Michael Klemens, Ph.D., is keynote presenter at Adirondack Wild: Friends of the Forest Preserve’s first annual meeting on Saturday, September 17, 2011 at the Paul Smith’s College Visitor Interpretive Center.
For more about that meeting and to RSVP, please
Michael Klemens, Ph.D., is a conservation biologist with research interests in biogeography and ecology of amphibians and reptiles, ecologically informed land use planning, and the conservation biology of freshwater turtles and tortoises. He founded the Metropolitan Conservation Alliance, a consortium of municipalities, planners and scientists working together to improve the stewardship of natural resources in the Hudson Valley and Connecticut. MCA and Dr. Klemens earned an achievement award from the American Planning Association recognizing accomplishment in integrating complex ecological data into the land-use decision-making process. In 2011, Adirondack Wild: Friends of the Forest Preserve retained Dr. Klemens as an expert witness at the Adirondack Club and Resort adjudicatory hearing. In addition to his consultancy with Adirondack Wild, Dr. Klemens is a Research Associate in Herpetology at the American Museum of Natural History and is adjunct faculty at the University of Maine and at Western Connecticut State University. He has also worked for many years with the Wildlife Conservation Society, Cary Institute of Ecosystem Studies, and other institutions.
The question may seem rhetorical to those of us who understand that well-grounded public policy depends on good information. However, important land-use policy decisions, exemplified by the proposed Adirondack Club and Resort in Tupper Lake, are bereft of the most basic scientific data. Even more alarming is that those very agencies charged with protecting the public interest in natural resources, i.e., "the commons" that are the public trust of the citizens of New York, fail to demand the highest levels of information before making critical land-use decisions. While there is enough blame to go around the table, I would like to examine the role of scientists themselves in this crisis. And-- I do not use the word crisis lightly. Public support and trust of environmentalists (including scientists, advocates, conservation not-for-profits, and state agencies) is at a low ebb, when compared to public confidence levels of previous decades.
Has science failed us? Or is the culture and reward system of science as practiced in the United States set us on a collision course where individual scientists are asked to choose between their survival as practitioners versus their own passions for the natural world and their ethics? Despite much rhetoric and lip-service over the last decade for the need of inter-disciplinary approaches, science remains fragmented within its own narrow fields of specialization. Inter-disciplinary studies may be a good fund raising tool for academic institutions, however the basic survival and advancement within academia remains tied to a narrowly defined reward system primarily based on peer-reviewed publications as well as teaching and grant-writing performance. Academics do not get "points" for participating in public policy activities, or working within communities.
In this climate of diminished financial possibilities, conservation groups and many state agencies have lost their edge, seeking accommodation with opposing interests in attempts to appear centrist and to achieve win-win solutions. This is not a bad in and of itself. However, when the primary goal of an agency or individual is to be centrist and create win-win solutions, instead of protecting the public interest, i.e., "the commons,” the ship of science runs aground.
The following are some thoughts on how we can begin a more rational dialogue about the role of science in advocacy and conservation. The concept of monolithic certainty lies at the root of many scientists' inability to effectively play on the field of public policy. Good science is important, but it is only a small part of the policy puzzle. The most effective policy is made when the scientific practitioner steps out of the ivory tower and works with a broad range of interests to ensure that their science is effectively integrated into the public policy process. Public policy is based upon trend data and extrapolation, that standard is somewhat different from the certainty required to publish journal articles to obtain rewards in academia. Sound public policy depends upon taking a step beyond the 95-99% certainty level, and stating what is reasonably likely to occur based upon an analysis of often limited data. This doesn't give the practitioner license to be sloppy or to overreach, but it does mean that to be effective on a playing field that is not governed by the rules of academia one must recognize that public policy has substantially different rules of engagement.
Returning to the ACR example, project proponents were advancing detailed plans for a large resort without any substantive data on wildlife. Project opponents were forced to rely on limited data collected in areas of public access to make a case for what may well be the condition throughout the 6200-acre site. Is this publishable science? No. Is it effective public policy? Yes! If we value scientific information, we need to create a safety net for more scientists to be able to venture into the mine-field of land-use policy. That net can include funding promising individuals to work in this arena, new institutions with differing reward systems, as well as a broader understanding of what we all will lose if we neglect to fix a system that fails to deliver the best information to the most pressing environmental issues of our time.
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