Robert T. Lackey

Is more and better science the key to resolving environmental policy debates?  Some scientists  — and many others without training in science — seem to think so.  The short answer, however, is that science is rarely, if ever, is the key.

But, how often have you heard this lament from scientists:

            “If we just had better science, or at least more science, more data, the best policy choice would be obvious and we could move on.  It is a lack of science that is the main obstacle to deciding what to do.”

This lament, or permutations of it, is often followed by a proposed course of action:

            “Fund us and we’ll provide you with the necessary scientific information to make for an easy decision!”

I know.  I’ve followed this script many times in the never-ending search for research funding.   It is the reality for those of us employed in the highly competitive world of research and consulting.

Here’s my confession.  When I was working as a research scientist at the Environmental Protection Agency, part of my job was to convince the EPA regulatory people (i.e., the folks with the money) that their main problem was really a lack of scientific information.  You know the marketing pitch:  send money, you’ll buy more science, and more science will solve your policy-making problem.

To prosper these days, a research scientist must play this game and play it well.  More money means you can hire additional staff, buy better equipment, publish more papers, and ascend the scientific pecking order.

But the fact is that science rarely drives policy debates, at least not policy debates that people care much about.

Let me illustrate with an example of how more science muddles a policy debate.  It is an example from far away, a case study that you can analyze with detachment and comfort, but one that illustrates what has become ever so typical in ecological policy.

Think about my part of the world, the Pacific Northwest, Oregon, Washington, Idaho, and British Columbia.  For over three decades, there has been a highly polarized debate over what the primary purpose of the publicly owned forests should be.

Simplifying this complex policy debate down its core question:

a)   Should these public lands be managed for sustained timber production to foster economic development generally, and for rural communities, specifically?


 b)   Should these public lands be preserved for non-consumptive uses such as recreation and species protection that primarily benefit urbanites?

But what have you read about?  About the plight of the northern spotted owl, right?  An at-risk species that almost no one, even most enviros, cared much about prior to its selection as the species of choice to trigger the Endangered Species Act.

Even more bizarre, the major political debate over choosing between two competing, and legitimate, policy goals collapsed into endless court cases revolving around the most esoteric life history details of this obscure species.

No wonder much of the public has become cynical about the political process — and the role of science.

Some policy advocates admit, at least in private, that selecting a charismatic species was a tactic to awaken the substantial legal power of the Endangered Species Act.  In short, the “scientific facts” about spotted owls became a legal weapon, a surrogate, used by advocates to achieve their primary policy goal:  to stop logging on public forests.

Conversely, other policy advocates, especially those promoting logging to support rural communities economically and meet domestic demand for lumber and paper, pitched science in a way that supported their policy goal:  to allow logging on public forests.

Great for policy advocates, they are free to use whatever tactics or tools work in policy debates, but for the credibility of scientists in the eyes of the public, it was very costly.

If through some miracle, we could miraculously and instantly learn everything possible about spotted owls, the policy debate would continue because science has simply become a weapon in the larger policy war.

It is values that largely drive policy choices, not science.  Yes, science is important in assessing the consequences of each of the available policy options, but it is people’s values that drive which option is preferred.  Similarly, policy “win-win” only exists in the sham arguments pitched in election-year political campaigns.  Every policy choice involves winners — and losers.  There are no free lunches;  an inconvenient truth for sure for scientists, the public, and decision-makers.


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