Tag Archives: science-policy

Insights from INC5 (from Danya)

by Danya Rumore

It’s a little more than a week after the completion of INC5, and I find myself reflecting on the insights I gained from the UN mercury negotiations in Geneva as I travel back to Cambridge via train. That brings me to my first important insight:

  • In stark contrast to public transportation in the US, Swiss trains and buses are—true to the stereotype—perfectly on time. If the train is scheduled to depart at 9:13am, you better be on the train by 9:12:45am. As fellow team member Leah Stokes unhappily learned, if the bus is more than a minute or two late, it probably won’t come for a while: there is almost certainly a crisis on the bus line.

As I look back, I am amazed by how intense the week of INC5 was. Hence, insight number two:

  • Being a delegate at international environmental negotiations is not for the faint of heart. Not only is it critical that delegates be on their game, constantly aware of what is going on in the negotiations and ensuring that they are advocating for their nation’s or organization’s interests, but they also end up basically living in the convention center for the week. After the first day, the negotiations generally continued late into the night or early into the following morning, making for 14+ hour days. Add to this the jet lag most delegates put up with as they travel from place to place, and you’ve got a pretty daunting, albeit potentially rewarding, job description.

In sum, our experience at INC5 convinced me that being a delegate might not be for me. However, watching the INC5 play out, talking to scientists on the scene such as David Evers and Celia Chen, and constantly reflecting on the negotiations with my MIT team members made me ever-more committed to working at the intersection between science and policy. Another take-away from INC5:

  • Effectively integrating scientific knowledge into policy making, particularly at the international level, remains a significant challenge. We need people who can effectively “advocate” for the appropriate use of science in informing political decisions.

While at INC5, I also discovered that, even if the negotiations seem to progress at a glacial pace, you really must remain attentive and pay careful attention to things as they play out. First off, if you don’t, you might miss some excellent analogies and metaphors (such as the nations’ “tangoing” metaphor during a technical working group session). More importantly, it only takes one delegate saying one sentence (such as “we’d like to strike ‘mercury compounds’ from that sentence”—see Mark’s and my blog for more about this) to entirely change the dynamic of the debate. Since careful attention to the proceedings is really quite important if you are to make sense of the seemingly slow but yet dynamic negotiations, here’s another insight:

  • If you hope to have even the faintest idea of what is really going on in the negotiations, don’t offer to manage the team’s blog and/or communications strategy. While I was entirely honored to be a blog manager for our team and honestly wouldn’t have had it otherwise, I finally had to accept that I would be lost for at least most of the discussions. Thank you to my team for keeping me abreast of what was really happening!
Sweet energy for delegates

Sweet energy for delegates

Another theme that stands out as I reflect on the week of INC5 is the amazing hospitality of the Swiss. From the much-anticipated Swiss Breaks (which far exceeded our expectations with fire-melted raclette, ceviche, wine, and even Heidi and Peter) to the omnipresent and much appreciated “Sweet energy for delegates” (i.e., little chocolates freely available throughout the week) to the surprise late night pizza and sandwich deliveries that sustained delegates as they negotiated into the wee hours: the Swiss definitely hosted a good INC5 party.

Raclette at a Swiss Break

Raclette at a Swiss Break

In addition to being entirely enjoyable, this hospitality appeared to serve the very critical function of bringing people together outside of the formal negotiations, building personal relationships to facilitate cooperation and collaboration, and keeping people feeling energized and appreciated so that they were willing to push through the late nights and challenging hours of the negotiations.  Another take-away:

  • Many important compromises and agreements are made outside of formal deliberations. Additionally, getting people to converse in informal settings can lead to the generation of new alternatives and possible solutions. Therefore, host nations should seriously consider throwing a good negotiations party.

A final and perhaps most important insight from our INC5 experience has less to do with what we took away from the negotiations and more to do with what we brought. Our team of ten graduate students and Professor Noelle Selin was utterly fantastic, as was our support crew back in Cambridge. Through this experience, I have developed a new cohort of brilliant, passionate colleaguesIMG_1718 and inspirational friends. I will forever appreciate the many things I learned from my conversations with fellow team members (did you know that polar bears’ fur is transparent?). I also fully intend to follow up on the crazy but amazing ideas we collaboratively generated (Science Train, anyone?).  And I can hardly believe how much fun we had—highlights include: making snow angels with fellow team members sometime after midnight while in our professional attire; laughing out loud with every reply to our “INC5 Playlist” email chain; and ongoing Heidi-related hilarity. In sum, a final point of reflection:

  • In negotiations—and in general—your team matters. Be thankful when you’ve got a good one.

