The role of science and science communication in setting environmental limits

By Waiology 11/03/2013

By Ned Norton and Helen Rouse

WaterGovernanceWaiology2013In water resource management under the National Policy Statement for Freshwater Management (NPS) (2011), limit setting refers to the process of defining the amount of the resource that is available for use (in terms of both quantity and quality) while still meeting defined freshwater environment outcomes. A collaborative approach to setting limits for managing water resources has been promulgated in the Land and Water Forum reports and is being attempted in some parts of the country, including in Canterbury where the collaborative approach is also a feature of the Canterbury Water Management Strategy.

The collaborative approach to limit setting requires that scientists provide information on the future consequences of limit options for environmental, cultural, social and economic values, so that informed community debate can occur and decisions on limits can be made. While current knowledge allows many consequences of resource use to be readily predicted, most scientists would share the view that research in this area needs strengthening to better predict all the effects of water takes and point and diffuse discharges. However the NPS requires that freshwater objectives and associated limits be set in regional plans in a timely manner, despite uncertain knowledge, recognising that advancing knowledge will lead to refinement of limits in future.

In this context, predicting some of the consequences of limit options can be an uncomfortable role for scientists for the following reasons:

  • Scientists are trained, for good reason, to be inherently conservative about drawing conclusions in haste and in the face of uncertainty;
  • In some places there are serious consequences of limit setting decisions for multiple, sometimes conflicting, values (e.g. environmental, economic, social, cultural);
  • Scientists in collaborative processes come face to face with the communities affected – people with livelihoods as well as social and cultural values at risk;
  • Scientists are required to stay objective in the face of sometimes emotional discussions.

The discomfort for scientists increases significantly where there is intense demand for resource use and limit options have serious consequences for conflicting values. Nonetheless, science is critical for well informed decisions. The challenge therefore is to communicate complex science information, including uncertainties, credibly and accessibly for a wide community audience.

Our observations from experience to date suggest that the following elements are required for the evolving role of scientists in collaborative limit setting processes today. Scientists must:

  1. Recognise the ‘expert witness’ science role
  2. Inform (but not attempt to make) decisions
  3. Walk in the communities’ shoes to develop perspective beyond the technical
  4. Use crisp visual communication tools to translate science for the community
  5. Simplify technical material to tell a story that makes sense for decision-making
  6. Communicate uncertainty and ways to manage it
  7. Do all of this while presenting good science and retaining credibility.

Further detail can be seen in our presentation to the Freshwater Sciences Society Conference, December 2012. We are actively working to improve the effectiveness of freshwater science at the science-policy interface in our research under the Management of Cumulative Effects of Stressors on Aquatic Ecosystems Programme, funded by the Ministry of Business Innovation and Employment.

Ned Norton is a water resource management consultant working part time for NIWA and part time assisting Environment Canterbury with collaborative limit setting processes. Dr Helen Rouse is a resource management consultant and group manager of the Freshwater Ecology group at NIWA Christchurch.

0 Responses to “The role of science and science communication in setting environmental limits”

  • That is an admirable to-do list. The first two points are reminiscent of Roger Pielke Jr’s “honest broker”. But it is also quite challenging. We scientists are not natural communicators, particularly for a general audience. And stepping into the community’s shoes may prove even harder. I would be interested in how often this target is met and how it is more often violated. [DC]

  • Ah yes, to be clear – this is what we need to strive to do but we didn’t say it would be easy! With Govt picking up on LAWFs collaborative approaches, this will become a challenge that more of us will need to address.

  • Hi Helen and Ned, can you point me to your presentation you mention from the conference? I can’t seem to locate it on the NZFSS website. I’m currently working on an MDes project that has a focus on translating freshwater data for non-scientific audiences, and I’d be interested to see if you have any pointers in that area.

  • I don’t understand why scientists are supposed to be “objective”, and being “emotional” is bad. Human beings are an emotional species; in fact one “scientific” term used to describe those without normal human emotion is “psychopath”.

  • Without emotion, humanity would hardly be humanity. And so much of science is initiated by emotional concern (e.g., suffering is bad, floods cause suffering, so let’s understand floods better to alleviate suffering). But the thing is, while emotion may be good to initiate scienctific research, it can easily get in the way of the science itself. Instead of conclusions being based on data, they would become based on a priori preferences which would differ from person to person, and could thus easily be wrong. The purpose of science is to be as right as possible in our understanding of phenomena. [Daniel]