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The role of science in conservation policy

I had the pleasure last week of visiting a number of the UK’s leading universities. I have been looking at the courses that deliver modules covering animal law and conservation teaching and meeting students just beginning their careers in animal protection.

In delivering a lecture at John Moores University Liverpool, I was questioned on the issue of the relationship of science, policy development, law and public opinion and which did I think was the most important.

I know that many would argue that science is the most important aspect of whale and dolphin conservation and yet others would argue that it’s the establishment and application of the law. Others may argue that its public opinion that counts.

In reality all these components are important and all are interconnected. Each component of the equation could be described as being attached ‘elastically’ to each other. Some issues are led by science, some by public demand, and sometimes by legislators setting standards for others to follow. Sometimes scientific discoveries shift political thinking and public opinion and sometimes it is the other way around, where research questions and scientific investigation may be driven by matters of import to the public, as the elastic snaps closed. I would suggest that the majority public view that whales are ‘special’ has been around for decades, but science is only now catching up, and the work of Hal Whitehead and others are showing us that culture and social complexity in whales and dolphins are critically important in understanding these remarkable individuals.

The role of science is to be one component of the debate, not the ‘technocratic totem’ around which all others should dance and bow. The very purpose of scientific endeavour is to serve humanity as we move closer to better understanding the world.

And the danger of the ‘technocratic ideal’ is clear to see at the International Whaling Commission (IWC). Behind the scenes the whalers have been trying for sometime to push for the IWC to be led by the IWC scientific committee, where they, the whalers, can load the dice with their unelected representatives and so set the agenda.

If the whalers can cut out the IWC plenary sessions, where the public and your elected governmental representatives have a voice then they could quickly drive through their whaling agenda and the moratorium will fall. The treaty that established the IWC recognizes the importance of science in setting the boundaries of what information biological understanding can provide, but it also recognized that the policy and public element of the debate should be able to make and inform decisions; such as, with full regard to scientific advice, establishing zero quotas for whaling, and so protecting whales for future generations. The fact that in doing so, the Commission has continued to consider ALL science and policy inputs that may affect its decisions, – i.e. the growing threat to whales from environmental degradation, the securing of sustainable development of responsible whale watching that can benefit future generations, – and not just the science of ‘generating potential kill quotas,’ is to be commended. Indeed, many of us would argue that the IWC needs to pay more attention to the wider scientific issues, for in the time its has spent developing the Revised Management Procedure (a mathematical equation for calculating quotas), the Baiji has become functionally extinct, the North Atlantic Right Whale is just holding on, the Maui is down to maybe 55 adults and the Vaquita topples at the brink.

So where is science in UK universities focussed in this great debate? There is some outstanding work being done, but there is also some that appears to be being used for less welcome ends . On visiting a preeminent UK university with colleagues from IFAW, Greenpeace, and Icelandic Nature Conservation Association (INCA) recently to discuss their policy on the use of whales killed in scientific whaling programmes, we were told that the whales had already been ‘sacrificed’ and therefore the data collected should, and could be, legitimately used to further science. I am not sure I would agree with the use of the word ‘sacrificed’ to convey what these whales go through in the agonising minutes and even hours of their horrendous deaths on the end of an exploding harpoon.  I am also sure that the whales were not willingly ‘sacrificing themselves’ for scientists to further their research or to end up on the plates of tourists visiting Iceland.

What was more disturbing was the apparent certainty of those who carried out the research in that they seemed to believe that they, as scientists, were above public opinion and the morality or ethics involved; that science lay outside such considerations. They also did not feel that any political use made of this research was their responsibility, (the work was submitted to the IWC as a ‘proponent’ (supporter) for Iceland’s scientific whaling programme). They even went on to ask whether NGOs, such as WDC that expressed concern about this issue, should be allowed to partake in the debate, and that only ‘scientists’ (we can only guess that they meant ‘scientists’ like themselves) should.

The thrust of the argument is clear and in contrast with the views of the UK’s senior scientists who were speaking only last week at a conference where the issue of societal views, science and decision making interact to form policy.

The panel brought together by Wildlife and Countryside Link, consisted of some of the country’s best and foremost scientists, including Drs., Mark Avery, Peter Brotherton (Natural England), Gemma Harper (Defra), and Susan Owens and Professor Bill Sutherland of Cambridge University. The meeting was moderated by Professor David Macdonald of Oxford University and was debating the concept of ‘UK natural environment: evidence-based policy or policy-based evidence?’

The meeting discussion was wide ranging, but, in my view, there were some interesting opinions presented including:

  • Science is not ‘evidence’ in itself,
  • Science is but one component of the evidential mix that policy makers have to consider,
  • Experts, scientific or otherwise, often blind themselves with wishing to be ‘seen to be right (and so unchallenged) in the public domain’, despite the fact that the scientific method has the concept of rigorous challenge at its heart,
  • Scientists are not ‘independent’. They are increasingly hostage to funding, political nuance, and ‘expertitus’ (see point above),
  • The process of developing evidence can be as important as the facts
  • We sometimes confuse, accuracy, precision and uncertainty,
  • Scientists are sometimes divorced from the consequences of their actions and fail to think through the potential results their actions and statements, and,
  • ‘Science is necessary, but not sufficient for good policy making’.

There were a lot of good question and observations from the audience, but I particularly remember one point that is pertinent to the whaling debate, raised by an eminent member of JNCC in the audience when he noted that the removal of buffalo from areas of Australia decades ago has only now been seen to have had a major impact on smaller mammals, – showing that the removal of large species from ecosystems can have unknown knock-on effects years later. 

I really appreciated one of the panel’s comments that in trying to protect SSSIs (Sites of Scientific Interest) we sometimes loose the public debate because we use the word science in the title, and that maybe we should call these places ‘JBWPs’ or ‘Just Beautiful Wonderful Places’, and then see how the public and politicians react to their proposed destruction.

Whilst this debate was in progress, what struck me was that in the UK we have been loosing some of our best civil servants, especially those who have been involved in the conservation issue, from the decision making processes we have developed over the years. 

Whilst some might see this as Government cutting back on ‘waste’, as some UK tabloid newspapers would like to portray it, what I see is a depth of knowledge and understanding being stripped out of Whitehall, leaving ministers exposed to the single lobbyist, be it scientific maverick or NGO, without the opportunity for the political and procedural input of the specialists that we used to be proud of and whose accrued ‘wisdom’, could allow time for reflection. That’s not to say that ministers are not capable of making decisions, but the ability to question and debate the ‘evidence’ they are presented with has been steadily eroded and so their final decisions may well be worse for it.

This scenario also means that the civil servants who are left in post are taking more and more work on their shoulders, – and so, despite their best endeavours, less can actually be achieved. Increasingly with maybe only those who shout the loudest and the most aggressively getting their attention.

This has been a little rambling, but it’s an attempt to capture some concerns that I have personally with what is happening to the processes that enable us to do conservation here in the UK and Europe.

I fear that without some reflection on what is necessary to enact conservation in a world of austerity, policies and positions will be rushed through with some dire consequences (the buffalo of above), or positive opportunities and initiatives missed because of fear of the workload of the alternative. And maybe, just maybe, some science that would normally have, in earlier times, been reflected upon and the consequences considered, – is slipping through without the temper of ethical and moral consideration that it so richly needs.