Thanks to the National Science Foundation for funding this amazing learning and professional development experience, to Professor Noelle Selin for making it happen, to our amazing MIT Mercury team for all of the shared learning and fun times, to everyone who has offered their support and encouragement and/or has read our blog throughout the last couple of weeks.

Scientist on the Scene: Advice for Working at the Boundary of Science and Policy from Dr. David Evers

by Alice Alpert and Danya Rumore

Amid observing and analyzing the INC5 negotiations, one question that seems to be on many of our MIT team members’ minds is “As scientists and academics, what is our role in influencing policy and decision-making?” More specifically, where does the line between science and advocacy lie, and how should a scientist who cares about a given issue—like mercury—interact (or not) with the policy realm?

Looking for answers, a couple of us cornered Dr. David Evers after an INC5 side session on “Global Mercury Hotspots.” Hosted by David and his colleagues at the Biodiversity Research Institute (BRI) and IPEN, the side session shared with decision-makers the findings of a recent scientific report, available here, which found high levels of mercury contamination in marine and freshwater ecosystems around the world.

David, the Executive Director of BRI, is an excellent example of a scientist who, through his work, seeks to work at the boundary between science and policy.

Explaining his work, David is quick to say, “I try very hard to be that unbiased scientist that goes about getting data in an unbiased way.” Trained as a conservation biologist, he readily acknowledges that he has a fundamental interest in the sustainability of human interactions with ecosystems. As a result, he has chosen to research mercury, a compound that is harmful to ecosystems and human health. However, he makes clear, he does not have a policy objective in mind when he formulates his research questions. Nor does a particular policy objective drive his research.

Instead, David says, his goal is to provide policy makers with the best possible information about mercury and its impacts on ecosystems; it is the decision-makers’ job to translate this information into the best possible policy, whatever that may be.

For example, one of David’s recent projects brought together a team of mercury researchers with the goal of compiling scientific findings about mercury in the northeast region of the US. The team then translated these scientific findings into a language and format that is easy for policy makers to fully understand, and shared this information with Congressional staffers and federal agencies in Washington, DC.

In contrast to a policy-advocate, David doesn’t focus on whether the scientific information he is presenting supports a certain policy objective. Nor does he interpret what his findings should mean for policy and decision-making.  “I’m an advocate for scientific information,” not a policy advocate, he explains. And while he thinks that the scientific findings presented during his Global Mercury Hotspots presentation are reason for concern, he adds that, here at the INC5, “I’m not advocating, it’s strange to say, for a stronger mercury policy.”

One concern many members of our MIT team struggle with is how to influence the world of policy with our research without compromising our integrity as unbiased scientists and academics. David recognizes this concern, but says that he feels that the boundary between science-advocate and policy-advocate is quite clear. As long as you’re only advocating for the use of good information in decision-making, you haven’t compromised your position as a credible source of unbiased information. Once you begin to let policy objectives direct your research or start advocating for specific policies, however, you’ve crossed the line into policy advocacy. And, he adds, “there’s no going back.”

So what’s his advice for academic “youngsters”, like us, who are interested in the intersection of science and policy?

First off, don’t be afraid to walk the line between science and policy, David says, just make sure to push for good science and focus on making this information readily available and understandable, rather than advocating for particular policies or regulations.

Second, you don’t need to know everything, and you can’t be an expert in everything. When your work crosses over into a discipline, like public health, that you don’t know well, bring in colleagues to help.

Third, as a scientific expert, people will often corner you to ask what you think the policy implications of your research are; when you respond, keep your opinion out of it and make clear that you are simply interpreting the data you have gathered.

Finally, he says, many scientists fear the media, because they are afraid that the media will misinterpret or skew their research and findings. David says that, when possible, it is preferable to work with journalists that you know and trust. But it’s important to get your findings into the public conversation, so don’t shy away from the media.

