Environmental policy

Why it’s time we change the way we debate science

Three penguins fight on a brown rock

Many scientists are working to provide better understanding and inform more sustainable decisions in society. Unfortunately, the scientific process itself often leads to locked-in debates that are unnecessarily polarized, a new paper argues. Photo: L. Ma/Unsplash

New study suggests three ways to change how researchers interact in order to increase science’s capacity to inform sustainable decisions

Story highlights

  • The way scientists develop scientific understanding can lead to problems with environmental science’s capacity to inform decision making
  • Polarized views and locked-in debates that compromise shared goals are common, but often unnecessary
  • Better awareness of differences of perspectives, the expert’s roles and the consequences of unavoidable uncertainty would improve researcher interactions and scientific impact in environmental policy-making

AGREE TO DISAGREE: “Failures to disagree" are essential for environmental science to effectively influence policy development”. This is the main conclusion and title of a new article published in the journal Ecology Letters.

It is also a reference to a paper by American scholars David Kahneman and Garry Klein who in the early 2000s lowered their guards and turned what seemed to be a locked-in debate into a collaboration that improved their discipline. The two even became good friends.

Scientific debates, controversies and conflicts are needed, useful and even fun, but locked-in debates can stall progress and significantly reduce the usefulness of science for societal decision making.

Thorsten Blenckner, co-author

Heated debate on tipping points

Many scientists in the fields of ecology and environment are working to provide better understanding and inform more sustainable decisions in society. Unfortunately, the scientific process itself often leads to locked-in debates that are unnecessarily polarized.

As an example, the new paper looks into the often heated tipping point debate which discusses whether or not it is common for ecosystems to switch abruptly to an alternative stable state, e.g. from a closed canopy rainforest to a dry savannah ecosystem.

Very different kinds of sustainability policy would would need to be developed depending on which theories and observational evidence about tipping points are fed into decision-making processes.

The authors then describe three other similar debates and draw the conclusion that “ecology and environmental sciences as a whole are especially vulnerable to locked-in debates”.

One reason for this, they write, is the dominant role in research of single hypothesis testing, often focusing on theory demonstration instead of investigation.

Other reasons include the structure of academic funding and publishing systems and the urgent demands for science to inform policy.

No time for personal bias and gains

To change this tendency and increase the effectiveness of the scientific advice provided for environmental management and governance, the authors have three main suggestions to ecologists and other environmental scientists:

1. Be aware of the different perspectives and discipline-based contexts that researchers work in

2. Understand the sequence of theory development and one's own role in it

3. Be aware of the consequences of unavoidable uncertainty in scientific predictions and estimates.

“When environmental challenges are intensifying everywhere we look, we cannot afford for human biases and personal gains and status to weaken science and stand in the way of efforts to improve our common understanding and decision making,” the authors conclude.

Link to publication

Black circles show the stances of promoters and critics of a given theory, and shaded ovals represent different evidence sources or system definitions. In A promoters and critics come to divergent conclusions that support locked-in debate. In B, researchers additionally use different perspectives, such as a local versus regional scale, or field vs modelling, to interpret the evidence, further reducing the overlap between camps and thus contributing to conflicting policy advice. In C both proponents and critics broaden and bridge their understanding of other scientific contexts and perspectives in ways that can lead to more constructive debate and scientifically richer policy advice.

Published: 2022-02-25