Class of 2014 / Fellowships

Bridging the Disconnect Between Scientists and Managers

Sea Grant Fellows Lauren Bernadett, Karen Kayfetz, and Liz Parissenti attended the OPC-SAT meeting in June. In this post, they explain why the California Sea Grant Fellowship program allowed them to take advantage of the opportunities that arise from the disconnects between scientists and managers.

In the beginning of June, we attended the biannual Ocean Protection Council Science Advisory Team (OPC-SAT) workshop. The OPC-SAT is a group of independent scientists who work for universities, non-profits, tribes, or government agencies to provide guidance so that the Ocean Protection Council (OPC) may apply the best available science to its policy decisions. This is an important call to action, as one of the OPC’s responsibilities is to identify and recommend changes in state and federal law and policy.

This workshop’s topic was “Exploring Ocean Health as a Scientific Concept and Management Goal.” A major goal was to start a discussion around building a shared understanding of “ocean health,” a term that pervades legal mandates, management plans, and policy guidance but has no common definition. This consensus building requires effectively communicating state agency needs and understanding the scientific community’s role. During the meeting, policymakers from the Governor’s office, CA Fish and Game Commission, and State Water Resources Control Board provided their perspective on how a common understanding of ocean health could best assist state agencies, considering these agencies’ mandates, needs, and limitations. The OPC-SAT also discussed how their research and products could provide information that would inform a common understanding of ocean health. At the center of these discussions was the important question: is each group too constrained to be able to adequately harmonize with the other?

A common problem mentioned at the workshop was that agencies must make decisions in real time. Decision-makers rarely have the luxury of waiting for the best possible science and must make decisions with limited and imperfect information. Importantly, they need to know when additional studies are crucial and worth waiting for. Decision-makers would prefer to be able to cite scientific study results with certainty to support a policy. Science, on the other hand, develops slowly and independent of political timeframes. Scientists adhere to the scientific method and usually their results have only limited certainty.

These differences between what decision-makers need and what scientists provide may lead to a disconnect between the two groups. This disconnect can lead to controversial state policy, which then can negatively affect resource management and relationships with important stakeholders across the state.

The discussion at the workshop was emblematic of this common disconnect. While the stated purpose of the OPC-SAT meeting was to work towards a shared and realistic understanding of ocean health to address existing mandates, there was a lot of work to be done developing ideas and debating uses of language. These are important steps towards consensus building, but managers still have the problem of not having the information they need from the scientists when they need it.

Although the workshop discussions strayed from its articulated goal, it was interesting and instructional for all of us involved. As California Sea Grant State Fellows starting our careers at the interface of science and policy, it is important to understand the perspectives of both groups so that we can effectively integrate strong science and effective policy. By putting scientists into positions where they must learn and grapple with ocean and coastal policy, and by putting non-scientists into positions where they must listen to and incorporate science, California Sea Grant is training our future ocean and coastal leaders to overcome the science-policy disconnect and make the two work together as effectively as possible. Indeed, people who understand both worlds are the most likely to be able to make the appropriate and beneficial connections between them.

The workshop was a great opportunity to see the value of our fellowship experience in action.

Written by Lauren Bernadett, Karen Kayfetz, and Liz Parissenti

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