Conservation conversation: Narrow the gap between science and policy

Climate change

Nature or capitalism? The scientific community must appreciate that policymakers tend to focus on short-term issues driven by short political cycles that call for quick evidence and solutions.

Photo credit: Shutterstock

What you need to know:

  • Whereas science needs to address existing and emerging environmental problems, policymakers are often confronted by facts that lack policy relevance.
  • The priorities of the private sector over conservation can dictate how and when the policymakers engage with science.

The government has placed a huge premium on development projects to improve the social and economic wellbeing of its citizens. There is overwhelming evidence that these projects proceed at the expense and pressure on environment. 

Efforts to address these challenges are evident through a wide range of progressive environmental and biodiversity-related policies. However, we have witnessed disagreements, especially between the civil society and research organisations on the one hand, and the government on the other. 

They highlight disagreements between the priorities of research scientists and decision-makers, the latter routinely being considered “evidence complacent”. We must acknowledge that like other “wicked problems”, scientific knowledge is just one factor in policy making. Weak technical capacity, poor coordination and inadequate funding are other challenges in policy making and implementation. 

Whereas science needs to address existing and emerging environmental problems, policymakers are often confronted by facts that lack policy relevance. These tend to be overly theoretical and abstract. Coupled with their lack of understanding of how policies are made, most scientists fail to meet the priorities of the government and of the policymakers. 

One reason for this is the failure by scientists to ask policy-relevant questions by including and collaborating with policymakers from the start of their projects. On the other hand, failure by the government and policymakers to offer better incentives for scientists to focus on policy-relevant research can be a major issue.
Devolved system

Furthermore, scientists are often rigid and fail to tailor their evidence to suitable audiences, for example through blogs, summaries, simple language, open access and infographics. Finally, Kenya’s education system has not empowered young scientists to appreciate the importance of real-world science application and hence poor policy education and training.

It is not lost on observers that conservation has not been a key political priority. Indeed, social and economic conversations are dominated by the GDP as the mainstream measure of prosperity. However, science has demonstrated numerous benefits of conservation. 

On the other hand, the priorities of the private sector over conservation can dictate how and when the policymakers engage with science. The challenge here is the lack of accounting for and communication on conservation benefits to policymakers and the public.

Political commitments

Like with the policymakers, scientists’ failure to include the industry and private sector in research, work with the media to engage policymakers and public and train policymakers in conservation science to help them see the importance of conservation have been major obstacles to breaking these barriers. 

Furthermore, scientists have not made accessible evidence-based arguments to counter private sector lobbyists as was seen in the case of the SGR through the Nairobi National Park.

During a cross-sectoral stakeholder workshop in Nairobi in 2019, infrastructure sector representatives raised concerns that their counterparts from the conservation sector had a lot of evidence of the possible impacts of linear infrastructure on wildlife and yet this was never shared with road and rail engineers at the right time.

The global community has shown us how an honest and transparent conversation between scientists and practitioners can resolve the questions asked by policymakers through, for example, the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services and the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. 

In Kenya, emerging platforms such as the Conservation Alliance of Kenya are playing a critical role in engaging government agencies and scientists in conservation conversations, policy development and implementation and research and dissemination. These platforms need to be encouraged and supported to have a wider impact and influence. 

The scientific community must appreciate that policymakers tend to focus on short-term issues driven by short political cycles that call for quick evidence and solutions. 

Therefore, scientists must advocate for a wider strategy that includes setting up of long-term platforms that span political time scales. It’s time the scientific community nudged policymakers to consider pro-environmental long-term policies, including other measures of prosperity besides the GDP. 

It’s critical to draw from success stories of the invaluable contribution of the environment to local livelihoods, to inspire rather than focus on the “negative impacts” that send doom and gloom messages. And, of course, policymakers live among us; they can be influenced by relevant human-based stories. The scientific community can increase the influence of science through training scientists and policymakers to understand mutual work flows, encouraging collaborative inter-disciplinary research, and telling policy-relevant stories.

Finally, the Constitution has created opportunities for reaching the public as it has devolved the responsibility for implementing environmental policies to counties. 

This offers opportunities for a parallel transfer of appropriate technical expertise, improving institutional coordination and budget allocations. Political commitments can be obtained at such levels and hence the development of context-specific policies.

Dr Nyumba is the Development Corridors Partnership Project coordinator, African Conservation. [email protected]

Welcome!

You're all set to enjoy unlimited Prime content.