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Connecting the shifting currents of aquatic science and policy

September 23, 2016

Bridging science and policy: the River Taff in Cardiff, Wales, which has been restored in recent decades. Image: Andrew Rees | Flickr Creative Commons

Dialogues between environmental scientists and policy makers form key cogs in modern conservation and restoration practices. Scientific research can inform and support ‘evidence-based’ policy making, whilst policy makers will often prioritise and fund socially and environmentally pertinent research topics.

The multiple ways in which aquatic ecosystems support and shape human lives makes productive science-policy dialogues about their management and protection particularly important. As Prof Emily Stanley articulated in a recent interview, aquatic ecosystems across the world are increasingly impacted by human pressures, which are causing ever more complex and uncertain ecological impacts (such as state shifts or multiple stressor interactions, for example), and which may be described under the broad umbrella term of the ‘Anthropocene’.

As such, there is a pressing need for science-policy dialogues to help form adaptive policy and management responses to such new ‘natures’, to try to build in ecosystem resilience to emerging treats to climate change and to conserve highly-pressurised biodiversity.

In this context, a new opinion piece by  Steve Ormerod from Cardiff University and G. Carleton Ray from the University of Virginia argues that aquatic scientists can play a pivotal role in identifying gaps, failings and emerging trends for policy and regulatory practices. Writing in Aquatic Conservation Marine and Freshwater Ecosystems, the authors identify the concept of resilience as an organising principle for science-policy responses to emerging human pressures. Promoting environmental resilience provides a means of bringing new ecological concepts, the importance of an ‘ecosystem approach’, and the value of ecosystem services and natural capital further into policy making.

Two major pieces of aquatic legislation, the US Clean Water Act (1972), and the EU Water Framework Directive (2000) were significantly shaped by scientific evidence, both in their design and in ongoing monitoring and enforcement. However, Ormerod and Carleton Ray argue that there is still untapped potential for aquatic scientists to help improve and develop environmental decision-making in an ever-changing world.

New and novel science-policy practices are emerging from one of Europe’s smallest countries. In 2015, the Wellbeing of Future Generations Act was passed by the Welsh government, making the promotion of environmental resilience a key aspect of public body sustainability strategies. Through the Act, targets for environmental resilience – promoted through reduced greenhouse gas emissions, soil and water body restoration and biodiversity conservation amongst others – are set alongside social, economic and cultural goals. Another Welsh policy, the Environment (Wales) Act of 2016 has set the ecosystem approach – i.e. a focus on the health, structure, function, condition and service provision of ecosystems in all decision-making – directly into national legislation.

Ormerod and Carleton Ray highlight that effective environmental management and conservation action often requires long-term measures, which in turn require political commitments beyond the fixed-term cycles of government. Here, they suggest the importance of analysing and communicating the results of long-term data sets on freshwater ecosystems, as a means of demonstrating the value of long-term perspectives and large-scale policy interventions.

The authors suggest that aquatic science is not only important in shaping the form of environmental policy, but also in evaluating its ongoing implementation. For example, Britain’s urban rivers have largely become cleaner and healthier since the implementation of the EU Wastewater Treatment Directive in 1991; changes which have been tracked to by ongoing scientific monitoring programmes, which now indicate that there may be associated benefits in how the river ecosystems adapt to future climate change.

Aquatic scientists should engage more fully in policy arenas, in order to identify and fill gaps in existing environmental policy and regulation through good evidence and communication, argue Ormerod and Carleton Ray. An example of such engagement is in the MARS project, which identified the lack of consideration given to aquatic multiple stressor impacts in the EU Water Framework Directive, and is now midway through a large research project to provide policy-relevant results to address this deficit.

However, the authors argue that there remains significant potential in acknowledging concepts of environmental dynamism and complexity in policy and management globally, particularly the connectivity between land and water systems and between transitional waters where fresh and marine waters interact.

Ormerod and Carleton Ray’s concluding points are far-reaching and perceptive:

In sum, we are proposing that freshwater and marine conservation biologists work together towards an expanded, systemic approach to aquatic ecosystems to incorporate interaction across the whole land-freshwater-ocean nexus – both in scientific terms and onward into policy… expanding the role of science in aquatic policy and legislation requires fuller recognition of where aquatic conservation now stands in a changing world. It is not our intention to offer a prescriptive approach to any aspect of the science-policy interface, but rather to point out the nature of the present-day challenge.  The 21st century is much different from preceding centuries. Aquatic issues are converging, requiring a systems approach and an improved understanding of how physical and biological processes interact under an accelerating pace of environmental change.

A key challenge, then, for aquatic science-policy dialogue is not only to scientifically understand the emergent properties of a changing world, but also to provide convincing arguments for the importance of nature-based solutions for entwined social, economic and environmental issues through policy-making.

For Ormerod and Carleton Ray, this is a collaborative process, concluding that, “Together, science and policy must spur each other onwards.”

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