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GeoPolicy: Living in a post-factual society and why it’s more important than ever for scientists to engage

GeoPolicy: Living in a post-factual society and why it’s more important than ever for scientists to engage

Last week, the EGU Science Policy Fellow packed her bags and flew to Brussels. Now this wasn’t to sample some of the fine beers Belgium has to offer, but to attend the 2nd International Network on Government Science Advice (INGSA) Conference. This conference, co-organised by INGSA and the European Commission, aimed to discuss the major principles needed for effective science advice to governments, focusing predominantly on the European scale. This month’s GeoPolicy post looks at the main themes and take home messages discussed at the conference.

 

A post-factual society?

Commissioner Carlos Moedas, in his opening address, described science validity as being under attack from so-called ‘post factual politics’. Events like the UK referendum decision to leave the EU is an example of this, but many others exist throughout Europe and the world: 41% of the French population now believe vaccines are unsafe.

Part of the reason for this shift in distrust towards expert advice is the rapid rise of non-traditional media platforms. More than ever the public are exposed to information from all angles and across multiple platforms. These platforms can spread misinformation (whether willingly or by accident) and therefore the ‘facts’ by themselves may no longer assumed to be correct.

Moedas believes that a more transparent and open approach to science advice can help increase public trust. He stated that people can understand the answers if they understand the process. Then, the public can more accurately judge the facts from the fiction.

 

So why should we engage?

Science advice to policy is often considered a two-way interaction, between the scientists and the policy makers, however the public are vital in this relationship. Scientists need to engage with both, not just because it furthers their research impact, but also it helps ensure a future for their science. Scientists must involve themselves with correcting this dangerous shift towards ignoring the facts. Democratically elected representatives will act on what are the public’s interests (for fear of not being re-elected if nothing else). So scientists need to make sure their work is communicated effectively and accurately to the public. When the public cares, so do the politicians. Although this is selfish reasoning, a scientist needs to ensure the public cares about their research, otherwise funding may be reallocated to other areas of public interest.

Additionally, the positives of effective science advice to policy are plentiful: capacity building, increased sustainability, society can become safer, the economy improves etc. In the EU, ultimate policy decisions are made by member states who are predominantly diplomats, not scientists. Therefore, effective science advice mechanisms to ensure policy makers learn about science are needed. However, this this is no easy task.

 

No one size fits all

Multiple approaches to science advice exist across the EU and the world, e.g., chief scientific advisors, national academies, third party organisations, in-house organisations, advisory boards / mechanisms. Several presentations from this conference showed that each situation requires tailoring; no one mechanism will work in every situation and not all mechanisms will work in each situation.

More concrete science-policy mapping is needed to better understand these different mechanisms and to help outside institutions comprehend how they might contribute.

 

The EU’s Scientific Advice Mechanism

A new Scientific Advice Mechanism (SAM) has been created to improve science advice transparency within the European Commission. SAM was described in a previous GeoPolicy post, but essentially it comprises a seven-member panel of scientific experts who work closely with the Commission and EU science academies to study scientific topics of societal interest. The network of scientific academies, known as SAPEA, can call upon external experts to contribute to the topics of focus. Currently three topics have been identified: Cybersecurity, Light duty vehicle real-drive CO2 emissions, and Glyphosate.

SAM is in its early stages, being established only a year. Needless to say, the science-policy world is observing its progress and performance with eager eyes.

 

Tips for communicating to each other

Both scientists and policy workers need better training at understanding the different languages each group speaks. Several tips / suggestions mentioned during the conference are listed below.

For scientists:

“There is an increasing pressure on scientists to deliver and they are now subject to closer public scrutiny. Therefore, scientists cannot take their authority for granted, they need to earn it, especially in polarising situations where public opinion is split” Pearl Dykstra (SAM panel member)

  • Less is more (when explaining science). Can you explain your science in 140 characters? Or pitch your research during a quick conversation in a lift? If so, this gets you a 20 minute meeting with a commissioner / MEP etc.
  • “Scientists should put themselves in shoes of policy makers more often. They need to address societal needs: there is no shortage of these” (Tibor Navaracsics, DG Education, Culture, Youth and Sport).
  • Try to understand the constraints of democracy. Science is only one factor that is considered during policy making.
  • The job of scientists is to explain what is, not what ought to be. Politicians will advocate, scientists must give the facts on which to base advocacy. Both sides need to be aware of their own biases.
  • Engage with both politicians and the public to increase trust.
  • Timing is essential. The Joint Research Centre (JRC) ensures their science advice is given when most needed. For example, disaster response requires warnings / reports / impact maps to be published as soon as possible, the JRC issues these within 2-3 hours.

