Science: Who Needs It?


Understandably, the recent national excitement in the United States about rediscovery of the Ivory-billed Woodpecker was nearly universal; it was good news that excited scientists and laypersons alike. But at about the same time (March 2005) the release of the largest-ever assessment of the health of the planet's ecosystems—the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment (MA)—was barely noticed in the United States. Elsewhere in the world there was extensive media coverage of the press briefings held in London, Tokyo, Beijing, Delhi, Cairo, Nairobi, Rome, Paris, Stockholm, Brasilia, and Sao Paulo. Many members of the Society for Conservation Biology (SCB) participated in preparing the MA, and members in most countries probably saw some coverage of the launch. But if you live in the United States, chances are you did not see much at all.

The remarkable nonevent of the MA launch in the United States, particularly in contrast to the extensive coverage in other regions, is but one example of a trend of weakening influence of scientific information on public attitudes and decision making in the United States concerning the environment. And it would be a mistake to dismiss this threat to science as being the short-term product of the current political alignment: the roots extend more deeply into the U.S. culture and institutional landscape.

For those readers who did miss it, the MA is a 4-year-long assessment modeled on the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). The assessment focuses on the consequences of ecosystem change for human well-being. Thus, it not only addresses issues that an “IPCC for Biodiversity” would address but also examines how changes in biodiversity and ecosystem services are affecting people and what can be done to better meet human needs and conserve ecosystems. Governments requested information from the assessment through four international conventions (biodiversity, wetlands, desertification, and migratory species) and the process was governed by a multistakeholder board that included governments, business, nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), and indigenous peoples. Some 1360 experts from 95 countries were involved, the process included 33 subglobal assessments, and nearly 1000 experts and governments took part in a peer review of the findings overseen by an independent board of review editors.

The core findings of the assessment, released in a detailed, 140-page synthesis report (available at, are sobering and will come as no surprise to the SCB membership: (1) humans have changed ecosystems more extensively in the past 50 years than over any comparable period of time in human history; (2) these changes have contributed to substantial net gains in human well-being but at growing costs in the form of degradation of 60% of ecosystem services assessed, increased risks of nonlinear change (such as disease emergence, fisheries collapse, and hypoxia), and exacerbation of poverty for some groups of people; (3) the degradation of ecosystem services could grow significantly worse during the next 50 years and is a major barrier to achieving goals of poverty reduction, food security, and improved health; and (4) the challenge of reversing ecosystem degradation while meeting increasing demands for their services can be met under some plausible scenarios, but this will require significant changes in policies, institutions, and practices that are not currently under way. September of this year saw publication by Island Press of the technical volumes—totaling some 2500 pages—on which those findings were based.

Although media coverage was never the primary vehicle for communicating the MA findings (which are geared toward decision makers), coverage was nevertheless important to give the report the “buzz” that would help it be taken seriously. Some 29 wire services ran the story of the release of the findings in nine languages on the day of its release. Hundreds of newspapers around the world carried the story; it was front page in papers such as Le Monde (France), the Guardian (United Kingdom), both leading papers in the Netherlands, both leading papers in Norway, and Folha de Sao Paulo in Brazil. It was covered on the evening broadcast news in countries ranging from the United Kingdom and Italy to India, and CNN International ran the story repeatedly. The BBC's Earth Report ran two half-hour programs covering the MA in the week before the launch. The Economist covered the launch and two weeks later ran a cover story (“Rescuing Environmentalism and the Planet”) and lead editorial that were prompted largely by the MA release.

In Norway the largest TV channel broadcast an evening debate of the MA findings involving the minister of the environment and interviewed the minister on the morning news program the next day. In the United Kingdom, the minister of environment took part in the MA launch and the minister of the Department for International Development stated in Parliament that the MA findings strengthen the base for action on poverty and environment. Within the private sector, the World Economic Forum featured the MA findings at a June meeting of young chief executive officers, government ministers, and other leading figures focused on major global challenges. Among grassroots efforts, students in Europe organized a “flash mob” in June in response to the MA release.

On 1 April, while returning from the London press conference, I watched the MA coverage on the Heathrow Express riding to the airport, watched it again on CNN International while waiting for my flight, got off the plane in San Francisco and … it was as if the MA did not exist. There were a few exceptions. It was front page in one paper in Seattle, the Washington Post ran the story in a prominent location, and National Public Radio covered it. The broadcast media did not mention the release. The New York Times coverage was emblematic. Apart from a brief announcement of the launch, their actual coverage ran about a week later, in the Science Times section on page 3, upstaged by an article on snake venom.

