The Role of Science in EBM: Does Science Drive the Process, or Just Inform It?

The Skimmer on Marine Ecosystems and Management

Policies that mandate ecosystem-based management of the ocean have emphasized the need for good science. In the newly released "Final Recommendations of the Ocean Policy Task Force" on which the new US national ocean policy is based (described later in this issue), "science" is mentioned more than 65 times. The European Marine Strategy Framework Directive and the EU Common Fisheries Policy both stress the need for science to underpin management.

But defining the exact role for science in EBM is not easy. When EBM is described as a "science-based" process (as occurs 11 times in the US task force recommendations), does that mean science should outweigh other considerations in decision-making? Or is science simply an informative tool, one of many for decision-makers to use as they progress toward EBM?

The role of science in EBM is a central subject. Below, MEAM asks practitioners how science has been incorporated in EBM processes on which they have worked. (The next issue of MEAM, October-November 2010, will continue the coverage of science and EBM, including considerations of how to balance modern science with traditional ecological knowledge, and what user groups see as the appropriate role of science in resource planning.)


A. Role of science is to set framework and principles

Leanne Fernandes
Director, Earth to Ocean Consulting, Queensland, Australia. E-mail: leannef [at] earth2ocean.com

(Editor's note: Leanne Fernandes managed the multi-year process to rezone the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park, which culminated in 2004. The process, called the Representative Areas Program, increased the no-take percentage of the park from 4.7% to 33%.)

MEAM: What specific roles did science play in the Representative Areas Program?

Leanne Fernandes: The role of science in the RAP was multi-faceted and changed over time. Some highlights included:

  • Conduct of semi-structured interviews with about 70 biophysical scientists to access multiple types of information: e.g., datasets they had, opinions about best practice in MPA design given their areas of expertise, and suggestions for the process in general.
  • Based on their advice we established two independent natural and social science steering committees to guide us on issues such as data sources, data sufficiency, two sets (socio-economic and biophysical) of operational guiding principles for design of a no-take MPA network, and bioregions (in the case of the natural scientists) and communications (in the case of the social scientists).
  • Social science methods were used to design questionnaires for public submissions and to analyze the 30,000 written public submissions received.
  • GIS science helped assess the level of achievement of operational principles with various zoning options.
  • Scientists [involved in the RAP] also were willing to donate time to communicate directly with the media, the community, sectoral interests, and decision-makers as independent "honest brokers" about the issues at hand and the proposed management solutions.
  • Peer-reviewed scientific papers were summarized for use throughout RAP as well; but the knowledge base accessed through scientists who were willing to provide their expert opinion was a far greater resource for us.
  • Collaboration between managers and scientists has also delivered monitoring of the revised zoning plan.

MEAM: How did you balance science with other factors?

Fernandes: An important factor in our interactions with everyone who participated in the RAP was to be as honest as possible as to their role, their input, and their influence in the process and ours as managers. This included the scientists. In fact, an agreed set of "Terms of Reference" was developed to guide the functioning of the scientific steering committees. The TOR basically stated that the committees could expect to guide and inform the management process but that decision-making lay with the managers and, ultimately, Parliament. This was also true for input from the community and the various economic sectors with an interest in the marine park.

One point of deviation from this was due to our Federal Minister. He suggested that we accept the scientists' advice on the absolute minimum requirements to ensure the future of the Great Barrier Reef ecosystem (this was the requirement for at least 20% of every bioregion to be protected in no-take areas). We succeeded in doing this.

Overall, I would say the role of science was to set the framework and the principles for the public debate, consultations, and political judgments. Science was critical to defining the problems the rezoning was intended to address, for framing options to address these problems, and for ensuring the ecological integrity of the final plan.

It is extremely important to note that the science-based operational principles for the design of the network of no-take areas did NOT prescribe specific locations for the no-take areas. Aside from some very special and unique areas, the (natural science) operational principles could be complied with through millions of potential designs of no-take areas. This meant maximizing complementarity with human uses. Throughout, natural and social science data and tools continued to inform social, economic, and political "tradeoffs" that resulted in the final statutory plan.

