Submitted by guest blogger on Fri, 08/09/2013

By Dr James Dalton, Coordinator, Global Initiatives, IUCN Water Programme.

Well, it’s an easy question to answer – we need both. But what sort of blend do we need? Over the last few weeks I have been surprised and, I’ll admit, a little exasperated over some things – maybe it’s the heat and the noise in our office at the moment (we have new windows being installed).

I recently heard that there is general ‘scientific regression and we are subject to dogma-driven societal decisions’ – specifically about the role of science in the world IUCN operates in. Hmm…..isn’t that democracy – are we not all guilty of a little dogma-driven belief at some point? The earth was flat once, after all. Regression – I would argue that there are more and more science networks, partnerships and funding around than ever before, and more and more information and data. We maybe don’t make the best use of it, because we don’t know how to – yet. Or we don’t communicate it well enough. This is a common problem.

In a past life I dealt with research contracts for the UK Government. One of the main challenges we had was getting the uptake pathway right to put research into use. It would appear to still be a challenge. It’s not easy – there is no silver bullet. What we found is that researchers – those doing the science, are not necessarily the right people to articulate and communicate it. As Ryan Meyer writes in his excellent article in Nature, ‘decision makers do not read journals’.

Knowledge to action. Discussing the needs of different water users in the Tacana watershed of Central America. Photo By James DaltonI remember sitting in a workshop on drought and a senior policy maker from an EU Government telling me that they can advise on the science of drought and the environmental impacts as much as they like, but real action only occurs through political channels when images of dead fish in rivers hit the headlines. Only then does public concern affect political decision making.

The problem is that we tend to write for our own audience – not the ones we want to influence. The ‘nexus’ is an example of this – as my colleague Claire Warmenbol writes in her blog post – nexus is a bit fuzzy, complex – a word with a difficult meaning – it is not easy to articulate. We focus on the nexus from a water perspective, even though we try hard not to by consulting with energy and food stakeholders – find out more here.

Ask yourself where do you find knowledge from? I’ll admit, right now, in public, I do not reach for ‘Water Weekly’. Instead I use my network, my channels, I try and share and gather, I write and mail and Google and extract (and discard) what I can. Our communication and knowledge world is changing – but this does not mean the integrity of the work is – we just have more complexity to deal with, and even more need to get the message out.

I would even argue that it is often too easy to say ‘we need more research’. Decisions still occur in the absence of data. Going back to my research management days in the early 2000s, the phrase ‘evidence base’ came into rapid use in the development community to better build evidence for policy development and action, driven in part by the development of the Millennium Development Goals in 2002. It’s a safe bet, funding research, as you will always get output – perhaps not the output you wanted, or which said what you expected, but it does generate knowledge. It also shows public spending to demonstrate national and sometimes international investment in knowledge as a public good, and politically, it’s a safe bet. But is the science as useable as it could be – does it transfer into knowledge?

In the Mekong River Basin, following the Strategic Environmental Assessment in 2010 there was a call for a pause in dam building for 10 years. The purpose of this was to gather more information and to do more research about the impact dams could have, especially on the main Mekong River. In the absence of data, many people felt, and still do, that it is difficult to make any form of informed decision over dams, the location and design of them, without better understanding the impact of them. I completely agree. Yet really, the delay 10 years has on the energy and therefore economic needs of the countries concerned is huge. There is a reason why dam building continues in the region – it doesn’t have time to wait for more research – which will for sure open up more things we don’t know. We will never have enough information. Instead, science can be used to shape new agency partnerships and perspectives for policy development, rather than focus on the science outcomes alone.

Kok River, tributary of the Mekong, Chiangrai, Thailand. Photo by Claire Warmenbol
As Brian Richter from The Nature Conservancy says in his excellent blog following the Global Water Systems Project Declaration – scientists – we need more from you. Science does not magically influence policy by producing papers. And what evidence do we have from existing global science platforms that they can influence (in our dogma driven world…)? The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has long been the signature scientific panel to inform policy makers and the political process about the impacts of climate change. Are we globally any closer to really sorting out emissions and curbing the warming trend? First it was 2 degrees, now it is 4. At 6 degrees things will really hurt.

One impressive piece of work is by Leonardo Saenz in Conservation International. His work has revealed that cloud forests filter almost half of the water entering tropical dams. They keep water clean to keep the turbines functioning. It shows how economically important these important ecosystems are for energy generation and biodiversity. They are natural infrastructure to capture and clean water for society at large. I like his progressive media around it, and the multiple directions this work has come to me from – it shows a good connection to audience and a knack for communicating the science which started off in the lab. It shows me the value of the science today, right now, and who it is valuable for. It doesn’t say – I can’t give you an answer, we need to do more research. I wish Leo had presented his work at the International Hydropower Association Congress.

A recent welcome conversation was hearing the demand for more ‘stories’ to share knowledge and learning, both from those doing research, and those needing it. The IUCN Water and Nature Initiative (WANI) is 13 years old – the model it was designed under (World Water Vision) remains valid today.

Many other organisations have used the WANI approach to model their own programmes and we see what we call ‘WANI type approaches’ in many places. But the challenge is consolidating the knowledge you gain, and articulating it. We are still trying to do this with WANI on a daily basis – it takes a lot of time. Stories, we have many – here are 49 to be getting on with, including one on the discovery of a new species!

Most of the stories are concerned with watershed management – what Leo’s research was all about – you manage the watershed for multiple, long term benefits, and everyone, as well as the environment can benefit.

Recalling our mission to influence, encourage, and assist – influencing is a skill, and it’s not linear. We cannot expect science and ‘data’ to become impact, and we cannot expect policy makers to read lots of science. We need to better understand what we have, and better articulate it, to at times a deaf audience. Policy is not linear in its development, so nor should we be in trying to influence it.