pdf file.

2 Responses to “Communicating complex science for policy”

  1. Quasar9 says:

    Hi Sylvia,
    here’s wishing you and your close ones much merry making and all the best for the festive season

    Are we communicating as if we are living in a modern day Tower of Babel? Is our unbelievable failure to communicate reasonably and sensibly about whatsoever is somehow real, and to widely share adequate understandings regarding both how the family of humanity “fits” within the natural order of living things and what are the limitations of the planet we inhabit, in evidence here and now?
    Perhaps the human community is indeed in a serious predicament, but only in part because of the objective biological and physical circumstances defining our distinctly human-driven predicament. The global challenges in the offing are further complicated by our incredible failure to communicate effectively about the potentially pernicious results derived from having recklessly grown a soon to become patently unsustainable, colossal global economy, one that we have artificially designed, conveniently constructed, and unrealistically expanded without regard for the requirements of biophysical reality.
    Could it be that the current gigantic scale and unchecked growth rate of the global economy is unsustainably driving both per human over-consumption and unrestrained human population growth toward the point in human history when the willful, relentless, unregulated growth of consumption, production and propagation of the human species precipitates the collapse of Earth’s ecology, even in these early years of Century XXI?
    Steven Earl Salmony
    AWAREness Campaign on The Human Population, established 2001

Leave a Reply