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Ecosystems In the Age of Cassandra

As Warnings Mount, How Can We Speed Science into Policymaking?

red fish in coral reef off Maui, Hawaii SOURCE: flickr/belindah A coral reef off the island of Maui.

Just within the past month, several news items underscored the dire situation our oceans face. Chemists warned that we must focus more attention on ocean acidification. As the seas absorb more CO2 emissions, pH levels decrease and wreak havoc on marine life, which is why the phenomenon is also called the “evil twin of global warming.” Meanwhile, biologists warned that not enough attention is focused on the rapid extinction of the world’s species, some of which will disappear before we’ve discovered them. Just as researchers sounded those alarms, fishermen sought the cause of the collapse of California’s Chinook salmon fishery and marine biologists tried to determine the cause of a new disease spreading across Maui’s coral reefs. And that was all before a BP-operated oil rig exploded in the Gulf of Mexico and began spewing thousands of gallons a day of crude into the sea.

Humans have undeniably changed the chemistry and biology of planet Earth. We are now faced with the consequences of our actions as fish stocks collapse and diseases spread across ecosystems. As a Ph.D. student in marine biology, I’ve learned this truth from the world’s most prominent scientists. I’ve also watched coral reefs rot away before my very eyes. The oceans are indeed running out of fish and clean water. Together, these stories are crucially important for the world’s food supply, for human health, and thus for public policy. Why, then, do my fellow scientists struggle so mightily to get the public’s attention?

We scientists write journal articles, issue press releases, give lectures and interviews, contribute to blogs, build websites, make movies, and sit on advisory panels. But when the time to act is now, scientists still need better tools to get research relevant to policymaking directly into the hands of decision makers.

In his recent New York Times editorial, Adam Cohen called this the “Age of Cassandra” after the prophet from Greek mythology whose warnings were true but never heeded. Why, Cohen wondered, if experts predicted the flooding damage of Hurricane Katrina, picked up on the terrorist activity that preceded the September 11th attacks, and detected the fraudulence of Bernie Madoff a decade ago, are “well-founded warnings so often ignored”? Perhaps the struggle to sell a carefully honed expert opinion is not unique to science, but a burden shared by professions as diverse as civil engineering, intelligence gathering, and finance.

As it stands, scientists issue warnings and predictions in their publications, each momentarily covered by the media and barely heard by policymakers. A few years later, the scientists update the warning or confirm that the prophecy has become reality. The fishery completely collapsed. The corals were killed off by disease. Just as we predicted. We could have done something.

A crucial reason for this attention gap is the vast difference between the pace of science and the pace of journalism. I believe this disparity, once a nuisance to scientists, is now tremendously dangerous for society.

Scientific research requires years to plan, fund, conduct, analyze, and publish. Journalism operates with a one-day attention span. Therefore, an important scientific discovery that takes years to achieve will receive a short press release and, at most, one day of news coverage, even if it is critically important for society and for public policy. After years of development, it takes only 24 hours for a scientific discovery to become old news. Science shouldn’t be circulated for a day and then locked away behind a subscription wall. It should be a far more accessible form of information.

To shorten the distance between the laboratory and the policymaker’s desk, we should first knock down this pay wall and make more research freely available through open access databases. Especially when it is crucial for public policy, a research paper based on science supported by federal funds should be available open-access. Once liberated, scientific papers will be easier for policy experts to evaluate in real time. While the Internet has helped push some scientific journals toward open-access, Congress could support this step by passing the Federal Research Public Access Act, which would mandate that research papers financed by many federal agencies be posted online within six months of their publication date.

In addition to open-access publishing rules, a system for experts to highlight research that is critical for urgent policy decisions—like those that could save depleted fisheries —would help scientists to solve real-world problems much faster.

Because scientific knowledge is crafted through a formalized process—with repeated measurements, statistical analysis, peer review, and editor oversight—researchers already have an infrastructure to identify the most urgent findings and, potentially, move them to the policymaker’s desk.

For all of the relevant journals, editors and reviewers could assign each scientific article a priority rating during the review process to reflect its importance for policymaking and environmental management, and a single database could then collect this information. There will be debate over the relevance and urgency of some findings, but anonymous peer review and evaluation by an editorial board is a better system than most for making these kinds of value judgments. It is a system in which scientists operate quite comfortably, and it affords some protection from political influence.

As traditional journalism continues to erode and science journalism has been washed to sea, this type of information shortcut from scientist to policymaker is needed more than ever. Policymakers cannot wade through dozens of scientific journals and parse from the flood of papers what is most urgent. And they cannot wait years for reports from NGOs and working groups. Fisheries collapse and corals die much faster than consensus documents are written. Policymakers need a way to get closer to key information, faster, without relying on journalists. It is now up to scientists and scientific journals to make this happen.

I believe that any policymaker should be able to consult a single database, type “salmon run” or ”coral reef decline” into a search box, and immediately see the most authoritative and important scientific knowledge on that subject, with policy recommendations alongside.

In addition, each scientific article in this system should be accompanied by a summary for the broader public. In this curated collection of policy-relevant research, scholarly commentary and debate over the findings and their urgency should be indexed alongside the original work. News and blog coverage could be linked in real time as well.

Importantly, the database would also have links to the original scientific articles, made available at no cost or accessible through an open access policy. Access to this knowledge should be free. Furthermore, managers, scientists, and policymakers in developing countries deserve an opportunity to avoid mistakes already made by others. Scientific knowledge is meticulously crafted, but it should never be a luxury item.

Scientists may object to a ranking system that so clearly places value on applied science versus basic research. In addition to citations and press coverage, this could be yet another form of attention for which scientists feel they must compete. But science cannot advance policy through a single day of news coverage or by garnering a large number of citations over the course of a decade. Nor can it bear swiftly and heavily on policy while locked behind a subscription wall.

As a young scientist in a changing world, I am often told that communications skills are the key to making a difference. But if we simply invent new ways to mix the slow craft of science with the nearly extinct craft of science journalism, we’ll never save a rapidly dying planet. This may be the Age of Cassandra, but it is also the Age of Google. In this brave new world, science itself must be more brave, honest, and transparent by subjecting itself to new forms of ranking, sorting, and publicizing. Science produces some of the world’s most powerful information and we should be harnessing the full power of the information age to compile this knowledge and transmit it to policymakers. Otherwise we will simply be documenting, in exquisite detail but out of earshot of our decision makers, the death of planet Earth. From what I have learned underwater, in the literature, and from my mentors, science has enough of the world’s problems to tackle without being a problem in itself.

Kristen L. Marhaver is a Ph.D. Candidate in Marine Biology at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography in La Jolla, California.

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