Future Earth in Nairobi: Leaders talk the role of science in policy before UNEA

Farooq Ullah, chair of the Future Earth Engagement Committee, speaks during the closing of the Science Policy Forum preceding the assembly in Nairobi. Photo: Rebecca Oliver
May 2016
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At the Science Policy Forum preceding the United Nations Environment Assembly in Nairobi, speakers discussed the need for scientists to participate in challenging conversations around social values.

We are in the era of “post-normal” science declared Sir Peter Gluckman. He made his remarks on 19 May as the keynote speaker during the opening of the Science Policy Forum that precedes this year’s United Nations Environment Assembly (UNEA) in Nairobi. That assembly will begin 23 May. Gluckman is chief scientific adviser to the Prime Minister of New Zealand and the chair of the International Network for Government Scientific Advice.

Future Earth has been working closely with the UN Environment Programme (UNEP) to prepare for the pioneering Science Policy Forum in Kenya. This event focused on new challenges and new opportunities in connecting science to policy as nations across the world work to implement the UN's 17 Sustainable Development goals and deliver on promises made at COP21.

Members of the wider Future Earth community are participating in the event, including as panelists, moderators and rapporteurs at the Science Policy Forum. They’ve taken the opportunity to introduce Future Earth’s recently-launched Knowledge-Action Networks and to gather input from and talk with policy-makers.

Participants in the forum come from the national delegations attending the assembly next week and from research institutions around the world. Achim Steiner, executive director of UNEP, and Jacqueline McGlade, chief scientist, challenged them to bring the cultures of science and policy closer together and to find new tools and approaches to bridge that gap. Cheikh Mbow, senior scientist on climate change and development at the World Agroforestry Centre (ICRAF) in Nairobi and a member of Future Earth’s Science Committee, highlighted Future Earth during in the opening session. He discussed how the organisation presents an opportunity to produce the science needed in this time of rapid change and to address the challenges at the interface of science and policy.

The intricacies of the science-policy interface were explored in the opening day. Gluckman shared a provocative but highly constructive view of how both international and national policy challenges in sustainability are placing increasing demands on science. He made it abundantly clear that the research community must meet these demands in urgent and carefully coordinated ways as politicians in every country face pressure to tackle global environmental change.

In his talk, Gluckman described post-normal science as a move from a reductionist approach to the challenges facing the planet to an acceptance of complexity and the use of a systems-based approach to problem solving. The challenges that demand post-normal science engage and confront individual and social values constantly, he said. This means that the natural sciences do not have all the answers. Scientists can no long be technocratic advisers to governments, but have to be honest brokers of the best available and evolving knowledge. They must also agree to participate in the sometimes difficult conversations about conflicting priorities and values. Future Earth was formed to respond to these same needs.

If scientists can’t integrate an understanding of values and economics into their research, then public and political debates will wind up being about the science itself. It’s a reality underscored by disputes surrounding climate change. Policy, both on the national and international level, is not determined by evidence, but it must be informed by evidence, Gluckman said.

The work of the rapporteurs from the many sessions at the Science Policy Forum was combined and presented as the Forum closed on 20 May. These points will be fed into the UNEA when it ramps up in a few days.

 

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