Thursday, August 21, 2014

How scientists can shape policy: A lesson from California

By Ann Fitzpatrick, Ph.D.

When asked about issues where science and politics intersect, few scientists I have met don’t have a view to share. But when it comes to making policy on scientific issues, how is the science communicated?  Can politicians be expected to read the latest publications or do scientists have to take the lead in turning scientific language into that which can be used for science policy?

Whether it be drug classification or creationism taught in schools, there are cases where some scientists feel like the government has got it wrong, so it was nice to read a recent Nature news article highlighting a successful policy collaboration between the California government and Bay Areaclimate scientists. (1) 

After publishing an article review in Nature (2) warning of major destabilization of the biosphere, Berkeley paleoecologist Dr. Anthony Barnosky was contacted by California governor Jerry Brown.  This led Barnosky and his co-author and wife, Dr. Elizabeth Hadly of Stanford, into science policy for the first time. 
Brown asked Barnosky and Hadly to produce a consensus statement on climate change that could be used in political circles.  Often, consensus statements are drawn up by a large number of scientists, and if the scientists you know are anything like the scientists I know, getting many of them to agree on cutting-edge research can be tricky, especially in written form.  This can mean that only well-trodden ground gets included and more controversial (although potentially valid) arguments are left out.  

The report cited 126 studies and it took 21 drafts s to remove all of the scientific language. After all this, the part that the politicians were drawn to, the idea of a “tipping point” for Earth, was the very part that was a sticking point for some scientists, causing some researchers to refuse to sign.  It’s a fine line you have to walk between vital communication of the facts and advocating particular policies.  The consensus statement seems to have managed this as evident by the 3,300 signatures in its support.

The scientific argument included in the report led to a series of environmental policy agreements between California and state governments in the Pacific region, as well as a pact with China to cut production of greenhouse gases. Barnosky and Hadly’s report has now made its way to 41 countries and looks to be a force shaping policy on climate change for years to come. 

Speaking to Nature, Barnosky said the biggest lesson he has learnt is that, “a scientist’s job isn’t over once a paper is published,” while Hadly went as far as saying that, “the consensus statement is more valuable than anything else I’ve done in my career”.  Barnosky and Hadly also admitted that it monopolized their time for a year and as taking a year off isn’t an option for a lot of researchers, especially early in their career, how should we be getting involved in science policy? 

To begin with, my goal is small, just to keep up to date with science policy news; if I’m aware of what is currently being debated, I’m far more likely to want to get involved!  Organizations like ScienceDebate, which encourages politicians to address science issues while on the campaign trail, and Union of Concerned Scientists, which advocates practical solutions to the planet’s pressing problems, will be my starting point, and being a member of AAAS means I can get weekly emails about science policy, which I promise to read.  This being an election year makes it a great time to ask politicians their views on scientific issues; maybe they would welcome a connection with scientists at the University of Chicago.  The way forward may not be completely clear and I’m not sure how much time I can give, but I care and part of why I do science is to make a difference, no matter how small.  Barnosky and Hadly have proved it is possible.  I invite you to join me.

Ann Fitzpatrick is a postdoctoral scholar in the Department of Chemistry.

1. V. Gewin (2014). Science and politics: Hello, governor. Nature 511: 402-404.
2. A.D. Barnosky et al. (2012). Approaching a state shift in Earth’s biosphere. Nature 486: 52-58.

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