The politics of policy
Interview: Professor Nick Hanley & Dr Meriwether Wilson…
The politics of policy
Interview: Professor Nick Hanley & Dr Meriwether Wilson
The marine environment is one of the most complex and mysterious places on Earth, and human beings have a major impact on the state of the oceans and the health of the flora and fauna that inhabit the depths – not just through pollution and carbon emissions, fisheries and energy projects (renewables as well as oil and gas), but also government policies...
“Policy making is a messy, sometimes chaotic, process because it needs to include social, electoral, ethical, cultural, practical, legal and economic considerations in addition to scientific evidence,” wrote Professor Ian Boyd – Chief Scientific Adviser to the UK Department of Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra), and Professor of Biology at the University of St Andrews – in a recent article in eLIFE.
Marine scientists (including biologists and ecologists), environmental economists and scientific advisers are under increasing pressure to rise to the policy challenge. There are many stakeholders involved. Lots of people are worried about issues such as climate change (rising sea levels and acidification, etc.), water quality and declining fish populations, whilst the fishing industry wants fishing quotas relaxed. The oil and gas industry wants to exploit more hard-to-access resources, whilst renewables firms want to install more offshore wind turbines, as well as wave and tidal energy systems. There are also many questions. What is the value of the natural environment and marine resources? Should we focus on protecting rare species or relatively common species such as cod? What about protecting “normal” habitats which may be ignored because they are so common? And Government (including the planning authorities) must try to answer all of these questions and balance all of these interests, relying on the scientists for evidence and for advice.
The major issues facing the policy makers include:
- The designation of marine protected areas
(e.g. cold-water coral reefs) – where, what restrictions, costs and benefits.
- Marine energy – where to site renewables.
- Bathing waters – how to implement tougher quality standards.
- The marine strategy framework directive – how to protect resources.
- Invasive species – understanding and managing pathways to invasion; e.g., via ships and platforms which can be “stepping stones” for migrating species, and “range-shifting” species which migrate as sea temperatures change.
- Fisheries – a complex political issue because of competing interests (environmentalists versus industry) and the different levels of government involved (Scottish, UK, EU and trans-boundary organisations).
In addition, scientists are growing more concerned about rising sea levels and the need to update policies on flood management – and prepare for the future. This requires cost-benefit analysis of ‘soft’ flood defences (e.g., salt marshes and mud flats) versus ‘hard’ flood defences (e.g., dykes and walls). There is also concern about huge swings in seabird populations over the last 30 years – e.g., the decline in kittiwakes in the Firth of Forth. Is the problem caused by lower numbers of sand eels, or is it an unexpected consequence of improved water quality measures? And what can we do about it? Another issue attracting more attention in Scotland is the status of our “isolated” or vulnerable coast – places which are not yet protected but where human activity and populations are rising. Should we protect them from development?
Sometimes, the science can be ahead of policy and therefore help to shape the future approach. At other times, the science has to follow in the wake of decisions, but can monitor the results so policies can be modified accordingly. Sometimes, policy can reinforce positive or negative situations, and create problems as well as solve them. There can also be “ripple effects” which take everyone by surprise.
Scientists and policy makers sometimes disagree with each other, but scientists can also disagree amongst themselves, whilst economics adds a further level of complexity. Most funding in the past was directed at so-called blue-sky research, but applied research is getting more attention every year, taking economic value into account more than ever before, along with ecological concerns. “There used to be a bias against applied work,” says Dr Meriwether Wilson, Lecturer in Marine Science and Policy at the University of Edinburgh, “but now we need answers – we have to prove we make a difference, and we must demonstrate impact.”
According to Wilson (left), economics has helped to depoliticise and demystify a lot of the debate about policy matters, by providing “tangible equations” which help to persuade policy makers to do “the right thing.” For example, studies have measured the impact of placing wind farms 1km offshore compared to 5km, thus providing a benchmark for future developments. Wilson also thinks that some developments (e.g., offshore wind farms) present us with many unknowns – will they be good or bad for the environment? – but that considering other factors such as visual amenity can help to steer decisions in the right direction. “The science can be well behind the policy questions,” she adds, but at least when the structures are built, scientists can observe what happens, and the environmental impact on marine life also has to take account of the potential benefits of renewable energy, compared to the alternatives.
Cost-benefit analysis is now used more widely in making decisions about the environment, and the environment itself is now regarded as an asset. Professor Nick Hanley, the MASTS Coastal Zone Forum Convenor and Professor of Economics at the University of Stirling, explains that 50 years ago, planners simply looked at basic factors such as the cost of a project and the value of what it produces (e.g., a hydroelectric power station). Conservationists were largely ignored. Nowadays, however, doing impact analysis and placing a value on the environment (e.g., wetlands) help to make better decisions. And by considering the economic and environmental factors, says Wilson, “we have moved away from the development versus conservation paradigm to a more open concept that allows deep evaluation by economists.”
“If you ignore the costs and benefits of government policy,” Hanley (right) continues, ”you can make some really bad mistakes.” Wilson sees policy as “a dynamic and influential process, an axis of alignment between social expectation, what resources can deliver and ensuring that the ecosystem is not degraded or over-used” in the process. Policy is also multi-scalar, says Wilson, because it involves local authorities as well as the Scottish Government, the UK Government and international bodies, and this means that policies sometimes match the scale and sometimes do not. “Policies can be very powerful and positive alignment tools but they can't always address the full spatial and temporal scale of actions over time,” she adds. “The science part may have a biophysical expression, whilst the policy might exaggerate the decline in fish populations or encourage a reduced take.”
