Pondering the science-policy interface: Active listening and lifelong learning

The last year has been one of transition and change professionally – almost a year ago exactly, I successfully defended my dissertation. I feel very fortunate that I now have the opportunity to further broaden my experiences as an Oregon Sea Grant Natural Resources Policy fellow. My primary role as a fellow is to assist the Scientific and Technical Advisory Committee (STAC) as they carry out the legislatively-mandated Marine Reserves assessment process. The Oregon Legislative Assembly and other stakeholders will use information from a legislatively-mandated report, due in 2023, to inform adaptive management of Oregon’s Marine Reserves going into the future.

Celebrating my defense in May 2018 – smiles all around!

Although I haven’t blogged much in the past (once to be exact), I really enjoy reading science blogs and essays. I notice that many blogs in the marine science community involve a story about how the writer’s desire to work with marine ecosystems stems from the fact that they were raised near the ocean. I will just let you know right now – I was not. I was born in Kentucky, and in case you just consider that part of “flyover country” I will 1) be sad and 2) let you know that it’s roughly 500 miles, east or south, to the nearest coastal ocean.  The nearest beaches were those of man-made dammed lakes like Kentucky Lake and Lake Barkley, which are on the Tennessee and Cumberland Rivers, respectively. Although I didn’t know it at the time, these lakes displaced ~2500 people and inundated many cultural and historical sites. At the time, I simply delighted in the fun that these not-quite-natural wonders offered: swimming, fishing, and hiking are just a few fond memories.

Growing up in a rural community, I wasn’t exposed to many scientists. I never really thought about science as a profession, and then I effectively ruled it out at a too-early age when I decided that math was too hard. Now, if I could go back, I’d like to tell my younger self a lot of things – but not writing off math at such an early age would be a big one. But early experiences like these, along with discovering the wonders of backpacking during my early 20s probably helped lead me back to school a few years later.

So at first, my desire to pursue a career in science was really driven by pure curiosity about the natural world I was spending more and more time in, but moving to Colorado during a major drought and wildfire period very quickly expanded my interests to include better understanding the ways humans both rely on and impact important natural resources. I happened to take my first-ever geology class unintentionally (I was planning to major in biology and it filled a needed elective spot). I arrived bleary-eyed at 8:00 AM so that I could also squeeze in 30 hours of work/week only to have my eyes opened to an entirely new world, and a career in water resources was born. As a master’s student studying how river systems change through time, I realized that I was very interested in applied research (how can lessons learned be translated into effective management actions), and a PhD in Environmental Resources & Policy broadened these interests even more – how do we get to policies that consider evidence from scientific disciplines (life, physical, social sciences) but also address other important concerns?

Although some may consider my outsider status a liability, I choose to look at my journey as an opportunity. I can’t help but be amazed by the fact that I’ve had the opportunity to ponder water and all that depends on it as a part of my academic career. From semi-arid headwaters streams that I could step across in sandals to the nation’s largest river swamp, I’ve had the chance to study water and the many ways we impact this vital resource. As an outsider, I don’t have many preconceived notions about whether marine reserves are “right” or “wrong” as a management tool, but I hope a few of the lessons I’ve learned so far will help me perform my work as I learn more about the relevant policy landscape. A few themes stand out and seem to be common regardless of the resource or its geographic location:

  • We (humans) have often believed natural resources to be inexhaustible in their bounty.
  • We altered/used the resources in many ways without fully understanding the consequences of our actions.
  • Many of these systems are resilient and we didn’t realize the impacts immediately.
  • We now understand that we are at risk of losing vital services these systems have historically provided to us.
  • Often, groups most dependent on these resources for their livelihoods are most impacted even though they are not typically the ones responsible for the major changes.
  • Often, groups dependent on these resources for their livelihoods have been left out of decision-making processes.

Well, these are complicated problems. I’ve been thinking a lot lately about how various audiences do (or don’t) engage with science. More specifically, I’ve been thinking about how lessons learned from science are used (or not) to make decisions. Many scientists realize the need to share the results of their research and why it’s important, but much evidence points to the fact that just expanding the availability of information doesn’t necessarily translate into science that that’s usable. Another really valuable component that could improve the science-policy interface, perhaps, is realizing that scientific findings are just one piece of information that ultimately affects policy; listening and trying to understand the other pieces are also important. Even though scientists are trained to be objective, the reality is that humans (including scientists!) make decisions based on other valid ways of knowing. I bring this up not because I’m an expert on the subject, but because I am genuinely interested in finding ways to improve “evidence-based decision making for sustainability.” 1

So the initial phase of my fellowship has been an intense phase of learning and listening. I’ve had the opportunity to sit down with STAC members and ODFW’s Marine Reserves Team, and their insight and expertise have greatly improved my understanding of the science behind marine reserves. The resources available to me through Oregon Sea Grant – through conversations, publications like this one, and workshops and seminars – have proved to be invaluable resources for learning about coastal issues and how they affect local communities. My deep dive into Oregon’s Marine Reserves process so far has revealed this: the process wasn’t always pretty, it was sometimes contentious, but it has incorporated many of the factors needed for conservation success. And perhaps more importantly, it revealed this – all stakeholders ultimately want the same thing: healthy ocean ecosystems that will provide for current and future generations. There may be disagreement on how best to do this – but that’s where the listening comes in. We may not agree on all the finer points, but we can agree to listen to each other.

Participation in the many learning opportunities available through Oregon Sea Grant and Oregon State University has been a key part of my fellowship so far. Photo credit: James Dewhirst

 

  1. Bednarek, A. T. et al. Boundary spanning at the science–policy interface: the practitioners’ perspectives. Sustain. Sci. 13, 1175–1183 (2018).