Sunday, December 21, 2008

“Progress and Challenges in Bridging the Gap Between Science and Decision Making” …

… was the title of one of the dozens of sessions at the week-long annual meeting of The American Geophysical Union (AGU), just ended. The conference drew some 15,000 geophysicists to San Francisco December 15 -19, 2008. While the programs were all designed as peer-to-peer presentations, several investigated how scientists are working to make their research better understood not only by policy- and lawmakers but also by the general public.

The "Bridging the Gap" topic drew so much interest from conference presenters that dual sessions were arranged (Session I and Session II).  Representative topics from Session II:

-On the use of Empirical Data to Downscale Non-scientific Scepticism About Results From Complex Physical Based Models 

-The Role and Responsibility of the Non-Governmental Organization in Bridging Science and Policy

-Mapping for Advocacy - Using Marine Geophysical Data to Establish the Limits of Extended Continental Shelves under the Convention on the Law of the Sea (yes, my poster, with geophysicist Bernie Coakley from the University of Alaska-Fairbanks).

Both Session I and Session II were organized under the rubric of Global Environmental Change. This category is a particularly important driver in improving the science-policy interface in the context of the Arctic. If members of the public in non-arctic regions do not understand how changes in the Arctic affect them, they will not see the need to support arctic research generally.

Another relevant program to science and policy making communication was the “Frontiers of Geophysics Lecture” featured Google's Michael Jones, who examined “the relationship among mechanisms of knowledge sharing, the pace of scientific advancement, and the degree of public understanding of new results.”     

For their part, international lawyers are also giving increased attention to the science-policy interface. During last week’s AGU meeting, an announcement crossed my e-desk from the European and American societies of international law announcing a “Research Forum: Changing Futures? Science and International Law”,  to be held in
Helsinki next October. A representative sampling of suggested topics include Data Protection and International Law, Climate Change and Global Environmental Protection, Global Health Issues, Intellectual Property Rights, and Developments in the Law of the Sea, including Maritime Delimitation. 

Almost all of these topics are regulated at least in part by one or more international treaties (as is, of course, the case with mapping the Extended Continental Shelf). If my time on the Healy taught me anything, it is that existing treaties will be more effectively enforced and new treaties will be better crafted when lawyers better understand the underlying science. Science in effect drives the compliance and enforcement mechanisms that our treaties (and domestic laws) establish. 

A closing note: Communication between science and decision-makers is a long-standing interest of President-Elect Obama’s choice to head the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) Jane Lubchenco. Ten years ago Lubchenco founded the Aldo Leopold Leadership Program, whose purpose is to advance “environmental decision-making by providing academic scientists with the skills and connections needed to be effective leaders and communicators.”

Icebreaking into the Arctic

The USCGC HEALY embarked Barrow, Alaska, in August 2008 to map the US extended continental shelf, or ECS, in the Arctic Ocean (HLY 0805). Healy sailed again from 7 August to 16 September, 2009 (HLY 0905) to continue ECS mapping, joining with the Canadian icebreaker, the Louis S. St.-Laurent. The two vessels mapped together again in 2010 (see HLY1002) and 2011 (HLY1102).

As the only law professor on the science crew, I was along on HLY 0805 and 0905 to better understand
the science behind the legal process that the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea establishes for states making ECS submissions. As to why the US is mapping now, even though it has not yet acceded to the Convention, read on both here, and in the Law of the Sea notes below.

Thanks to
Vermont Law School and especially to Larry Mayer, Director of the University of New Hampshire's Center for Coastal and Ocean Mapping, for making my part in the trip possible.
Thanks, as well, to Adriane Colburn, for opening new windows on and for the deep.