Is the marine environment more complex to deal with in policy terms than the terrestrial environment? There are some parallels, says Wilson, between watershed management and marine management (in terms of trans-boundary systems), but the issues are “multidimensional” as you move out from the shallows to the deep sea. You also have to factor in current dynamics, multiple species and multiple environmental spheres. “The policies are dynamic and the environments are also dynamic,” she says. “It is hard to get perfect alignment, coming from the more two-dimensional terrestrial system (including coastal management) to the three-dimensional marine system, where you can’t access, see or touch what's there. It's mysterious in magical ways, but also mysterious in terms of actual knowledge, so we are also very dependent on technology such as remote sensors. We now have a better visual cognisance of marine systems, but a lack of tangibility and understanding affects our policy biases.”
Hanley was brought in by MASTS five years ago to apply his economic techniques to the wider marine environment. Before then, he “never went into the sea.” Bioeconomic modelling in the past was largely limited to fisheries, and this “drove the conversation between biologists and economists,” but Hanley thinks that the methods used for the terrestrial environment translate very easily into the ocean. “Hardly anything is different, conceptually, anyway,” says Hanley, “apart from the deep sea. How we think about combining ecological and economic modelling, and how we think about the economic consequences of the way in which biodiversity responds, is the same. The thought processes are identical – asking who will gain and who will lose. The deep sea is like outer space, and almost as inaccessible; but we are starting to make progress in applying combined ecological–economic thinking to deep sea management issues.” Wilson says there are also different stakeholders involved but agrees that the process is largely the same.
The marine environment is also not completely strange, says Hanley, because people notice when they get sick after swimming or don't catch any fish. “They are well informed about the coastal area but not the deep sea – for example, it is hard to persuade people that we should protect cold-water coral reefs 200 metres down.” Wilson adds that this is when the “magical factor” can influence public opinion, by showing the intrinsic value of marine life – for example, how coral reefs are just as important as the rainforests, and how destroying one thing can affect other links in the chain. “Economics can also be the saviour,” says Wilson, because it quantifies resources.
Marine biologists and economists are working much closer together today to address all these issues. The renewables industry is raising new questions and the technology has greatly advanced, but the major difference in government attitudes over the years, according to both Wilson and Hanley, is a culture change – a recognition that we need more economic evidence, as well as scientific evidence, to make good policy decisions. There is more focus on the marine environment, but strategic impact assessment is now an integral part of the process; not just looking at short-term effects but thinking ahead 25 years from now, to consider the cumulative impact of multiple projects “in time and space” – an area where science can really contribute, says Wilson.
The Marine Alliance for Science and Technology for Scotland (MASTS) is not just an influence on policy but also a product of policy in the first place, created in 2008. “MASTS has opened up communications channels between the scientific and the policy community, as well as between universities,” says Hanley. “One major benefit has been to bring in more marine scientists to Scottish universities, working in multiple disciplines, and this creates an opportunity for scientists who used to work in comparative isolation to work much more closely together, and encourages a partnership approach.”
For Wilson, this also encourages more “joined-up thinking” and represents a philosophical shift, which means more dialogue and much more sharing of data. Ultimately, this could lead to greater economic efficiency, better science, better policy decisions – and a better environment for both humans and marine species.
The socio-economics of the sea
by Sam Anson (Head of the Marine Analytical Unit at the Scottish Government)
The one pre-requisite for socio-economics within marine policy, as with all science, is ensuring data availability of a sufficient quality – including spatial and temporal aspects – to provide robust, defensible evidence. This applies to all areas of policy, from marine planning to the Marine Strategy Framework Directive and to implementing Common Fisheries Policy reform. On a base level, this often means understanding the location and value of human activities, preferably with some view as to how these will alter over time. Becoming more analytical, it involves assessing drivers of behaviour and responses to change. Relevant examples would include the impact on tourism of offshore wind farms, or the nature of fisheries displacement following a Marine Protected Area designation.
Moving to a further scale of complexity, it is important that we understand the full range of benefits associated with environmental protection, including the value of ecosystem services. In a similar ‘intangible’ vein, we are interested in the indirect impacts of policy. For example, what changes might we observe in community structures and social outcomes as a result of any given policy change?
Of course, producing robust science is not an end in itself – it is also important for the science to have impact. Communication remains key on this front. First, to improve understanding of what economics can contribute: economics should illustrate how policy changes affect societal welfare (including jobs), and the trade-offs involved in any decision. When viewed this way, it is easier to understand its relevance to all policy decisions. Second, some of the methods that economists apply – for example, attempting to monetise aspects such as environmental preservation – do not sit comfortably with many from outside the discipline. Improved communication around the use of such techniques can help dispel any mistrust or scepticism.
Although socio-economics is now firmly entrenched within both the UK and Scottish marine science strategies, there is still more that could be done to raise its profile. It is heartening that the growing use of impact assessment and sustainability appraisal in recent years demonstrates the increasing demand for socio-economics as part of an integrated evidence base upon which to base decisions.