Communicating water science to policymakers: are we missing the point?

collaboration, community, united states

A recent article from The Guardian Higher Education Network blog entitled “How academics can engage with policy: 10 tips for a better conversation” provided ideas to help scholars better convey research to policymakers. It explained appropriate times for sharing academic information, how to communicate with policy officials, and how to create relationships with policymakers. This article exemplifies the dominant discourse of the day; scientists have a hard time communicating their research to policymakers who need information to make important decisions.

This was certainly the prevailing idea when I was completing my master’s degree in Water Resources Policy and Management in 2010. We learned how to write policy briefs and white papers to convey scientific information to appointed representatives, and we were trained in multidisciplinary collaboration. These goals seemed natural as policymakers managed water resources, and water had no physical or disciplinary boundaries. But were we as budding water managers missing the point?

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Above Photo: United States Government Work on flickr

Recent scholarship from the field of Science, Technology, and Society (STS) might claim we were. STS scholars advanced a concept called co-production. Co-production generally refers to how science and technology knowledge are co-produced in society. Sheila Jasanoff from Harvard described co-production as “a dynamic process by which science and society continually shape, constitute, and validate one another.” Mike Hulme further said she would argue for “deliberation and participation across all relevant questions.” Charis Thompson from UC Berkeley said co-production occurs through “developments around representation, identity, discourse, and institutions.”

What does this mean for the average person trying to understand the creation of water science in society? It means there is always societal influence on science, and this influence can be varied. Lövbrand defined science under three categories:

  1. basic science subjected to peer review,
  2. applied science to meet the needs of industry or government, and
  3. regulatory science with the primary audience of the government.

Boundaries between these types of science are often blurred. Even basic science with peer review can be driven by funding from a governmental entity, or regulatory science requires scientists and politicians to rely on values. Yet the prominent discourse is still that science is conducted objectively with little societal influence, and objective scientists need to better communicate their results to policymakers.

Instead of pressuring scientists to better communicate their results to policymakers, STS scholars like Mike Hulme believe we should be focusing on other questions.

  • How is science knowledge created?
  • Whose knowledge is being represented?
  • Are we valuing science knowledge that society wants to value?
  • Are we valuing information that a small subset thinks is valuable?

Lövbrand tells us co-production gives us tools to answer these questions by creating a space to review “science and policy, facts and values, knowledge and power.” The challenge is, however, re-articulating the societal framework for decision-making. Jasanoff says “With science more and more being produced in the service of social ends, the possibility of bias is far more evident, and the grounds of expert authority in greater need of re-articulation.” She is talking about challenging or re-forming the roles of science, experts, and committees in formal democracies.

Water managers might ask how this insight be applied to water science and policy-making endeavors. There are already many collaborative management processes being used by governmental officials (for example, the Klamath Basin in Southern Oregon and Northern California), but these scenarios are focused more on decision-making and less on science. It could be time to step back from the discourse of calling for scientists to better inform policy-makers about their work, and realize that science already represents varying values in society. Perhaps we should ask whose values are represented?

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Atlanta Artist Depicts People of Nature

art, united states, water

A human-nature binary exists today where many organized humans believe they are separate from wild nature. Some argue this perceived division is leading to ruin, and one visual artist is examining such ideas among others. The H20 Art page on the Water for the Ages blog is about to feature a new artist: Karley Sullivan. I’m elated to feature her artwork because we’ve been friends since enigmatic teenage years in our East Tennessee hometown. But I’m even more honored to feature Karley because her artwork is truly transformational. It seems she has little fear in confronting the human-nature binary in her mode of communication, and echos of the water world abound. Please check out the H20 Art page to see more.


Above Photo: Self Portrait by Karley Sullivan

Desalination in California: Coming to a City Near You

community, desalination, united states

A couple days ago my friend asked me to join her at a meeting about a ballot measure related to the construction of a desalination (desal) plant in Santa Cruz, California. The idea of the public gearing up to oppose desal in the city encouraged me to do background research on the issue, and it also reminded me I am now living in the sometimes-arid West.


Above Photo: Pacific Institute

Desal is thought by some to be a solution to water shortages. Development of technologies to extract drinking water from saltwater in a sustainable way would be a huge advance, but most current technologies are expensive in terms of infrastructure and energy. Still around 20 desal plants have been proposed for California, according to a 2006 Pacific Institute report. Proponents cite benefits like water for development and during drought, but the report states other water alternatives should be used first. Such water alternatives include treating low-quality water, regional water transfers, improving conservation, recycling wastewater, and smart land-use planning.

Santa Cruz is the yet another place in California with public outcry related to a proposed desal plant in their our backyard. The city proposed desal to supplement water during drought years and for development, and they are planning to spend 15.5 million dollars researching this proposed plant. Local citizens like Rick Longinotti found out. They were worried about associated negative effects including excessive energy use, expensive water, and impacts on marine life. He formed a group called Desal Alternatives with others. This organization identified several alternatives to supplement existing water sources such as treatment of wastewater, a local water transfer, and water conservation measures.


Above Photo: The City of Santa Cruz Water Department (SCWD) and Soquel Creek Water District

Local citizens also knew they needed a measure on the ballot to allow citizens to decide whether they should have a right to vote on a proposed desal plant. People came together to form a non-partisan coalition called Right to Vote on Desal. This group draws membership from local organizations including Desal Alternatives, Transitions Santa Cruz, Peak Water, a group opposing UCSC expansion, and others. They collected the 5,000 signatures necessary to get Measure P added to the November ballot. If approved, Measure P will ensure that citizens have a right to vote on the proposed desal plant (likely in 2014).

Multi-stakeholder engagement in desal is likely to become widespread in California in the years to come, as detailed in this article. The Pacific Institute states only one of 17 projects proposed in 2006 have been built with one other securing all needed permits. Santa Cruz citizens discovered Marin County voters were fighting desal using a ballot measure, and they followed in the same accord. I believe it’s probably just a matter of time before other communities also take a stand – to have the right to decide whether or not it’s something they want in their backyards.