To learn more about working at the intersection of science and policy, read Amanda Giang’s Scientist on the Scene profile of Dr. Celia Chen and follow our blog and twitter (@MITmercury) as we report on the final day of the INC5 mercury negotiations.

Scientist on the Scene: A Profile of Dr. Celia Chen

Celia Chenby Amanda Giang

We’re certainly not the only science-folk at INC5. Over the course of the week, we’ve had the opportunity to meet many others who are here to support the negotiation in one way or another. Between sessions, I had the chance to catch up with one of them, Dr. Celia Chen, to find out a little more about why she’s here at the negotiations and what advice she has for us aspiring science-policy wonks.

Celia works in the Department of Biology at Dartmouth College, as part of the Toxic Metals Superfund Research Program. The program, which is funded by the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences (NIEHS), looks at how mercury and arsenic in the environment affect ecosystem and human health. Within the program, she spends her time “wearing two different hats,” she says, one as a traditional eco-toxicologist and principal investigator for a project on the fate of metals in aquatic food webs, and a second as the principal investigator of research translation. “Translation is part of the mandate NIEHS gives for Superfund research,” Celia explains. Not only are researchers within these programs expected to clarify the science of contamination, but they’re also expected to make sure that their findings are communicated—or translated—to stakeholders (i.e., the people who can use or are directly affected by the findings), be they regulators from the EPA and FDA, or local food cooperatives.

She sees this research translation as a crucial role that scientists must play in policy-making forums. “We need to take what we know about the science and put it in a language that is accessible to policy makers,” she argues. Too often, critical scientific knowledge remains locked up in scientific publications, which, while they are the bread-and-butter of professional research, don’t always penetrate into policy circles. Celia feels that it is the responsibility of scientists to put their work in a form that resonates with—and is useful to—those in decision-making positions, from consumers making choices about their personal fish consumption, to negotiators working at an international scale. In fact, that’s why she’s attending the mercury negotiations. In 2010, the Toxic Metals Superfund Research Program created the Coastal and Marine Mercury Ecosystem Research Collaborative (C-MERC) to synthesize current knowledge on the environmental health impacts of mercury in a policy relevant way. Celia is attending INC5 to share the results of this project: the Sources to Seafood report.

“We tried to ask stakeholders first what they needed to know,” describes Celia. “The timing of [the Sources to Seafood report] was on purpose.”

Sources to Seafood was published on the tail of a domestic regulation in the US for mercury from coal-fired power plants, and directly before the final negotiating session for a global treaty on mercury. A key question that policy makers for both domestic and international regulation want clarified is how controlling different sources of mercury emissions and releases will actually affect human exposure. This question is important for both designing new policy and evaluating existing ones.

“When we began this work, most of the research done on mercury in the environment was done in freshwater systems, not marine. But most people are exposed to methylmercury through marine seafood,” Chen says. The report estimates that, for most of the US population, 85% of methylmercury exposure comes from marine fish. What are the sources of mercury that affect different marine and estuarine—that is, ocean and coastal—systems, from which fish are harvested? How do these sources affect human exposure? Researchers in biogeochemistry, food web dynamics, and health were all trying to answer different parts of these questions, but these different threads weren’t being woven together into a comprehensive picture.

“The most novel part of [the Sources to Seafood report],” Celia argues, is its interdisciplinary and cross-scale approach. “There are still many gaps and not enough data,” she says, but by synthesizing many different studies from different fields, a few conclusions can be drawn.

The most important point from the Sources to Seafood report that needs to be conveyed to decision-makers, Celia highlights, is that for each ocean system, critical sources of mercury may be different—some systems are most affected by atmospheric deposition, while others are most affected by inputs from rivers. Will the draft text on emissions and releases reflect these nuances? Celia hopes that reports like Sources to Seafood might help ensure that it does.

As for students interested in marine science-policy, Celia recommends that they consider the Sea Grant Knauss Fellowships, which match students with “host” policy makers in the executive and legislative branches of the US government in Washington D.C. These fellowships are open to any student, regardless of citizenship, enrolled in a graduate program at a US university that has a Sea Grant program.

For those interested in how the final treaty shapes up, keep following developments here on our blog and via twitter @amandagiang and @MITmercury.