collaboration, community, united states

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

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 science and policy discourse of the day – scientists have a hard time communicating their research to policymakers who need this information to make important decisions. At least this was the prevailing conversation while I was completing my master’s degree in Water Resources Policy and Management in 2010. During that time, we learned how to write policy briefs and white papers to convey scientific information to appointed representatives, and we were trained in multidisciplinary collaboration. Being graduate students interested in water, these goals seemed natural as policymakers managed water resources and water had no physical or disciplinary boundaries. But were we as budding water managers and scientists missing the point?

Above Photo: United States Government Work on flickr

Recent scholarship from a new field of studies called Science, Technology, and Society (sometimes called Science and Technology Studies or STS for short) might claim we were. STS scholars advanced a concept called co-production with various definitions revolving around how science and technology knowledge are co-produced in a societal setting. Sheila Jasanoff from Harvard described, as stated by Eva Lövbrand in “Pure Science or Policy Involvement“, co-production as “a dynamic process by which science and society continually shape, constitute, and validate one another”. Mike Hulme further delineated Jasanoff’s perspective in “What Sorts of Knowledge for what sort of politics?” saying she would argue for “deliberation and participation across all relevant questions”. Charis Thompson from UC Berkeley said co-production processes for science and technology knowledge creation in society occur through “developments around representation, identity, discourse, and institutions”.

So what does this mean for the lay person trying to understand the creation of water science knowledge in society? It means there is always societal influence on knowledge rooted in science and policy. Or in simpler terms, science is never fully insulated from policy. And societal influence can be varied depending on the type of science conducted. Lövbrand defined science as falling under three categories: basic science subjected to peer review, applied science to meet the needs of industry or government, and regulatory science with the primary audience of the government. Of course, boundaries between these science types are often blurred. But even the most pure form of basic science challenged to rigorous peer review processes can be driven by funding from a governmental entity or by prominent ideas of a certain time, and regulatory science – becoming more common in the 21st century as states are required to engage in risk analysis – requires scientists and politicians to rely on values and high levels of uncertainty.

And while these truths about science and policy seem self-evident, the prominent discourse of the day is still that science is conducted objectively with little societal influence, and it is the responsibility of objective scientists to better communicate their results to policymakers. As stated by some STS scholars like Mike Hulme, it seems the right questions for scientists, policymakers, and society should be the following. How is science knowledge created and whose knowledge is being represented? Are we valuing science knowledge that society wants to value or 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”. But the challenge, as Jasanoff might say, is re-articulating the societal framework for decision-making. She states: “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”. Here she is talking about challenging or re-forming the roles of science, experts, and committees in formal democracies. Water managers and scientists might question how this insight be applied to water science and policy-making endeavors. For many decision-making processes already use multiple-stakeholder input to come up with management plans (e.g. the Klamath Basin in Southern Oregon and Northern California.) But even these collaborative scenarios are focused more on decision-making and less on collaborative creation of science. Perhaps it is time to step back from the discourse calling for scientists to better inform policy-makers about their work, realize that science already represents varying values in society, and ask whose values are represented.

art, united states, water

Atlanta Artist Depicts People of Nature

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

community, desalination, united states

Desalination in California: Coming to a City Near You

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.