Lynn Scarlett: On Science, Policy, & Joining Our Board
This week, we welcome Lynn Scarlett to the COMPASS Board of Directors. Lynn is currently the Managing Director for Public Policy at The Nature Conservancy, former Deputy Secretary of the Interior under George W. Bush, and has held many other positions, advisory and board service roles that you can read about here. She has been a champion for the use of science in decision-making, brings vast experience and networks in the environmental policy sphere, and continues to work toward a healthy democracy that allows people and environment to thrive. Lynn has not only engaged with scientists throughout her career, she advocates for scientists to engage and for constructive, two-way dialogues between scientists and policymakers. As I welcomed Lynn to the board, I had the chance to learn more about her experiences and perspectives regarding scientists engaging in the policy sphere.
We are thrilled to have her contribute her ideas and expertise as we at COMPASS work to get more scientists to engage effectively in the public discourse about the environment. Welcome Lynn!
During your time at the Department of the Interior, you probably witnessed some profound, inspiring and likely some frustrating things. Can you share a time where you felt like scientists were effective in a policy process? One of the most challenging decisions I took part in while at Interior was on whether to list the polar bear as threatened or endangered under the Endangered Species Act. This decision would mark the first time a species might be listed primarily from a threat associated with climate change. All eyes were on the decision. The science was incredibly complex, involving global circulation models and projections of sea ice melting trends out 50-100 years, current trends in bear population, the relationship between any declines in some bear populations with sea ice conditions, and so much more. There were many uncertainties. Instrumental to the final decision was the work of a large team of scientists, coordinated by the United States Geological Survey, to help evaluate and analyze data and models and try to narrow the uncertainties. This was a monumental task and, without the work of the team of scientists, we simply could not have made a decision that could be deemed reliable and could withstand court scrutiny.
What aspects of the policy process and culture do you think make it most difficult for scientists to engage productively?
In some respects, the challenges at the intersection of science and decision-making vary by decision type and circumstance—a congressional discussion about a draft law is, for example, very different from a listing decision under the Endangered Species Act by an agency or the field-based management at a wildlife refuge or decisions about where to undertake fuels treatment in a forest. But there are several oft-recurring challenges. One is that of timelines. Often, decision-makers must make decisions within a fairly bounded (sometimes even legally mandated) decision time frame, yet the time to really deepen relevant knowledge that would be helpful to making a decision exceeds that timeline, so scientists need to “make do” and that is not often what they are comfortable with.
A second challenge is that of cultural context. Scientists are “culturally” oriented to asking “how does the world work?” Decision-makers ask: “what values do we care about?” These are very different questions. Often, what a scientist thinks might be a preferred regime for managing water flows to, say, benefit salmon or Delta smelt or whatever, may not sufficiently address other community values—recreation, or agricultural needs, or other community needs and values. The decision-maker typically must take all these matters into account. Science is critical—but so, too, are the multiple needs of communities.
A third challenge is that of management capacity. That capacity is invariably constrained. It might be desirable, from a scientific standpoint, to have robust monitoring of multiple variables—but managers often have neither resources nor the human capacity to consider many variables simultaneously. This can be frustrating both for scientists and managers.
You’ve likely found yourself on one side of the table as a policymaker, with a scientist on the other side. What’s your top piece of advice for a scientist as they prepare to have a seat at that table?
I guess my top piece of advice is “know your audience” and “prepare accordingly.” I had some fantastic briefings by scientists during my tenure at the Interior Department and what made them so excellent was that the presenters had clearly thought out—in advance—what they were trying to communicate, what was essential, and how to present it really concisely.
You care about boundary organizations and processes. How do you define these terms, and why do you think they are important? Conservation and environmental management decisions increasingly occur within collaborative decision making processes. Increasingly, these efforts include processes and/or organizations that bring together scientists with decision-makers and stakeholders to facilitate mutual learning and knowledge transfers. Processes of collaborative adaptive management and joint fact-finding are types of boundary processes. But there are also boundary organizations—organizations that specialize in linking scientists with stakeholders, managers and decision-makers and in developing communications and other tools that help citizens and managers understand and use relevant science or even jointly identify key questions that can lead to additional scientific research. There is no single definition of a boundary process or single form of boundary organization, but all share a focus on linking scientists with decision-makers and/or stakeholders. (See more of Lynn’s thinking about boundary processes on pages 78 – 89 of the “Catalysts for Conservation” report she co-authored.) You have a lot of demands on your time. Why did you say “yes” to joining the COMPASS Board?
Science is so critical to making informed (and potentially effective) decisions about conservation and resource management. That was evident during my years at the Department of the Interior and it is a hallmark of how The Nature Conservancy functions. The work of COMPASS is so germane to this linkage of science and natural resource conservation and management that it seems a natural extension of my responsibilities. This post was transferred from its original location at www.compassonline.org.
Image info: Photo provided by Lynn Scarlett.