What is Policy?

One seemingly popular way of muzzling scientists is to declare that they may not comment on issues that impact on government policy. In Canada and in Australia at the present time this kind of general rule seems to be enforced. It raises the serious issue of what is ‘policy’. In practice it appears that some scientific papers that discuss policy can pass the bar because they support the dominant economic paradigm of eternal growth or at least do not challenge it. But the science done by ecologists and environmental scientists often conflicts with current practices and thus confronts the economic paradigm.

There are several dictionary definitions of policy but the one most relevant to this discussion is:

“a high-level overall plan embracing the general goals and acceptable procedures especially of a governmental body”

The problem an ecologist faces is that in many countries this “high overall plan for the country” involves continuous economic growth, no limitations on the human population, the minimization of regulations regarding environmental pollution, and no long-term plan about climate change. But probably the largest area of conflict is over economic growth, and any ecological data that might restrict economic growth should be muzzled or at least severely edited.

This approach of governments is only partially effective because in general the government does not have the power to muzzle university scientists who can speak out on any topic, and this has been a comfort to ecologists and environmental scientists. But there are several indirect ways to muzzle these non-government scientists because the government controls some of the radio and TV media that must obtain funding from the federal budget, and the pressure of budget cuts unless ‘you toe the line’ works well. And the government also has indirect controls over research funding so that research that might uncover critical issues can be deemed less important than research that might increase the GNP. All of this serves the current economic paradigm of most of the developed countries.

Virtually all conservation biology research contains clear messages about policy issues, but these are typically so far removed from the day to day decisions made by governments that they can be safely ignored. A national park here or there seems to satisfy many voters who think these biodiversity problems are under control. But I would argue that all of conservation biology and indeed all of ecology is subversive to the dominant economic paradigm of our day so that everything we do has policy implications. If this is correct, telling scientists they may not comment on policy issues is effectively telling them not to do ecological or environmental science.

So we ecologists get along by keeping a minimal profile, a clear mistake at a time when more emphasis should be given to emerging environmental problems, especially long term issues that do not immediately affect voters. There is no major political party in power in North America or Australia that embraces in a serious way what might be called a green agenda for the future of the Earth.

The solution seems to be to convince the voters at large that the ecological world view is better than the economic world view and there are some signs of a slow move in this direction. The recent complete failure of economics as a reliable guide to government policy should start to move us in the right direction, and the recognition that inequality is destroying the social fabric is helpful. But movement is very slow.

Meanwhile ecologists must continue to question policies that are destroying the Earth. We can begin with fracking for oil and gas, and continue to highlight biodiversity losses driven by the growth of population and economic developments that continue the era of oil and natural gas. And keep asking when will we have a green President or Prime Minister?

Let me boil down my point of view. Everything scientists do has policy implications, so if scientists are muzzled by their government, it is a serious violation of democratic freedom of speech. And if a government pays no attention to the findings of science, it is condemning itself to oblivion in the future.

Davis, C., and Fisk, J.M. 2014. Energy abundance or environmental worries? Analyzing public support for fracking in the United States. Review of Policy Research 31(1): 1-16. doi: 10.1111/ropr.12048.

Mash, R., Minnaar, J., and Mash, B. 2014. Health and fracking: Should the medical profession be concerned? South African Medical Journal 104(5): 332-335. doi: 10.7196/SAMJ.7860.

Piketty, T. 2014. Capital in the Twenty-First Century. Belknap Press, Harvard University, Boston. 696 pp. ISBN 9780674430006

Stiglitz, J.E. 2012. The Price of Inequality. W.W. Norton and Company, New York.


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