MEAM: During RAP, how did management handle circumstances of scientific uncertainty, such as when there was disagreement over the science?

Fernandes: There is always a scientist who will disagree with the body of scientific evidence (although I could number them on one hand in our case) and available data are always imperfect, including in Great Barrier Reef Marine Park.

There were a number of techniques we used to address these circumstances.

  • First was that we genuinely aimed to gather the very best information available and the scientific community knew this to be so. This had a two-fold effect: our information was as solid as it could be, and the scientific community acknowledged this, including to the outside world.
  • Because we built the trust of the scientific community in the process, including through the use of their data and expertise, it led to a strong scientific consensus that underpinned the rezoning.
  • One of the questions explicitly put to our independent scientific steering committees was whether there was enough information to proceed with the RAP or if we needed to delay the program until we had more data; they advised us to proceed with the existing data.
  • We had the bioregions and our economic assessment of the impacts of the RAP externally and independently reviewed, with positive outcomes.
  • We acknowledged that we had imperfect information.
  • What science we did have to support our decisions was shared with as many people as possible in as many ways as possible.
  • Our management policy and, in fact, our legislation allows for review of any zoning as new information comes on board; thus a lack of perfect information was less of an impediment than it might have been.
  • We (as managers) did not enter into media debates over the science. We would state what we knew to be true and leave it at that. We did refer to scientific consensuses that were relevant and available at the time.
  • Sometimes the scientific community itself would enter into these debates to expose the inaccuracies in the minority opinions. The scientific community also took some time and effort to ensure that accurate scientific messages were delivered to the ultimate decision-makers - our politicians.

B. Science-based conservation is best approach, but often a luxury

Ameer Abdulla
IUCN Global Marine Programme, Malaga, Spain, and Gland, Switzerland. E-mail: ameer.abdulla [at] iucn.org

(Editor's note: Ameer Abdulla is senior specialist and group leader for marine biodiversity and conservation science with the IUCN Global Marine Programme. He has been directly involved in marine EBM projects in the Indian Ocean, Red Sea, Arabian Gulf, Mediterranean Sea, and Gulf of Mexico, among other places.)

MEAM: How has science been handled in the EBM projects you have worked on?

Ameer Abdulla: The significance of science, specifically ecology, in environmental management and marine resource planning is widely recognized. However, the extent to which ecological research can contribute to environmental management is hampered by uncertainty and challenged by political and institutional processes. Ecological uncertainty is manifested in specific cases of human impacts on the environment where the complexity of natural and anthropogenic spatial and temporal interactions undermines the power of science. Furthermore, the institutional framework - with the necessary technical and financial resources to undertake and incorporate science formally into the planning process - is often lacking. Finally, throughout the planning process, the political will and authority of the planning agency has to remain strong and consistent to integrate science meaningfully and achieve sensible management of marine resources. These issues are especially significant, and the challenge is amplified when we attempt to understand ecosystems on a regional or a global scale.

Marine or conservation science (marine applied ecology, coastal biodiversity taxonomy, and assessments of social resilience and resource dependency, etc.) can sometimes act as the trigger for a longer and more political / institutional process to develop a governance framework for a site. For instance, the designation of a marine protected area often involves intense coordination and negotiation with the Ministry of Environment, Ministry of Tourism, Ministry of Fisheries, state governments, and sometimes the Ministry of Interior if the site is remote or strategic, etc. Although developing a designation memo and tabling it in parliament or assembly may have been triggered by its ecological significance and associated scientific assessment, its confirmation and approval is certainly the result of the dedicated and tenacious negotiation efforts of legal and institutional staff (in the different agencies and NGOs) who would like to see it happen. In these cases, the science (ecological and social assessments of the site) may be used as a placeholder - a heavy report to wave around in a room full of barterers.

MEAM: How should science be balanced with other considerations in EBM decision-making?