 

Tips for policy workers:

  • Anticipate / expect what researchers need (policy-for-science) for them to do effective research.
  • Decrease bias, policy workers need to be open to their need for advice. “We need politicians to trust the science process even if they don’t like the results” (Bernhard Url, European Food Safety Authority).
  • Champion evidence-based policy making as we cannot afford policy mistakes. This can be hard, as it may seem counter intuitive at times.

“Both sides need to create space and time for the science policy dialogue” Yoko Harayama (Cabinet Office for Japan)

 

What if we fail?

There are many challenges with providing effective mechanisms for science advice to policy. Saruto Ohtake (Cabinet Office for Japan) gave a poignant talk about what the effects can be when this relationship fails.

The 2011 Japanese earthquake, which induced a tsunami and the shutdown of the Fukishima nuclear power plant, killed over 10,000 people. Scientific research was not communicated quickly enough and policy workers failed to ask for advice.

The results of this failure were catastrophic and subsequently, public trust in science dropped 10-20%. Effort on both sides is now needed to restore public trust and to ensure similar events never happen again.

This talk highlighted another reason for why scientists and policy officials need to have an effective and trusted relationship with each other and the public.

Although the conference focused more on the challenges at hand, rather than implementing potential solutions, it still provided much discussion and food-for-thought. Luckily, these topics could be mulled over after the conference with a refreshing blond Belgium beer.

Additional Reading

Principles of science advice to government: key problems and feasible solutions

GeoPolicy: 8 ways to engage with policy makers

Dealing with post normal science and post truth politics

Science and Policy Making: towards a new dialogue website

GeoPolicy: 8 science-based projects improving regions in the EU

GeoPolicy: 8 science-based projects improving regions in the EU

As scientists, it can sometimes be difficult to see the real-world implications of some of our research. Concepts can often seem abstract and remote when sitting in a lab or taking field measurements. But researching the Earth sciences can have profound effects on global society. Understanding how the natural world works can help protect and improve human, animal, and plant life. This month’s GeoPolicy post (part of the European Geosciences Union GeoLog Blog) highlights EU funded projects that have their foundations in the Earth sciences.

EU member states can apply for regional project funding that aims to improve living standards for the residents living within that region. Projects can be technology, medicine, environment, or social-science based. This post highlights 8 projects that have resulted from earth-science research. Scroll down to see what projects are going on in your country, or your area of science. A full list of EU funded projects can be found here and more information on the EU regional development fund can be found on their website.

 

Preventing coastal erosion in Southern France

Coastal erosion causes coastlines to collapse and retreat landward. This can have damaging effects on local residents, or on those who use the coast for recreational activities. In the Mediterranean, beaches are sustained by sediment supplied from river deltas. Erosion can occur when less river sediment is transported to the coasts. This can occur when there has been a decrease in the frequency of major floods, catchment reforestation, dam construction, or dredging activities1.

The EU funded a project to protect coastal regions in the South of France; an area popular for tourists and local residents alike. Amongst other initiatives, which included infrastructure changes, a dune ridge was re-established to protect the beach and coastal area.

http://ec.europa.eu/regional_policy/en/projects/france/preservation-of-coastal-gem

 

River adaptation to fight flash floods in Spain

The Simat region, located on the East coast of Spain, near Valenciana, is often subjected to flash flooding as it is situated between mountains and the Mediterranean Sea. Flash floods caused by heavy autumn rains burst river banks and have a devastating effect on the surrounding villages.

EU funding provided both ‘soft’ and ‘hard’ flood defences for the Valenciana region. Soft river defences use natural resources and local knowledge to protect residents from flooding. A region upstream of Simet was reclaimed for flood plains and the river was widened. To complement this, a canal system (an example of a hard defence strategy) was constructed further downstream.

http://ec.europa.eu/regional_policy/en/projects/spain/river-adaptation-to-fight-flash-floods

 

Energy Efficiency: Recovering heat to produce thermal energy in Greece

Increasing energy efficiency is a key objective for the European Union: there is a specific EU Directive that focuses entirely on improving energy usage. By 2020, the EU aims to have saved roughly the equivalent of 400 power stations-worth of energy2.

Florina, a city in mainland Greece, has been awarded EU funding for a project aimed to distribute unused heat energy from power stations to 23,000 local residents. Surplus heat will be piped as ‘superheated water’ to local homes and businesses. As well as improving energy efficiency, this project is expected to cut water-related greenhouse gas emissions by 88%, as hot water will no longer be heated by traditional oil and gas combustion methods.

http://ec.europa.eu/regional_policy/en/projects/greece/recovering-heat-to-produce-thermal-energy

 

Improving groundwater quality in Poland

Groundwater is a lifeline to supplying Europe with freshwater. Over 300 million EU citizens get their drinking water from these subsurface water deposits. Unfortunately, groundwater can become contaminated making it unfit to be consumed, and endanger aquatic and terrestrial ecosystems. This can happen when septic systems that are not connected to modern sewer systems leak bacteria, viruses, and chemicals into the environment.

