Scientific and Environmental Advisor at Itaipu Binacional, Asunción Paraguay. norm.breuer_AT_gmail.com
This note shows, through the lens of my personal experience of more than a decade, the novel, experimental, and pragmatic IAI approach to creating science and encouraging the use of findings in public policy.
Much has been written on the cross pollination and innovation as secondary results of bringing scientists from different fields, or scientists and representatives from other sectors of society together. Meanwhile, starting more than a dozen years ago, the IAI has aimed at this objective as a primary goal. At this early date, at least for Latin American scientific research, the IAI took advantage of its entrusted task to develop useable science in the broad field of Global Change, and decided to set high standards from the beginning, not to reach them only after years or decades of work.
At a 2006 meeting held in Cachoeira Paulista, Brazil, the IAI “sequestered” researchers – including me – in a quaint rural hostel, with no nearby towns and few distractions aside from good meals and cold beverages for a week. During the day we learned about modeling at the Brazilian INPE (space science) and CPTEC (climate) agencies. Spending 16 hours a day with diverse scientists from several countries and various fields of research, rarely takes place outside a forum or conference mode. This “beer in the evening breeze” methodology engendered a tremendous amount of interdisciplinary, cross disciplinary and international collaboration that resulted in much improved collaborative research (CRN 2) projects. At this point also, the foundations were laid upon which to later build bridges toward policy.
More recently, at a 2016 forum for CRN 3 held at Mar del Plata Argentina, another novel setting was provided – a sort of night club or events venue on the oceanfront. The informal ambience, a bit confusing at first, acted as a massive ice breaker to ease tensions, lessen turf protection, and loosen the different and sometimes formal mindsets of government representatives from many levels and the sometimes equally rigid scientists from several countries. The combination of the curious and beautiful location, a no necktie, informal feel, and a seemingly endless supply of croissants and coffee provided an excellent vehicle for achieving breakthroughs among the stakeholders present.
As a background to the meeting, the IAI, and a selected few government decision makers were keenly aware that forming an effective, working nexus between two worlds – science and policy – is fundamental if what is being learned about global change is to be duly incorporated into policy. These policies must take into account findings on existing or emerging risks as well as its management or how to take the necessary precautions to avoid further degradation, or in some cases, to take advantage of favorable situations that may arise from global change.
Among our findings were that spaces do exist for the communication of scientific results to policy formulators and the general public. However, if these spaces are not filled by the scientists or specialists working closely with them, they tend to be taken over by newspapers, TV, bloggers, Facebook, Twitter, etc. Scientists should be confident enough to display their findings openly. Otherwise, a risk exists for non-fact-based opinions to lower the barrier and prevent the policy-science dialog from moving forward. We found that scientists are nowhere near to being the sole providers of data to decision makers. Other sources include representatives of the financial, legal, and political sectors as well as the general public, and unfortunately too often from sources with biased opinions. All sources believe they are in the right and politicians feel they have to hear multiple voices in order to be inclusive and politically correct. We decided that science must be not just another voice, but the most robust.
We also found that while scientists deal with uncertainty on a daily basis, the understanding of uncertainty is not common in the public sector. Acting upon probabilistic information may be difficult for many politicians. One of the most important realizations from our discussions was that uncertainty is the common condition of our world and certitude will rarely be attainable on complex issues. But, this should not be a reason not to enact public policy. One of the major functions of bringing science and policymakers together, as IAI has done, is so that scientists can understand they need a better way to communicate results including associated uncertainties; and that policymakers need to learn to ask the right questions, understand that the replies will be uncertain, and move the dialogue forward toward decisions and action by building upon this uncertain knowledge.
We also learned during three long, exhausting, but extremely useful workdays that mixed research networks are a key approach for achieving science-policy goals. These networks are horizontal (including researchers, NGOs, producers and other stakeholders) and vertical (the several levels of government), with partners, included from the beginning of projects to ensure transparency, legitimacy, and credibility. Research networks can be one of the best forums where the public can make their voices heard in time for action. Other methods, such as listening sessions, public understanding projects and dialogue exercises as well as scenario-based learning games, can enrich this process. New networking nodes and connections were formed during the meeting. Connections among scientists and higher-level decision makers were made on the fly to aid in land and water management, in several cases between scientists and decision makers who were not aware of each other’s existence. The need to develop methods to identify “champions” who can serve as enthusiastic focal points in ministries and research institutions was recognized.
The meeting was also used to inform on sectoral projects in CRN 3 networks. One highlight was the area of public health related to climate change. It was clear that more and better data are needed. Beyond this, as public health is concerned with improving and saving lives, it was manifest that biophysical, socioeconomic scientists and political decision makers must work together before disease outbreaks strike. These collaborations may lead to truly useable early warning systems and other mechanisms for relaying technical information to authorities for health disaster prevention and relief. A strong need to include culture in these studies was recognized as local mindsets are often out of sync with if not opposed to the scientific view.
The IAI has stated, that it “generates high quality scientific knowledge on global change which, although in principle of interest for decision making in various sectors, requires an additional effort and dialogues, the building of partnerships with other organizations and implementation of a public communication strategy. Using that time-honored scientific technique – observation – in my role as eye witness and participant, I can state with confidence that I know no other research institution that understands this process better than the IAI. The results are not only of the “expected” kind, but tangible ones begin to emerge. Connections among scientists and decision makers, innovations in the processes of knowledge generation and sharing, all bode well for Latin American science and for public policy designed to deal with global change; kudos to IAI for them.