Abdulla: In my field conservation experience, I have seen that undertaking the science within badly conceived or nonexistent planning processes may in fact hamper conservation and management of marine resources. While environmental agencies are busy designing the perfect field survey for an ecologically significant site, the area is quietly and rapidly being zoned for development and sold to proponents. In these situations, there is a case for the "declare now, study later" approach, which I have observed and supported in a number of regions I have worked in.

Ecology alone cannot solve environmental problems. Science can provide a basic foundation for an iterative process that must contend with socioeconomic or political factors. I still believe that science-based conservation, planning, and management is the best approach, as it is the most informed approach. However, this often is a luxury and may mislead or skew the process toward the need for scientific information only, setting up resource management and planning process for failure.

In many situations, the most appropriate planning would involve a parallel approach where (a) scientific information is being collected and synthesized while (b) a political/institutional process is underway to pave way for the science and to move on an often lengthy and bureaucratic process of creating governance structures. Whether science comes at the beginning, middle, or end of the marine conservation and resource planning process will depend on the conditions of the site and the country set-up. The most crucial and primary objective for resource planning - and for assigning the role of science in that planning - is to scope and mind-map the enabling / impeding conditions for the site and country.

MEAM: How should planners handle scientific uncertainty?

Abdulla: It is unfortunate that in some decision-making situations, politicians request more research as a ploy to stall, postpone, or avoid politically controversial and unpopular decisions. At the same time, some researchers conclude their investigation with a call for further research in order to justify and procure more funding. In many of these cases, additional research would not improve the accuracy of their predictions. Scientists damage their credibility and that of ecological science by falsely advocating an increase in the predictive power of their research. Scientists should admit the limitations of their research and that it will never yield "perfect knowledge". They also should not allow politicians to use the lack of certainty as an excuse for not taking action.

A perceived inability to make robust resource management decisions can also drive organizations to try to collect large amounts of data before beginning conservation prioritization or resource planning. This incurs two costs: delayed conservation action and the possibility of money spent collecting data of negligible decision-making value.

Managers must balance scientific uncertainty with policy and decision-making. Adaptive management has been proposed as the dominant strategy to achieve this balance. Decision support tools (DSTs) for marine conservation and management decision-making are now a fundamental and widely used component of adaptive ecosystem management and marine resource planning in data-poor or data-rich environments. DSTs can enable useful management and defensible resource allocation decisions to be made in data-poor environments, through the use of a variety of easily available surrogate measures or descriptors. In addition, there is an increasing interest in the use of risk assessment in conservation and management priority setting. This is largely due to increases in human impact and the emerging impact of climate change on many marine ecosystems. Both cost and ecology must be considered in the solution, and complex trade-offs can only be made with the assistance of well-formulated decision support tools.


BOX: Science is not necessarily the final arbiter

David Johnson
Executive Secretary, OSPAR Commission, London, UK. E-mail: david.johnson [at] ospar.org

(Editor's note: The OSPAR Commission protects and conserves the North-East Atlantic and its resources.)

"Whilst science informs - and OSPAR Parties are by nature cautious and conservative - it is not necessarily the final arbiter. Political decisions [in OSPAR] are made on a consensus basis and it is inevitable that individual nations have their economic interests and priorities. At times within OSPAR, there is also a need to be pragmatic and to take decisions on the basis of best information and/or incomplete science. This is realistic. The purpose of periodic review and implementation reporting on our different decisions and recommendations is to ensure that Contracting Parties do what has been agreed. It also builds up information and, where necessary, reviews actions and takes into account new scientific information.

"Regarding scientific uncertainty, all our efforts to reduce pollutants and the impacts of human activities are guided by the precautionary approach. This is because it is very difficult to say precisely what the effects (and in particular the cumulative effects) will be of many substances. Thus, for example, OSPAR has sought a reduction of the input of oil in produced water [an oil industry term for water that is produced along with oil and gas], requiring in practice the oil industry to re-inject produced water rather than discharge it into the sea."

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