Trouble Brewing in the Marriage of Science and Policy in the Bay-Delta

Last October, I sat in a “town hall” meeting arranged to give scientists the opportunity to speak directly to policy-makers in charge of the Bay Delta Conservation Plan. The marriage of science and policy is a difficult but (usually) rewarding relationship. But there’s trouble brewing in this one and, as I have written here, here and here, divorce could be fatal for both the ecosystem and California’s water supply.

I stewed about this meeting for months, and it prompted me to reflect on pivotal scenes from my own science and policy marriage….

Scene I. At a regional office of a federal resource management agency

Back in the 1990s, I was a university researcher studying the delta smelt, a small fish found only in the San Francisco Bay-Delta—and newly listed under the Endangered Species Act. Delta smelt are exposed to literally thousands of water diversions (see page 32), including the massive state and federal water export facilities, and the fish, which, I found, can’t swim very fast, are at risk of being sucked out of their habitat. State and federal fisheries agencies needed to update their fish screen regulations; our research was designed to provide the information they needed. 

After the first round of studies, I reported to agency managers and, as my conclusion, interpreted the results to suggest possible fish screen standards that would protect the fish. I was soundly rebuked, told that my job was to do the research and their job was to develop the standards. 

Had I “crossed the line” from science to advocacy?

Some months later when I returned to report more results, I took care not to suggest what I thought they meant for fish screens. But afterward, the first question I was asked was “what should the standards be?”

This was my first experience with the disconnect between scientists and policy-makers. And, because I believe it’s important to translate science into policies that solve environmental problems, it is one of the reasons I left academia for an environmental organization.

Scene II. Fifteen years later, at the EcoSummit conference

Last fall, I attended the EcoSummit, a gathering of 1,600 scientists, managers and decision-makers from 76 countries. There I joined a panel of chief scientists from environmental organizations to discuss the challenges scientists face when working to promote policy. 

One of the first questions from the audience was “how did we, as scientists working for advocacy organizations, retain our credibility and objectivity?” I gave my usual answer,  saying that, first, it was essential to conduct well-designed research and be a source for accurate information based on sound science. Second, it was important to state clearly, up front, what problem you were trying to address by applying science when advocating for a policy or action. And finally, I reminded them that we scientists were also citizens, with the right and responsibility to participate in the public arena.

Of course, it’s never that simple or straightforward. For one thing, science is not the only factor that needs to be considered for policy: societal values, economics and feasibility are also important. But, as conservation scientist Reed Noss and colleagues argue, policies based on “preconceived notions of what is socially or politically acceptable” rather than accurate, scientific assessment of the problem and what needs to be done to fix it are unlikely to be successful.

Scene III. Two weeks later, at the “town hall” meeting

I cut my science and policy teeth working on the Bay-Delta, the west coast’s most important estuary and a perfect storm of excessive water diversions, ecosystem degradation, fish declines, vulnerable levees, invasive species, adversarial stakeholders and conflicting resource management goals. It is also the best studied estuary in the world, with decades of monitoring, research and experimentation.  

Every two years, the Bay-Delta Science Conference attracts nearly all of the scientists working on this system—over a thousand in 2012—to meet to discuss their research. This year the conference also hosted the “town hall” meeting, with the director of the California Department of Water Resources (which is leading development of the Bay Delta Conservation Plan), the regional director of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (which must approve it), and the vice-chair of the Delta Stewardship Council (which may choose to adopt it) leading off the discussion. 

They each spoke eloquently about the importance of science and their need for more research to guide development of Bay-Delta policies. Along with California’s governor and the U.S. Secretary of the Interior, they have committed that “Science will guide how to best restore the ecosystem and how much water can be exported.”   

But, as they spoke, I watched the frustration in the audience—most scientists who had worked on the Bay-Delta for years—build to explosive levels. After all, the most recent version of the Bay Delta Conservation Plan ignored relevant Bay-Delta science in favor of restoration approaches advocated by agricultural and urban water users who want more water. Even by its own analysis, this plan would worsen ecological conditions rather improve them.

The first scientist to speak responded bluntly, saying “there’s a real breakdown in the system” and called for revolutionary change in how scientists and policy-makers communicate. “We have failed in our mission to address the problems,” said another, adding that “competing science programs” (meaning “combat science” funded by special interests) were eroding confidence in science. A third scientist, longing for the “good old days” when there was more discussion between scientists and policy makers, argued that “We need to get lawyers out of the room.”

Can this marriage of science and policy in the Bay-Delta be saved? Clearly, concerns about “credibility and objectivity” are mutual, and more open, respectful lines of communication between the parties are needed. But, as with any marriage, the true test is action. 

Epilogue: Last week, at the Delta Stewardship Council

The Delta Independent Science Board presented its review of the Bay Delta Conservation Plan’s Chapter 7 (Governance), concluding that it “favors combat science” and would likely “yield further fragmentation in Delta science and decision-making.”  

About the Authors

Christina Swanson

Director, Science Center

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