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Scientific advice, adaptive management, and public policy

Publishing Date : 18 September, 2018

Author : KABAJAN SAM KAUNDA

Crafting scientifically enlightened management interventions that address environmental and socioeconomic challenges can be treacherous terrain. To do both, it sometimes isn't enough to simply lay the evidence before the public in a dispassionate way.

At times, one has to assume the role of an advocate and use the tricks of the trade. But it is well-advised to maintain respectable distance from professional advocates who, like some politicians, are paid to exercise their passion and persuasion on behalf of clients or courses in which they may not privately believe. Rather, science-based discourse, procedure, and delivery offers tremendous potential in repositioning adaptive management as a useful framework in guiding public policy design, implementation, and review in Botswana and the developing world.

Scientific and technological advances are the bedrock for socio-economic development and progress. Science is a venerable way of knowledge acquisition and application. In the mainstream mode, science is a formalised protocol of accumulating factual knowledge and understanding of practical natural phenomena.

Properly pursued, the process seeks sequential observations, controlled experiments, and staged management actions that distinguish among alternative possibilities, progressively zeroing in on a better understanding of the phenomenon or problem under interrogation. We may think of understanding as what we use in order to adequately apply our wisdom and our knowledge in guiding our actions. Understanding is more often used to try to alter an outcome than to repeat or perpetuate it.

That’s why psychologists and psychiatrists try to understand the minds of poachers, passion killers, murderers, and rapists, why social historians try to understand tribalism and genocide, and why medics try to understand the causes of disease. In their respective fields, these professionals do not seek to justify poaching, passion killings, murder, rape, genocide and illness. Instead, they seek to use their understanding of an intricate train of causes so as to modify or interrupt the chain. Management, governance, and administration should thrive on similar principles and approaches.  

As benevolent custodians of the truth, scientists are supposed to reinforce existing paradigms of management by increasing the precision and efficiency of data collection rather than merely testing questions that may overturn policy. Scientists accumulate knowledge that may be called upon for policy formulation; they should have the various pieces ready if needed.

Scientists must announce crises through alerting society of the failures and dangers of past, perceived, and existing policy on challenges such as biodiversity changes, human-wildlife conflict, HIV/AIDS, alcohol use and abuse, poverty alleviation and eradication, deteriorating moral fabric, etc. Scientists should systematically interrogate and integrate the requisite knowledge, if and when solicited so as to advise policy reform. They should also use their knowledge and experience to contribute towards new, evidence- or science-based policy with the intention of better and adaptive management.

Generally, adaptive management incorporates research into strategic action. Specifically, it is the integration of design, management, and monitoring to systematically test assumptions in order to adapt and learn from coordinated experience.  Adaptive management is good management, but not all good management is adaptive management. Adaptive management requires common sense, but that is not a licence to just try whatever crosses, or appeals to, the mind.

Instead, adaptive management requires a scientific approach to challenges through testing hypotheses and systematically trying different actions to achieve a desired outcome. It is not however, a random trial-and-error process as reported in lay terminology. Instead, it first involves conceptualising the problem at hand, then developing a specific set of testable hypotheses carefully crafted from existing theory, aligned with what actions might be undertaken to explain those phenomena.

These actions are then implemented and results thereof actually rigorously monitored to gauge how they compare with predictions. The key here is to develop an understanding of not only which actions work and which do not, but also how and why. Adaptation is about taking action to improve delivery based on the results of past or existing monitoring regimes. If actions do not achieve the expected results, the likelihood is that; a) actions were poorly executed, b) conditions of application have changed, c) monitoring was sloppy, or d) some other permutation of the above.

But the sad reality in Botswana is that we are having some policies and legislation supported by the grossest of superstitions, suspicions, and other degrees and expressions of ignorance and religiosity, especially those attempts reportedly aimed at correcting environmental problems and societal discord. And it is some celebrated professionals, experts, and consultants who are supplying government and the public with latently terminal advice on how to behave into the future.

It becomes worrisome when experts deliberately manipulate and dupe government and the public that misinformation, mediocrity, dishonesty, deceit, and coercion are sustainable premises for successful policy delivery.  We need formal peer review that helps reassure the consuming public that the policies advanced are founded on sound scientific footing. Once we abandon strict adherence to what science tells us, once we start arranging the truth in media briefings and other consultative fora, then anything is possible.

In one context, we might accomplish some mobilization against some environmental and socioeconomic challenges, but in another context, we court disaster. The danger is always there, if we subvert science to extreme partisan and business ends. As humans, scientists are not quite impartial, but science should be impartial. That is why it is so important for the future of science in Botswana that the line between what science can say with certainty, and what it cannot, be drawn clearly and defended.

