The Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment is calling for submissions on the role of science in environmental policy and decision-making. This article is based on a paper presented at the 2003 New Zealand Skeptics’ Conference in Wellington.

Are public policies and decisions that affect the environment adequately informed by science? How important is science relative to other considerations that environmental policy and decision-makers have to consider? How well are uncertainties reflected in policies and decisions and subsequently managed? Are the results expected of policies and decisions being achieved? These are a few of the issues that the Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment (PCE) is currently investigating. As part of the project examining the role of science in environmental policy and decision-making, a discussion paper: Illuminated or Blinded by Science? was circulated by the PCE in July 2003 for comment. Its purpose was to encourage debate on the role of science in environmental policy and decision-making by elected representatives at central and local government as well as appointed decision-makers such as the Environmental Risk Management Authority and the Environment Court.

As an Officer of Parliament, the PCE is independent of these institutions. The Commissioner’s functions under the Environment Act 1986 enable him to investigate the effectiveness of systems and processes for managing the environment. The PCE’s interest in undertaking this study is to explore opportunities and barriers to improving the quality and effectiveness of environmental policies, decisions and outcomes, and the role that science plays in this.

The project was triggered by a number of concerns arising from previous PCE studies and from routine monitoring of environmental management decisions and policies of public authorities. These concerns include:

  • Gaps in knowledge and information that make policy and decision-making difficult and controversial, or the environmental outcomes uncertain. Examples include information gaps identified in the Ministry for the Environment’s 1997 State of the Environment report, and the controversy surrounding the potential consequences of lifting the moratorium on genetic modification.
  • Lessons to be learned about science-policy interface issues highlighted by the handling of the BSE (“mad cow” disease) incident in the UK in the late 1990s.
  • Pressures on environmental policy and decision-makers, such as time constraints within which decisions must be made and which are often incompatible with the time needed to undertake appropriate scientific research to guide those decisions.
  • The environmental consequences of either rushing into or delaying decisions where there may be significant uncertainties.
  • The correct framing of questions for science to attempt to answer.
  • Environmental policy and decision-makers’ need for and access to independent scientific advice.
  • Issues around research funding and science purchaser-provider relationships.
  • Transparency of and accountability for decisions that require not only scientific evidence, but also evidence that other viewpoints have been considered.

Policy and decision-making on environmental matters present particular difficulties because of our limited understanding of complex ecological systems, and the wide range of interests in how natural and physical resources are managed. Problems can be exacerbated when facts are uncertain, values are in dispute, the stakes are high, decisions are urgent, and outcomes are unpredictable.

Policy Realities

The reality for environmental policy and decision-makers is that, under statutes like the Resource Management Act 1991, they have a responsibility to consider a broad range of interests including environmental, economic, social and cultural impacts of a proposed activity or policy. Some of these interests will be supported by scientific evidence or predictions, while others will be expressed in terms of values that are important to a community. It is this combination of “facts” and “values” that presents the greatest challenge for policy and decision-makers — finding environmental solutions that are both scientifically justified and meet the needs and aspirations of the community. In environmental decision-making processes should knowledge that is based on our current scientific understanding prevail over other kinds of knowledge? Are there ways to effectively integrate different kinds of knowledge to help decision-makers achieve good environmental outcomes? Do the merits of each source of knowledge need to be evaluated on some common basis?

The significance of scientific knowledge and other non-scientific viewpoints are assessed in different ways. Scientific evidence and the divergences of views among scientists can be challenged, defended and assessed through well established experimental and peer review processes. On the other hand, non-scientific considerations may reflect strongly held ethical, cultural and moral values that are usually more subjective in nature and challenged or defended through debate and dialogue rather than by using prescribed assessment procedures or criteria. Both the scientific process and public debate are important in developing environmental policies and decisions that reflect not only what is known (ie what is scientifically verifiable and defensible) but also what is acceptable to society in general. Acceptability may ultimately and legitimately be the basis on which final decisions are made, as is the case with New Zealand’s “nuclear-free” policy. Public health policies on smoke-free environments (eg in public buildings and workplaces) stem from improved understanding of the health effects of passive smoking as well as changing attitudes to, and less tolerance of, smoking in enclosed places.

Knowledge has Many Sources

Some regard scientific knowledge as being essential and the primary basis for environmental policies and decisions. Others suggest that, in the politics of decision-making, values are what ultimately matter most. But knowledge needed to make wise decisions is derived from many sources including various scientific facts, theories, disciplines and approaches, philosophical views, and individuals’ upbringing and life experiences, to name just a few. The focus of the PCE’s discussion paper is on the role of science, but recognises that other viewpoints are also important and it is necessary to consider them in environmental decision-making processes. The expectation is that environmental policies and decisions are based on sound knowledge. But views differ on what is considered “sound knowledge”, as evidenced by the ongoing debate about the causality of global climate change and what the appropriate policy responses should be. Scientific knowledge, by its very nature, is continually evolving. Social values may also change over time and can vary among sectors of society. Science clearly has a significant role to play in the development of effective environmental policies and decisions, but should other knowledge that is not regarded as scientifically defensible be labelled as unsound or irrelevant? Should decisions be routinely revised in the light of new knowledge and changing attitudes?

No Certainties

Neither scientific nor other sources of knowledge can guarantee absolute certainties for decision-makers. Science can and does improve our understanding of complex ecological systems and helps to reduce uncertainties. The vacuum created by the absence of full scientific knowledge will inevitably be filled by other assertions and concerns, including moral, ethical and cultural values. The current debate on genetic modification is a good example of this. Better understanding by decision-makers of the values that are important to communities is also key to promoting inclusiveness in decision-making and improving the public’s confidence in the decisions being made on their behalf. Whether decisions are eventually based on science or values (or both), the important point is that the process needs to be transparent and the reasons for the decision made clear.

Our aim in this project is to encourage better quality decision-making that results in good environmental management. This requires sound scientific understanding of environmental risks, and an understanding of the acceptability of those risks and, therefore, how they should be managed. Science has an important and influential role in environmental policy and decision-making. We wish to explore how well it is used and incorporated into decisions that need to consider a wide range of factors. If environmental policies and decisions are based both on what is known and what is acceptable, there may be a greater chance of achieving environmentally sustainable outcomes.

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