21 May 2016

Crooked path from science to environmental policy

Although environmental problems are well known, many environmental objectives are not being achieved in time. Is this simply due to deliberate misuse of scientific results? This is one of the questions to be answered in the ‘Mind the Gap’ research project.

Scientific research has been crucially important for detecting problems in the environment. Depletion of the ozone layer, eutrophication and climate change are just a few examples. The Mistra Council for Evidence-Based Environmental Management (EviEM) is an initiative intended to help disseminate scientific results to decision-makers. But progression from research to successful environmental policy is far from self-evident, says Karin Edvardsson Björnberg, project manager for Mind the Gap.

‘Thanks to research, we know a lot today about what needs doing to achieve Sweden’s 16 national environmental objectives. Still, the work of achieving them is slow — for the objectives relating to chemicals and biodiversity, for instance. What mechanisms are slowing us down? We want to study this more closely.’

Edvardsson Björnberg, an assistant professor of environmental philosophy at KTH Royal Institute of Technology, has been active in the Mistra Biotech research programme. In the Mind the Gap project, which is supported by the Swedish Research Council Formas, she is studying the interface between science and politics, especially how misuse of science delays and impedes the application of research results to environmental policy.

‘Misuse of scientific results has been discussed most in the US, and there mainly with reference to climate change. We want to see how far misuse of science and delay mechanisms exist in Swedish environmental-policy debate and also in policy areas relating to chemicals and biodiversity.’

Misuse of science reviewed

Science can be misused in many different ways. Some of them were emphasised in the review carried out in the project, involving study of more than 150 scientific articles with the theme of denial of science and climate change, above all from the US. Direct or indirect threats to climate scientists themselves are perhaps the most flagrant way of influencing the scientific process. ‘Cherry picking’, with individual research data items being selected for attention without the whole picture being considered, is a second way of misusing climate science, according to Edvardsson Björnberg. A third is imposing unreasonable demands regarding the burden of proof.

‘There’s a great deal of agreeement in climate science, but there are also individuals who think differently. This fact is blown up and represented as scientific unreliability. Results that are beyond any reasonable doubt are demanded from the climate researchers. But this means they haven’t understood how scientific knowledge is produced,’ she says.

Wide-ranging influence on society

The ways in which scientific findings are incorrectly used by climate deniers and others affect not only individual climate scientists. They also have repercussions on public debate and ultimately global decision-making, according to Mikael Karlsson, a consultant and researcher at Södertörn University and former chair of the Swedish Society for Nature Conservation. He too is involved in Mind the Gap.

‘Climate denial in the US in particular has had a strong impact on the climate debate there and, accordingly, on the whole global debate and handling of the issue of climate change,’ Karlsson says.

In another of the studies included in the project Michael Gilek, a professor of environmental science at Södertörn University, is studying how a scientific consensus has been established with respect to eutrophication of the Baltic Sea. Disagreement among researchers long prevailed on whether nitrogen or phosphorus was the main cause of this eutrophication. Gilek’s study will thereby help to clarify a key question of scientific philosophy.

‘How does denial differ from scepticism? Having a sceptical attitude is part of the scientific process. But there’s a dividing line somewhere between being a denier and being sceptical,’ Edvardsson Björnberg says.

How much agreement among scientists is enough?

According to Edvardsson Björnberg, studying a concept like ‘scientific consensus’ is interesting. What is this, actually? How is it created in the environmental sector? And when does a scientific consensus prevail?

Mind the Gap will continue until 2017, but she and her colleagues in the project have already received many inquiries about lecturing. One such inquiry has come from the Cross-Party Committee on Environmental Objectives, which is working for broad political agreement concerning the Swedish environmental objectives. Neither Edvardsson Björnberg nor Karlsson is aiming to produce a desktop product: instead, they hope to be able to help strengthen environmental efforts in the long run.

‘I’d like to see a wide-ranging research programme tackle the question of why it’s so hard to achieve the environmental objectives. We’re doing our bit, but the issue deserves clarification on a much larger scale than we’re capable of in this project,’ Karlsson concludes.

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