Conservation Science and Public Policy: Only the Beginning
Article first published online: 24 DEC 2001
Volume 13, Issue 3, pages 463–464, June 1999
How to Cite
Meffe, G. K. (1999), Conservation Science and Public Policy: Only the Beginning. Conservation Biology, 13: 463–464. doi: 10.1046/j.1523-1739.1999.00088.x
- Issue published online: 24 DEC 2001
- Article first published online: 24 DEC 2001
In my editorial in the August 1998 issue, I tentatively explored the world of conservation policy and made a plea for conservation scientists to inform policymakers in a more sophisticated and organized way than we now do. Unbeknownst to me at the time of that writing, the theme of the June 1999 annual meeting of the Society for Conservation Biology (SCB) at the University of Maryland would be “Integrating Policy and Science in Conservation Biology.” This is an opportune time to renew that plea and for the SCB to make solid advances toward fulfilling it.
Toward those ends, I have solicited three important papers that appear in the Diversity section of this issue, just in time to stimulate discussion at the annual meeting. Three prominent individuals experienced in conservation policy at high levels all weigh in with relevant perspectives. Bruce Babbitt, U.S. Secretary of the Interior; Jamie Rappaport Clark, Director of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service; and David Blockstein, Senior Scientist at the Committee for the National Institutes for the Environment offer their ideas with respect to new, risky, landscape-level approaches to conservation. I intend their statements to be springboards toward more in-depth conversations among us all, both in the journal and beyond it, at the meeting and long afterward.
These are difficult and controversial issues. Some readers will question our having these discussions at all, but ultimately they are necessary and unavoidable if our science is to have more than occasional and merely fortuitous influence on major environmental policy. We will not all agree on the approaches, especially when our science intersects deeply with and ultimately is heavily challenged (and sometimes adulterated) by politics. But that only strengthens the argument that good science consistently and tirelessly must be brought to bear on the large policy questions of the day. If we do not do it, it will not happen.
The Secretary, the Director, and Dr. Blockstein all offer clues about how we, individually and as a scientific body, might proceed into this unfamiliar territory. There will be honest and perhaps heated disagreements as a result, and that is good; we are in a period of defining ourselves and determining how to proceed. But proceed we will. For example, earlier this year SCB President Dee Boersma convened a study in cooperation with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in which the SCB will critically evaluate endangered species recovery plans. Eighteen universities are now holding graduate seminars and will analyze in detail over 200 of the 500 existing recovery plans. The results will be used to formulate suggestions for how to facilitate the recovery of endangered species. This initiative is an excellent example of how we can bring good science directly into conservation policy.
I sense within the scientific community an ongoing tension between idealism and pragmatism, between what ideally should be done based on the science and what practically can be accomplished based on ugly political realities. This is a legitimate and important debate. The idealists would like conservation models applied in their pure and complete form, arguing that nature has already been so disturbed and distorted that further compromise is no longer acceptable. Pragmatists argue that, painful as it is, the only realistic way to make headway is to sit down with those of different perspectives and find compromise solutions to complex problems, while remaining flexible on application of the science. These are difficult issues. Who is right? Can we make progress by being inflexibly enshrined on the scientific high ground? Can we afford anything less than holding tightly to that high ground, given the global environmental situation? How much do we lose by being pragmatic? How far dare we go before the science is too compromised to be recognizable or to provide any real good, before we have become part of the problem?
Such dilemmas are nicely illustrated by habitat conservation plans presently being pursued in the United States and discussed by both Babbitt and Clark. Are they merely giveaways to corporate landowners, driven by politics and disguised as progressive policy? Or are they the best we can do given the inevitable effects of continual human population growth and consumption? Are they simply politically feasible approaches that placate environmentalists while allowing development with a minor nod toward the green end of the spectrum? Or are they true innovations in approaching habitat conservation? The answers are far from clear, they surely vary from plan to plan, they typically are dirtied by special interests and politics, and they ultimately will require the types of conversations we begin here.
Part of the problem is inherent in our respective institutional cultures and our inability to function effectively outside of them. Many scientists have the luxury of working in an idealized world and seeking application of theory to practice with no real understanding of the difficulties of applied ecology. Likewise, resource managers and policymakers often are unwilling or unprepared to understand the science and instead simply do what is politically expedient and what has always been done, rather than stretching the bounds of institutions and taking risks. Both cultures need to change, and both need to understand better the constraints, opportunities, and challenges of each others’ domains. But most of all, we need open, honest exchanges on the science, free of political pressure, hidden agendas, and special interests; such exchanges have not, to date, occurred as frequently as is needed.
I have, however, witnessed some distinct advances and causes for optimism. For example, natural resource agencies in the United States are embracing adaptive rather than prescriptive management, opening up dialogues with the scientific community, learning about and incorporating modern conservation biology into their jobs, and investing heavily in ongoing professional training in the scientific aspects of their work. Scientists are interacting more often and in more meaningful ways with policymakers and resource managers, and in the process are learning about real-world constraints ranging from budget nightmares to changing institutional demands to real pressures from meddling, uninformed, and sometimes unscrupulous politicians. These forays into new worlds are a good start and need to continue.
But this is only the start of the conversation; it will need to develop over coming years and decades. Our annual meeting is an important first step. I invite sustained discussion in this journal of the interface between science and policy, a discussion that I hope will reflect our growing experience and sophistication.
Finally, I recognize that my words thus far have a decided, nay, a complete bias toward the United States, and for that I apologize. I dearly hope this is just a temporary situation in this journal, and that non-U.S. policy will be discussed very soon. I beg the reader’s indulgence to understand that the journal and the SCB are housed in the United States, that this is what we are most familiar with, and that this is where our own policy experiences originate. Undoubtedly we in the United States need to learn from models elsewhere, even as we export our experiences to other corners of the world. For ultimately, national political boundaries are largely if not completely irrelevant to conservation questions, and experiences gained throughout the world, at all levels, will help to fashion a collective wisdom and forge a solid bond between science and policy. This is only the beginning.