In one sense, the practice is that, with a trendy name and purported objective, with a strong policy position and an impassioned and aggressive public campaign, nobody will dare to criticize the science, and in short order, a terminally weak policy thesis will be masqueraded as scientific gospel. Thereafter, any criticism becomes beside the point.  Such is how bad science is used at times to promote what some people would consider good policy. Uncertainties in scientific evidence are glossed over in the unseemly rush for an overarching policy, and for consultants to invariably propose and support policy by delivering findings that are desired by the patron or commissioning institution.

Next, there is organised marginalisation, discrimination, and isolation of those scientists who sound technical and procedural deficiencies to policy formulation and review, and the characterization of those scientists as “academics”, “outsiders”, and "sceptics" - suspect individuals with suspect motives, reactionaries, or simply anti-establishment nutcases. In short order, debate ends, even though citizen scientists are uncomfortable about how scientific protocols are being trampled. Is this what science has become? Hopefullynot. But this is what it will become, unless there is a concerted effort by citizen scientists to reconcile science and public policy, and also aggressively separate science from politics. Scientists best serve public policy by living within the ethics of science, not those of politics.

The connection between scientific evidence and public policy has regrettably become elusively elastic in Botswana. Several hypotheses help explain this observation; a) the complacency of the citizen scientific profession, b) the lack of good science education among the public; c) the rise of specialized advocacy groups which have been enormously effective in getting publicity and shaping policy, and d) because of civil society’s failure as independent assessors of evidence.

When distinguished institutions no longer differentiate between factual content and institutional opinion, but rather mix both freely in press statements and workshops, then who will hold anyone to a higher standard? We should strive for broad education about science, and about its methods and uncertainties. But we should do this precisely because it will promote wide and engaged debate, and airing of worries and precautions, not under any delusion that such a scientifically literate society will be a passive consumer.

Especially in the early stages, questioning, dissent, and dissident opinion are hugely useful. It is important that consensus is not reached too early least it inhibits important lines of investigation. That initial resistance or opposition is a fundamental characteristic of human nature. It is quite valid because it accords the progenitors and the public critical opportunity to reconsider and interrogate procedures and the prevailing evidence. Sharing ignorance is important in gaining confidence from the public.

True to its practical expression, science will provide no miracles, but science can do a lot to ameliorate the dislocations that are gaining currency in Botswana as it has delivered for the developed world. While much of science deals with things that are indeed well understood, many of the topics that engage public attention in Botswana lie at or beyond the frontiers of what is currently known.

Regrettably, the fair majority of current science advice to government policy-makers is routine, grounded on tired and fairly plodded areas of science. Here, public expectations – “tell us the facts” are the order of the day. In this instance, it is necessary to understand that science is as much – or more – a way of asking illuminating questions, as it is a collection of tidy and certain answers. There are areas of science where, for all practical purposes, certain answers can be given, while uncertainty looms in other areas. This needs to be taken in sobriety.

The key to credibility lies in soliciting inputs from a wide range of stakeholders and in being open and sincere about the process, institutions, and people involved. This amounts to a matter of accountability: both the policy-makers and the advisers have to be accountable - ultimately to the public - for the advice given and the use made of it. What is clear, however, is that on environmental and socio-economic challenges, science and policy have become inextricably mixed to the point where it will be difficult, if not impossible, to separate them out.

The primary role of the scientist is not to determine which risks are worth taking, or deciding what choices we should take, but the scientist must be involved in indicating what the possible choices, constraints, and possibilities are. Policy-makers have to know what they can expect from scientific advisers. There is much that science does not know, otherwise research would be redundant! Policy issues arise in areas of scientific ignorance as well as scientific knowledge.

But the uncertainty and controversy that can characterise science at the limits of current knowledge do not mean that science has nothing to contribute or that all ‘scientific’ opinions are equally plausible. Although there will be cases where the science is inconclusive and experts agree only that further research is needed, established scientific knowledge should often be able to set boundaries to the uncertainty and thus provide a guide to advised and reserved action.

Science is about exploring and discovering new things rather than deciding how, or even if, these things should be used. It is the role of society as a whole to decide how the new knowledge discovered by science should be used. In the end, the debates on scientific matters are not just about science. They involve not just our rational minds but also aspirations, emotions, and experiences of the greater public.


Kabajan Sam KAUNDA is a Nature Detective: People & Wildlife
Senior Lecturer & Research Coordinator: Wildlife Ecology & Conservation 
Department of Biological Sciences at the University of Botswana

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