Stage-managed: scientists and the Danish Prime Minister (far right) at the Copenhagen Climate Congress.
(Don't) Blame it on Rio
15 June 2012
Thousands of people will be in Rio for the UN's Earth Summit 2012 next week, hoping to bring about meaningful plans for reducing global poverty, improving social equity, and protecting the environment of our ever-more crowded planet.
Paul van Gardingen tells us why he'll be pressing for scientific evidence to be at the heart of those plans.
The three-day Earth Summit (aka Rio+20), which kicks off on 20 June, will inevitably be the subject of intense, international media scrutiny. Every proclamation and decision will be pored over, every target analysed and debated, and the whole process will be critiqued and instantly reported around the world to an audience of billions.
Based on much of the media coverage, you could be forgiven for thinking that meetings like Rio+20 are all talk and little action – certainly that was how the 2009 Copenhagen climate-change negotiations were presented to the world. But even at Copenhagen, important and far-reaching decisions were made.
Rio+20 is expected to deliver a set of Sustainable Development Goals, but the meeting itself will be just the start of the process. Only when the summit is over and the officials have caught up on their sleep will the really hard work begin, the weeks and months spent behind the scenes making sure the best research-derived evidence is used in pursuit of these goals.
I say hard work because it is. Any academic researcher or policy-maker who ever tried to engage with the other party will tell you how each speaks a different language, and fails to appreciate the processes, timescales, and the level of detail, they need to do their job. It is a wonder any evidence-based policies are formed at all.
But they are. And while critics argue that science still isn't used nearly enough in decision-making, the mechanisms for doing so are improving all the time.
April saw the official launch of the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES). It has been dubbed in some quarters an 'IPCC for nature' (IPPC being the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change), and its remit is to collate and synthesise findings from the latest environmental research and make this knowledge accessible to governments around the world.
If this initiative learns from the IPCC's approach – taking many sources of research evidence, looking for their wider applicability, and seeking novel ways of feeding that into policy and practice – then it can only help improve evidence-based decision making.
This approach is also at the very heart of the UK's £40-million Ecosystem Services for Poverty Alleviation (ESPA) programme, which looks at how environmental stewardship can help alleviate poverty across the globe.
ESPA projects work with community groups, like this one in Bangladesh
In poor countries, people's livelihoods are often closely linked to the land, but wealth-creation initiatives often destroy the very environment people depend on. Mineral extraction or intensive agriculture, for example, undoubtedly contribute to economic growth but can affect soils and water quality so badly that the people who literally live off the land are significantly worse off. ESPA was set up to help redress this balance, finding ways to improve incomes while protecting the environment and people's quality of life.
A few years into the programme, we are starting to see new research findings and genuine, productive interactions between our researchers and policy-makers.
A great example is the creation of the world's first environmental-health index using long-term historical data sets. The FTSE 100-style tracker can show, at a glance, changes over time in six key ecological 'stocks', including air and water quality. It matches those changes to historical periods of change – such as population growth, industrialisation and intensified farming – and the social and economic policies that have brought these about.
Such headline indicators make the science much more accessible to policy-makers, who can then quickly see the impact policy decisions have had in human and environmental terms over time. In this case the research team also produced a Google Earth application and some animated graphics to further improve communication with government staff.
But this clever presentation is simply the front end of detailed and rigorous science, which was peer-reviewed and published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. Indeed, the extensive study of lake sediment cores that provided the environmental data for the index will be used by many other scientists as well as resource managers. But such innovative communication tools can make all the difference when the research evidence is put in front of policy-makers.
This particular study is also freely available as an open access publication. I believe breaking down barriers to knowledge in this way is crucial for research to be used where it is most needed. Another important factor in the successful communication of the research, and one at the heart of ESPA's approach, is that the research team included Chinese academics and used local knowledge.
And whilst the blueprint for this eco-index was developed in China, it is equally applicable across the globe: we have already funded its further application in Bangladesh.
I'll be spending my time in Rio using examples like this to advocate more and more effective, use of research evidence. And I hope you will be able to see beyond the conference's headlines and soundbites and be assured there is some method in the madness!
Paul van Gardingen is Director of ESPA, Professor of International Development at the University of Edinburgh, and holds the UNESCO Chair of International Development. Email: email@example.com
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