Why were the MA findings not a story in the United States when they were widely covered elsewhere? The fact that the report was prepared under the auspices of the United Nations (and the Secretary-General formally announced the launch of the findings) helps increase the visibility of the report in most countries, but may actually be a detriment in the United States, with its relatively high level of skepticism of all things UN. The “important” media stories at the end of March (Michael Jackson's trial, the Terry Schiavo debate, and the illness of the Pope) were perhaps more competitive in the United States than elsewhere. And U.S. commercial media outlets have significantly reduced the number of environment reporters in recent years.

The factor that worries me most is what I see to be a form of self-censorship of science that is now taking place in the United States. Perhaps most of the blame lies with commercial media wanting to run stories that people want to hear and the public wanting to hear stories that provide them entertainment. But a contributing factor is that many of the very organizations that historically have helped push scientific findings to the forefront of policy debates are now openly skeptical of the importance and utility of scientific information.

NGOs and foundations in the United States were instrumental in creating the MA. The idea first arose at the World Resources Institute. The Packard Foundation provided the grant that enabled the assessment to be launched, and several smaller foundations (Summitt, Wallace Global, and Christensen Fund) provided critical grants at various stages. But at the time of the release of the findings, many foundation representatives that I spoke with questioned the utility of the MA, arguing that people already know what the environmental problems are and what the solutions are, and that a global assessment is useful only when there are critical global decisions (such as the Kyoto Protocol) in play. And, foundations were concerned about the “message” of the assessment. One of the most important findings of the assessment, for example, is the strong evidence of a vicious spiral of ecosystem degradation and poverty in dryland ecosystems. But the reaction from one sympathetic foundation officer was that their media consultants and polling have shown that the U.S. public “doesn't want to hear” about these issues and that the outreach needs to focus on more positive messages.

NGOs in the United States were somewhat more receptive and some (e.g., World Resources Institute, Heinz Center, Natural Resources Defense Council, The Nature Conservancy, and Island Press) have actively sought to promote the findings, but most NGOs had reactions similar to those of the foundations. Time and again NGOs said the reason for the poor coverage was that “the U.S. public does not want to hear negative news” and that the assessment needed to frame its findings around positive steps and actions.

The tail is beginning to wag the dog in the United States when it comes to the use of scientific information concerning the environment. To break through the cacophony of messages confronting the U.S. public, not only is the mainstream media telling people what they want to hear but now even the environmental organizations and their funders are shifting to this mode and not telling people what they need to hear. It is helpful to include positive messages, but if people do not even understand that a problem exists, what is the point of a positive message? Yes, some people do already know what the environmental problems are, but neither the scientist author of a recent best-selling novel nor my father-in-law believes human actions are causing the climate to change.

We are witnessing a period of remarkable globalization of information and commerce, juxtaposed against an increasing isolation of the world's great superpower, the United States, on issues of security, climate policy, and international development. We may need to add “the use of science” to the list of items isolating the United States. The United States remains at the forefront of scientific research, but there are few countries where the tensions are greater concerning the acceptance and use of scientific information. In a 2001 survey, the National Science Foundation found that only 53% of the U.S. public accepts the theory that humans are the product of evolution, far below the acceptance in Europe (typically about 70%). Alternatives to the teaching of evolution are now being debated in more than 40 states. And more than 6000 scientists have signed a statement prepared by the Union of Concerned Scientists voicing their concerns about the misuse of science by the current U.S. administration.

At this time of dramatic global change, science is needed ever more urgently to cope with unparalleled risks and opportunities. But within the United States, the influence of scientific information concerning the environment on public attitudes and decision making is under threat.

As a mission-driven group of professionals, these issues lie at the very heart of our organization. They matter not just for U.S. members but for all SCB members because U.S. actions will be key to tackling many of the global conservation challenges. It is more urgent than ever that the findings of our research be brought to the attention of the public and policy makers in the United States. Science news should not be restricted to positive stories about the Ivory-billed Woodpecker. The media, NGOs, and environmental foundations have a responsibility to inform the public about issues that many would rather ignore.