Rice on science advice: reference directions or reference points?

Rice, J. C. (2005). “Implementation of the Ecosystem Approach to Fisheries Management – Asynchronous co-evolution at the interface between science and policy.” Marine Ecology Progress Series 300: 265-270.
Jake Rice, who has been a terrestrial ecologist and more recently an active science advisor on fisheries management councils, nicely outlines the clash of cultures and gets at the root causes of problems when scientists advise policy makers and managers on EAF. Rice points out some of the more expected components of the science-policy clash – policy makers are not risk prone and favor stable policy for a number of valid reasons, while scientists work in narrow fields that often moves slowly and they don’t articulate needs in a way that is useful to policy makers.

But Rice goes on to get into the more curious part of this problem, which is that specifically in the area of EAF (and probably EBM in general) some scientists may be too far ahead of both policy makers and maybe the state of science itself. That is, scientists (especially ecologists) take a broad view that falls in line with an ecosystem approach to management, but the necessary tools to do that are not fully developed (but see here for some great new developments) and the scientific information is not there to fully support this idea (whether this is a merely a question of not having the data to see if findings from several studies suggesting ecosystem collapse are generalizable, or if it’s the more serious problem of those studies being wrong in the first place is an unresolved question). Certainly, scientists haven’t fully dealt with the issue of uncertainty (although an interesting approach is to embrace uncertainty, as suggested by Popper and colleagues from Rand Corporation). Rice deftly points out that this is a two way street – managers, the public and policy makers often demand that scientists simplify and keep on message (so they discard the uncertainty) and at the same time scientists in the EAF debate have often deliberately downplayed uncertainty or only focused on a few narrow components of the total uncertainty of dealing with ecosystems.

As Rice puts it, scientists may be “undersell[ing] the transition costs” to EBM, although he agrees with the basic message of reducing activities that damage ecosystems. The key is in the difference between advising about ‘reference directions’ (relatively easy) vs. identifying ‘reference points’ (difficult – something to be put off “until later”) [Note: in my own Ed Ricketts-influenced world view, this is a clear statement on the difficulty, and importance, of ‘non-teleological’ thinking – moving from the “should” to the “is”]. So here is the crux of the problem, according to Rice – scientists in EAF have purportedly been ahead of the game, which has spurred managers to be more bold in going for EAF, but when it comes down to defining real references points for where the ecosystem should be, we may quickly hit the limits of science.

I have a mixed view of this conclusion. There are good examples where it is true that scientists can’t seem to provide robust findings to back up EBM focused positions. Terri Klinger of UW spoke well on this topic at the 2006 Western Society of Naturalists meeting. However, other voices, notably Jane Lubchenco and my colleagues at Duke are still fairly bullish about what new advances in social sciences and geo-spatial analysis can offer EBM. I’ve observed first hand the eye opening power of bringing someone like Pat Halpin or Larry Crowder to DC to talk with Congressional staff—the message I get is that there is uncertainty, but there is also a huge gap between the void that simple statement carves out and the new science that hasn’t penetrated the policy world.

Finally, I should mention Rice’s support of traditional ecological knowledge entering this debate (for further reading, check this volume, edited by Gray). I wholeheartedly agree. I’d suggest that the inevitable response of scientists to opening the door to traditional knowledge will be to insist that these statements are defensible and robust, thus opening themselves up to the same scrutiny.

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