Science as a second language: Three simple steps for translating science into a plan

Listening to the news and public discourse these days, there seems to be a lot of confusion about science—what it is and what it’s good for.  Public understanding of science has fallen and, in some arenas, science is under attack, dismissed, denied or its results distorted, particularly when they are “inconvenient.”  For anyone who thinks that the best way to solve problems and develop effective plans is to use an approach based on evidence and experience, this is, to put it mildly, a very disturbing state of affairs.

According to the dictionary, science is “knowledge attained through study or practice.”  Broadly speaking, science is a body of knowledge, the sum total of what we already know about something, and a systematic process (aka the scientific method) for acquiring new knowledge through observation and experimentation.  Whether you’re talking about an ecosystem or the human body, science is the way we figure out how things work and, when things change, to identify the cause (or, more likely, causes) of that change.  If that change is undesirable and is caused by something that we can control, science can then be “translated” to design a plan to fix the problem, such as a course of treatment to restore your health or a change in environmental management to protect public health or a species from extinction.

There are a few logical steps for translating science into a plan of action.  The first is to figure out “What have you got?” and describe the problem that the plan is intended to address. To use a medical example, when you’re sick, the road to recovery starts with an accurate diagnosis.  Science, in the form of observation and monitoring, is a useful tool for getting a clear picture of the current conditions and how those conditions have changed in the past or will change in the future.

The next step is to decide “What do you want?”  In the case of your health, this is a personal decision that may be guided by your doctor’s advice; in the case of public health or environmental management, it’s a societal decision, which may be expressed in regulatory standards or legal requirements.  But science can—and should—be used to define and quantify the goal, for example getting your blood pressure down to 120/80, reducing environmental pollution to levels that don’t harm human health,  or increasing the abundance of a species to a level where its extinction risk is low.

Science is absolutely essential for the next step to answer the question “What are the causes of the problem?”  In order to fix a problem, you need to correctly identify the factors—excessive salt in your diet, discharge of toxic pollutants into the air or water, or loss of habitat needed by a species for some part of its life cycle—that are contributing to the current undesirable condition and which, if you change them, will help achieve your goal. 

From this process, you have the information you need to develop a plan that, if you implement it, can get you what you want, or at least move you toward your goal.  But there are few other important issues to consider when translating the science into your plan.  For one, you need to distinguish those causal factors that can be changed from those that cannot.  To use the high blood pressure example, with enough willpower and supportive family and friends, you can change your diet and your weight but not your age or genetics.  Next, if the scientific information you have is sufficient, it is useful to prioritize the causal factors relative their importance and the sensitivity of the problem to changes in those factors.  A plan that makes changes in things that have large impacts on the problem condition you are trying to alleviate is more likely to be effective than one that focuses on minor or less immediate causal factors.  And finally, since most problems have multiple causes, a good planning effort will consider alternative approaches for solving the problem, mixing and matching different science-based actions and then evaluating (or predicting) which action or combination of actions is most likely to effectively address the problem so that you can meet your goal.   Here, a planning process that ignores some of the controllable causal factors (usually the ones that are unappealing or “hard” to address) to focus on a limited subset of the causes (usually the “easy” ones) is an incomplete translation of the science that is less likely to produce an effective plan. 

If you think the approach described above oversimplifies the challenges of solving our increasingly complex problems, you’re not off base.  But, when you get down to the guts of it, even plans designed for complicated problems with multiple goals need to be built on a foundation of an accurate assessment of the problem, clearly understood goals and empirical evidence that implementing the actions in the plan will put you on the path to success.   

There are many good examples of effective use of this approach.  I’ll write about several in the coming months.  But in California, the ongoing effort to develop the Bay Delta Conservation Plan continues to exemplify the pitfalls for a planning process that fails to follow these simple steps.   I’ll put up a post about this tomorrow.