An EU funded project for the Poznań region in Poland is protecting local groundwater supplies by improving wastewater treatment networks, which will benefit almost 736,000 local inhabitants. The construction of an integrated water and wastewater monitoring system helps to protect residents as well as the surrounding ecosystems.

http://ec.europa.eu/regional_policy/en/projects/poland/improving-groundwater-quality-around-poznan

 

Micro-hydropower plants in the UK and Ireland

The world needs to shift to non-carbon based energy generation to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. The EU aims to achieve 20% energy generation from renewable sources by 2020 (2012 levels stood at 11%)3. Renewable energy sources include hydropower, geothermal, wind energy, solar energy, and biomass. Hydropower is commonly generated through dam structures, where flowing water passes through a turbine. An alternative method is to take surplus electrical energy from the grid and use it to pump water to elevated ground, therefore storing it as potential energy to be used later.

A common method within water supply systems is to use pressurised pumps to transport water to the pipeline network. Excess pressure is often vented, releasing unused energy into the atmosphere. A recently funded EU project aims to create hydro-energy from these supply systems by installing micro-hydropower plants on the ventilation valves. The generated electricity can be used to reduce conventional energy consumption. The project has been funded for regions in Wales and Ireland, however it is thought this technology could be expanded across Europe and beyond.

http://ec.europa.eu/regional_policy/en/projects/europe/retrieving-water-energy-at-micro-hydropower-plants-could-pave-the-way-to-more-sustainable-water-supply-systems-in-ireland-and-wales

 

Turning copper to gold: mining in Portugal

Raw materials, including minerals and rare-earth elements, are used in infrastructure, renewable energy resources, agriculture, and telecommunications. The vast majority of these resources are imported to the EU, and very few mineral mines are located within Europe. It is important to improve the security of supply by either increasing internal supply or reducing the need for these materials.

The Alentejo region in Portugal is located on the Iberian pyrite belt, a geological zone rich in mineral deposits. Mining has occurred for many centuries and the region currently employs over 500 people. Funds have been awarded to develop the mine’s capabilities to increase its output of copper ore, whilst continuing to meet EU environmental standards.

http://ec.europa.eu/regional_policy/en/projects/portugal/turning-copper-to-gold

 

Adapting water management to climate change in Denmark and Germany

Greenhouse gases absorb radiated energy from the Earth and re-radiate this as heat; raising global temperatures. This results in ice caps and glaciers melting and causes rising sea levels. Low-lying countries are now experiencing greater flooding episodes and increasing storm surges (another effect of manmade climate change). The Syddanmark region in Denmark and the Schleswig-Holstein region in Germany was awarded EU funding to assess and reduce the damage new flooding has on these areas. After discussions with professionals, politicians and members of the public, it was decided to develop a hydrological model to assess the future impacts flooding would have. The model was able to highlight where dikes should be relocated and retention areas be created to reduce negative flooding impacts. Additionally, the resulting changes showed positive biodiversity effects in these new areas from the temporary flooding.

http://ec.europa.eu/regional_policy/en/projects/europe/grenzwasser-adapts-water-management-to-climate-change-requirements

 

Establishing a commercial spaceport in Sweden

Space research and exploration does more than simply try to answer overarching questions about life, the solar system, and beyond. The research and development driven by space science and exploration have led to inventions that are now used to help us in our daily lives. The ESA has a portfolio of ~450 inventions, covering areas such as optics, robotics, and electrical power. The development of the so-called “second space age” is seeing private space companies contributing to research and innovation, as well as providing opportunities for more commercial space flights.

The Kiruna region, in Northern Sweden, established an international space and research ground-station over 50 years ago. The station hosts rocket and balloon launches, satellite monitoring, new space and flight systems testing, and multiple ground-based space measurements. A project has been funded to transform the Kiruna centre into a ‘fully functioning spaceport’ to develop new products, services, research, and education.

http://ec.europa.eu/regional_policy/en/projects/best-practices/sweden/2105

 

More information about EU project funding and where it is allocated can be found on the European Commission website.

 

Sources:

1 – http://www.climatechangepost.com/france/coastal-erosion/

2 – https://ec.europa.eu/energy/en/topics/energy-efficiency

3 – http://www.eea.europa.eu/soer-2015/europe/energy