Should water scientists be advocates?

By Patricia Gober

Patricia Gober (biography)

Efforts to improve the use of models to support policy and practice on water resources issues have increased awareness of the role of advocacy and public engagement in the modeling process. Hydrologists have much to learn from the recent experience of climate scientists who have discovered that scientific knowledge is not independent of the political context in which it is used but rather is co-produced by scientists and society.

Despite a strong consensus among climate scientists in the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s (IPCC) 2013 report that “warming of the climate system is unequivocal,” approximately one-third of the USA’s population still does not believe that global temperatures have risen over the past 100 years and does not trust the things that scientists say about the environment. Efforts to develop and implement climate change policy at the federal level have been stymied by a political process that has magnified the views of climate deniers and muddled ideas about the level of uncertainty in climate models.

In frustration, many climate scientists have moved away from the traditional view of scientists as set apart from society’s political processes to becoming advocates for climate change policy. In a recent survey conducted by the Pew Foundation, 76% of the public and 97% of scientists said it was appropriate for scientists to “become actively involved in political debates.” The issue is what form that engagement takes – whether scientists become advocates for particular positions or serve as neutral advisors and conveners of interested parties in climate and other environmental deliberations.

The field of water resources modeling traditionally has not been actively engaged in societal issues and the political context in which water decision making occurs. UNESCO’s World Water Development Report Number 3 (2009) called for “getting outside the water box” linking water to decisions about sustainable development. The report acknowledges the strong relationship between water, food, land, and energy, and that many de facto water decisions are made by actors in areas of government, civil society, and business outside of the traditional water sector. There is increasing awareness that hydrology has not:

  • adequately captured the human dimensions (economy, society, culture, and policy) in water modeling
  • sufficiently integrated relevant stakeholders into the modeling process
  • significantly impacted political debates about water.

Growing recognition of these facts raises an important question about the best role for hydrologists in political debates – should they be active advocates for particular water policies or neutral conveners of groups with a stake in water decisions.

A particular challenge is that advocacy positions can detract from the power of science to inform decision making. When the public says that they want climate scientists to become more actively involved in political debates about climate, I do not believe that most people want scientists to advocate for particular decisions, but rather to provide evidence and tools for more informed decision making.

While few people would argue about the importance of sustainability as a principle for water decisions, the devil is in the details of how people conceptualize and operationalize sustainability as the basis for decision making. In arguing for or against highly contentious water policies, scientists risk losing public trust in the validity of the science and the power of modeling and visualization to represent the critical trade-offs that are embedded in virtually all public decisions about water today.

I favor the role of neutral convener to bring relevant stakeholders to the process of integrated water modeling, support active exploration of alternative policies and scenarios of the future, and promote evidence-based decisions that will outlive the next political cycle. If we move too far into the realm of advocacy, we risk losing public trust in the modeling itself and in the efficacy of the science that underlies these tools.

Gober, P. (2013). Getting outside the water box: The need for new approaches to water planning and policy. Water Resources Management, 27, 4: 955-957.

World Water Assessment Program. (2009). Water in a Changing World. United Nations World Development Report No. 3, UNESCO, Earthscan: London, UK.

Biography: Patricia Gober is Research Professor and Interim Director of the School of Geographical Sciences and Urban Planning at Arizona State University (ASU) and Professor Emeritus in the Johnson-Shoyama Graduate School of Public Policy at the University of Saskatchewan. At ASU she was founding director of the National Science Foundation’s Decision Center for a Desert City which studies water management decisions in the face of climatic uncertainty in Phoenix. Her current activities center on climate adaptation in the USA and Canada. She is especially interested in the use of science and visualization for real-world decision-making. She is a fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science and was awarded the Prince Sultan Abdulaziz International Prize for Water in November 2008. She is a member of the Core Modeling Pursuit funded by the National Socio-Environmental Synthesis Center (SESYNC).

This blog post is one of a series resulting from the first meeting in March 2016 of the Core Modelling Pursuit. This pursuit is part of the theme Building Resources for Action-Oriented Team Science through Syntheses of Practices and Theories funded by the National Socio-Environmental Synthesis Center (SESYNC).

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