As a first year PhD student in Plymouth University’s Plankton and Policy research group, I was fortunate enough to attend a workshop run by OSPAR, about the integration of different biodiversity indicators into holistic ecosystem assessments. The workshop was part of the EU-funded EcApRHA project which focuses on addressing gaps in biodiversity indicator development for the Marine Strategy Framework Directive (MSFD). Ecosystem assessments are the core scientific contributions to ecosystem-based management frameworks such as the EU MSFD, where the ‘health’ of marine ecosystem components are assessed and linked to either natural or anthropogenic drivers. It is therefore a process that lies at the science-policy interface, where the science is policy-led, and policy can be scientifically based. The EcApRHA workshop brought together biodiversity scientists and policy practitioners with round table discussions, and raised pressing questions on the role of science in the policy process and the interaction between scientists and policy makers. Below are some of these points that I found particularly poignant, and my reflections on them.
The workshop raised the point that often the fundamental way that a scientist likes to tackle a problem differs to the time scale of policy cycles. A scientist may wish to develop an in-depth understanding of a system before giving any advice. The Ecosystem Approach to management provides a perfect example of this. How far are we really from a complete understanding of every ecosystem component and every ecosystem process? The reality is a complete understanding is probably a futile goal. Although this quest for understanding is the foundation of ecology, and of wider science in general, is it realistic when decisions on ecosystem management are not made on this ‘timescale of discovery’, but on the timescale of policy cycles? That’s not to say, however, that core science is not vital for effective ecosystem management, or that future scientific developments in marine ecosystem ecology won’t be able to improve marine management measures, but conservation scientists need to be pragmatic in identifying the core scientific challenges that are hindering policy implementation.
How much evidence is enough evidence?
One of the main roles of science in policy-making is the provision of evidence to underpin management decisions. A decline in a species or habitat leading to the designation of protected status and evidence of detrimental effects of trawling on a particular area leading to the establishment of an MPA are basic (if over-simplified) examples. However, an interesting point was raised at the workshop that evidence levels vary depending on the social consequences of the management action. For example, the body of evidence needed to close a fishery is large, and requires clear evidence of effects of fishing, in the context of other ecosystem drivers, with high confidence in the evidence. Other management interventions, such as clearing beach litter, that allow for a more precautionary approach, and have less societal impact, may be triggered by more anecdotal scientific evidence. Again, conservation scientists need to envisage the end management goal when designing studies, to ensure the evidence they are providing is relevant to policy interventions.
Can scientists really define what research is ‘policy-relevant’ by themselves?
With a heavy emphasis on societal impact now underpinning many funding decisions for scientific research, it often comes to scientists to justify their work in the context of policy. However, what the workshop highlighted was that it is only when there is clear communication between scientists and policy makers can ‘policy relevance’ really be defined. By talking to policy makers, conservation scientists can tailor their research to meet direct policy needs. A key message from discussions was to always link research to how it contributes to management; does it provide evidence to trigger management? Does it provide supporting evidence on changing sensitivities of ecosystems to pressures? Does it help prioritise different anthropogenic drivers? Equally, by talking to scientists, policy makers can better understand the evidence that is provided to them, and gain an appreciation of future management challenges from a scientific perspective. This will be especially important when it comes to tackling the overarching problem of how to manage human activities in in marine environments under climate change.
Overall, although the science-policy interface is a formidable landscape to navigate,
especially as a PhD student, the workshop was a fantastic experience. I left feeling even more inspired by marine biodiversity, but with a healthy dose of appreciation of the ‘real-world’ challenges to conserving it.
Jake Bedford, Plankton and Policy