Ignore the science, poison the well


Jake Rice, DFO scientist, author of “Advocacy science and fisheries decision-making”, published 6 months before Bill C-38 was tabled. Would he be “approved” to publish this if it were submitted today?

Not too long ago, Steve Cooke, a fisheries ecologist and Associate Professor at Carleton University, posted an interesting paper by Jake Rice on his twitter account. Jake is also a government scientist, and recently published a paper in the ICES Journal of Marine Science entitled “Advocacy science and fisheries decision-making”. It’s worth a read if you have the time (note: watch for the operatic references on page 3).

In his paper, Jake argues strongly for keeping science objective, and not letting it be perverted by other motives. With some real-world examples, he argues that science should be presented as a means for policy makers to make decisions, vs. having science cherry-picked or analyzed in a certain manner to support a specific policy outcome.

It’s a perspective I agree with, which I’ll try to articulate within the context of the paper, e.g., in fisheries science. More than the science about the ecosystem being fished goes into policy; there are social issues, economies, politics, etc, which are the purview of special interests. However, the social issues and economies are often intimately tied to the sustainability of the ecosystem (and therefore the fishery). Further, Jake argues that in the milieu of all these special interests, the science advice has a special role in the shaping of policy, as it’s objective, and not driven by the interests of one group or another. I’ll quote a bit of the paper here to try and illustrate the point:

“With hundreds of partisan documents being submitted on major decisions, policy-makers have to make choices that please some interests more than others. Which interests are chosen to please and which to upset is a test of political instinct, with short-term political risks knowingly taken when a decision is made. If the decision-maker chooses options that are inconsistent with the science advice, however, it is the wisdom and judgement of the decision-maker that is questioned. Challenges come from all quarters and persist long after the decision, as demands for accountability continue 20 years after the key decisions on Canadian Atlantic groundfish stocks. This standard of accountability for not heeding science advice means that from hundreds of documents that may be on a decision-makers desk, the science advice is always up front, and responsible decision-makers always read that advice carefully.”

This paper was published in the fall of 2011, almost exactly 6 months before we knew what the sweeping changes contained in bill C-38 would contain.

Among those changes relevant to the current post were the changes to environmental legislation: the Navigable Waters Act, the Species at Risk Act, the Canada National Parks Act, the Canada National Marine Conservation Areas Act, the First Nations Land Management Act, the Parks Canada Agency Act, and a whole new Canadian Environmental Assessment Act. And let’s not forget the Fisheries Act.

What’s noteworthy from the perspective of Jake’s paper is the role that science advice played in these policy changes, particularly those acts relying significantly on science previously. The answer: they didn’t. The sacred role of science advice in helping shape policy seems to have been totally ignored, and instead shaped entirely by those ‘partisan documents’ from special interests. Based on Jake’s assessment in the above quoted paragraph, this is not responsible decision making.

And one interest in particular seemed to play a major role in shaping these changes to environmental legislation, since many of the acts which were amended match those suggested for revision in a joint letter sent to the government from the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers, the Canadian Energy Pipeline Association, the Canadian Petroleum Products Institute (now the Canadian Fuels Association) and the Canadian Gas Association.

Apparently, the fear of having been seen as ignoring science advice in shaping policy was not considered, nor the potential ecological (and therefore economic) consequences of these decisions. Perhaps people 2, 3, 5, 10 years from now will be questioning the wisdom of this particular batch of decision-makers, as many are now currently and openly doing.

Instead, they’ve had scientists participating in precisely the exercise that Jake cautions against in his paper- using science to justify a particular policy decision. Advisory meetings bringing DFO scientists together from across the country have been held to try and make some meaningful scientific basis for it (mentioned here by the Atlantic Salmon federation, since the meetings and discussions of those meetings are not public). This is totally backwards from what should be happening- provide the science to shape the policy, not find the science to support the policy.

So, what are we as scientists (both government and academic) to do moving forward when trying to do applied science that might inform government policy? Jake has some advice on this too, which I think is more relevant today than ever.

