Science-policy relations ‘stuck in outdated era’

Tubiana: 'There are signs of a stagnating and fragmented global regime for the environment and sustainable development' Copyright: Flickr/Parti socialiste

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[LONDON] Scientists and policymakers need to shed outdated concepts about how they should  interact and communicate with each other and other stakeholders, to make any dent in global progress in sustainable development, an international conference heard yesterday.

The science-policy interface needs to abandon habits that are rooted in the post-World War theories on economic and national sovereignty, and reboot for the changing economic and global concerns that override national boundaries, Laurence Tubiana, director of the Institute of Sustainable Development and International Relations, France, told the Planet Under Pressure conference yesterday (28 March).

The need to tune in to the changing times is crucial in the run-up to the UN Conference on Sustainable Development (Rio+20) in June, as the power equations have "been reshuffled", with the emergence of large developing countries such as Brazil, China, India and South Africa since the 1992 Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, Tubiana said.

The economic models and governance structures built after World War II have been exhausted, and the period that multilateral agreements and agreed common global rules will apply is over, Tubiana said.

This article is part of our Planet Under Pressure 2012 coverage — which takes place 26–29 March 2012. To read insights from our conference team please visit our blog.

But changes in economies have not been accompanied by changes in governance structures, she noted.

 "We discuss governance reforms as if in 1948," she said.

This is one of the chief hurdles to attaining a common strategy for sustainable development, according to Tubiana.

She cited the example of China and India as emerging economies which follow the path set by western countries in placing national interest over global ones.

She said the world has achieved some degree of success in raising awareness of environmental issues; mainstreaming environment issues into other sectors; developing scientific and policy capacities; and creating new funds and institutions.

"Science is playing a central role in the mindset of nation states because they are learning," she told a press conference, citing examples of China, Ethiopia, and India.

"And if they are learning, they are changing their views — and this will shift expectations to a more common goal."

At the same time "there are also signs of a stagnating and fragmented global regime for the environment and sustainable development," she said.

A major problem is that the world has defined the over-arching objectives of sustainable development, "but said nothing about the pathways" of how to get there.

The result is that discussions are "happening in silos", which leads to a proliferation of institutions and fragmentation of scientific work and policies.  

Another challenge is dealing with controversies, such as the ones on the report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (relating to the melting of the ice in the Himalayas and ‘Climategate’). This includes acceptance and management of controversies when they occur.

"We need to organise better interactions between policymakers and scientists to manage not just scientific controversies, but also social and political controversies that linked to scientific issues," Tubiana told SciDev.Net.

She said sometimes policymakers tend to "hide behind scientists", citing scientific opinion as the basis of their decisions or avoiding responsibility to tackle social controversies linked to technologies.  

Lidia Brito, director of science policy and capacity building in natural sciences, at UNESCO (UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization), said the culture of science was changing towards more collaboration.

"Different actors are coming up and contributing to scientific knowledge," she said.

But what appears still to be missing, according to Brito, is the engagement of natural scientists with other disciplines, particularly social scientists, in cross-cutting sectors such as adaptation to climate change and sustainable development.

Link to live web streaming of the conference

For more news and analysis of the Planet Under Pressure 2012 conference click here, and also see our live blog.