The role of ecologists in influencing policy

Policy not based on evidence is dangerous.

Or at this is what Ben Goldacre would have you believe. Goldacre, a doctor, writer and journalist claims that much policy making is ad-hoc and that we should be carrying out more randomised control trials of policy relevant questions.

I agree with him.

However, there is much to be positive about as well.

The  UK government recognises the importance of science in forming policy. It acknowledges that evidence-based environmental policy is important and there are various independent bodies which help politicians access this evidence. There have also been positive moves  in following expert advice with the recent approval of Nature Improvement Areas, as suggested in the Making Space for Nature report. In addition at the recent British Ecological Society Annual Conference I heard about the government funding for work into Ash dieback in an attempt to combat the disease.

So obviously the government does value science in policy making. We are actually reasonably lucky in this country compared to some less enlightened places.

Now the bad.

The real problem for a lot of environmental issues is not that there is not enough evidence, but rather that they are fringe issues. While reducing crime will always be a priority, many issues related to conservation and environmental policy making are lower down the pecking order.

These kind of things need work to make them an issue even before we try to work out what to do about them. Even policies on climate change, which is widely seen as a disaster waiting to happen, have shown little meaningful progress over the last 20 years.

This is simply because any changes would require a change in more or less everyone’s lifestyle. The public don’t want this and governments around the world want to stay in power, so they don’t do anything.

Even when issues don’t conflict with people’s day to day lives getting good environmental policy can take a long time. Ecologists often want action quickly on their pet topic but this rarely happens.

Just how long things can take was emphasised when I saw Hugh Possingham speak in Glasgow this year. He has been working on designing  protected areas so they are as representative of the marine environment as possible for 15 years. In the last year or two the Australian government has started taking this seriously and is now planning the largest MPA network in the world (though Possingham doesn’t think it’s perfect). Although he wasn’t the only one involved in bringing this to fruition it has been a long road for Possingham and the MPA network. This is just one example of how long things can take to develop into policies.

So how can we put environmental concerns higher up the political pecking order? Firstly, we need to talk to people more about why we care about the environment.

We need to work in schools and do more outreach projects. The public need to care before most politicians will do much about things.

Secondly, we should be willing to communicate policy relevant work to politicians directly. We should be happy to suggest policies to politicians – though it is down to them as to what they do with this advice.

There have been many column inches filled about the lack of scientific education amongst politicians. This is true but there is also a lack of political education amongst scientists. We should be looking to create the biggest impact possible with our work. We won’t do this by sitting in rooms talking to each other.

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