Jake’s first piece of advice is to bring the science up to the level at which the decision is made. For example, rather than investigating “climate effects on fisheries from very important lake Y”, and leaving it at the level of how the fishery changes, take another paragraph in the discussion to explain the economic and social impacts of those changes- frame it in numbers of jobs, dollars and cents; what proportion of a particular communities economy is supported by the fishery, etc. While typically outside of the types of things we spend our time thinking about, it’s entirely relevant and in many cases, may not be so difficult to do. Arguably, this would also assist with connecting our work as scientists more broadly to societal issues, something we are often accused of falling short of.

Jake’s second piece of advice is suggesting that science advice be presented using methods that evaluate the probabilities of various potential policies as well as the potential effects of being wrong. Jake uses the example of signal detection theory; this and other Bayesian-type approaches may hold promise for providing some of the “risk” information that the science advice doesn’t typically contain in a quantifiable manner, or the manner that decision makers might be looking for.

It’s true that even this advice can continue to be ignored- but it needs to be out there for everyone to see and consider, so that it can be seen- objectively- when the decisions made by policy makers irresponsibly choose to ignore science.


13 thoughts on “Ignore the science, poison the well

  1. Another excellent post, thank you for writing it. It’s really important to hear the perspective from a government scientist so I applaud you for taking this step. Also, I hadn’t seen Dr. Rice’s paper before and I’m glad to read it. I know some scientists would disagree with the first piece of advice, heeding government suggestions that “scientists stick to science” (I believe that was a Conservative MP’s response to Dr. Jeffrey Hutching’s presentation to parliament…). However, as scientists it would be irresponsible for us to just produce data in a vacuum, without interpreting what those data mean in a broader context, or under different management scenarios.

    • Hi Erin,

      I’m not really suggesting that scientists “just stick to science”. The point of Jake’s paper is that you shouldn’t let your personal views or those of the organization you work for guide or direct the science advice you give- leave the science put forward objective, and don’t let whatever personal feelings you have or the particular angle of the organization you work for guide what you put forward.

      Let’s say you’re a grad student being asked to put together a lit review on the effects of, say, wastewater effluent on fishes downstream from treatment plants. If you are practicing “advocacy science”, then the only studies you include in the review are the ones that conclude that wastewater effluent is harmful to fish, and you ignore all the ones that show benign effects, and you don’t try to make any kind of analysis that tries to account for the differences. If you are a straight-up scientist, you include everything in the review with some interpretation as to what you think is going on- perhaps some plants are better than others at removing this or that from municipal wastewater, or population sizes differ between plants, therefore the differences. I’m not saying you can’t hold an opinion about wastewater treatment plants, or can’t speak publicly about those views, but if you’re being asked to provide science advice, do you’re science right.

      My problem is that under the current changes in policy, we are being asked to do exactly what Jake has advised against- providing science to prop up a particular policy view. This makes the science advice just as easy to ignore as any of the special interests being put forward. But, this gang seems keen on ignoring science advice of any flavour anyway.

      Thanks again for the comment.

  2. Thanks for the informative and thoughtful post (and disheartening) post. More disturbing news out of Canada… See our link to the film Salmon Confidential at Cutterlight.com.

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  4. Excellent blog, and a truly excellent paper by Rice which is relevant to a much wider audience interested in evidence-based policymaking. I will be referencing it heavily in my work on policymaking in international development. My small contribution, for what it’s worth, is to ask that those providing the evidence to policymaking processes don’t present policy recommendations which begin with the words ‘Department X should…’

    ‘Should’ is a weasel word. Telling anyone what they should do immediately introduces the values and biases of those doing the telling. It is possible to provide options to policymakers in the form of observations about the relative cost-effectiveness of different options, or of the likely effect on job creation, or a host of other different issues. Asking for recommendations from scientists is laziness on the part of policymakers. Presenting them prefaced by the word ‘should’ is advocacy, not independent advice.

    • Fantastic comment, Louise- I wholeheartedly agree. The idea is that the science is presented as part of the decision-making process, and it’s up to someone in policy, not science, to figure out what to do when weighing all the other parameters that come into making the decision.

      The only possible “should” might be that policy makers “should” take science advice into account; beyond that, it’s really up to someone else. I think the point that Jake makes is that, when it comes to policy around the exploitation of natural resources, choosing to form policy that ignores the science advice can have dangerous consequences.

      Thanks again for the insightful comment.

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