Thursday, December 22, 2016

Science contributions to international conservation policies: a perspective from COP13 in Cancun, Mexico

By Alejandra Echeverri and Charlotte Whitney 

The past three weeks, in Cancun at COP13, have given us some hard-hitting concrete and surprising lessons about the role of science—and scientists—in policy.  COP13 is the 13th meeting of the Conference of the Parties of the Convention on Biological Diversity, the United Nations meeting on biodiversity, a collective global agreement to change the course of biodiversity loss. The meeting covered several crucial topics: Mainstreaming biodiversity (i.e., integrating biodiversity considerations) in productive sectors (e.g., forests sector, agriculture, tourism and fisheries), the rights of Indigenous Peoples and Local Communities (IPLCs), Ecologically and Biologically Significant Areas (EBSAs), marine debris, and invasive alien species, among others.

As PhD students who have spent much of our lives in university, and comparatively little time doing advocacy or policy work at the international level, we were curious about the role of science in these types of meetings. The permanent discourse that we perceive from academics is: “Policy should be more informed by science. Scientists need to go talk to policy-makers more often”. From our perspective, the overall feeling among academics is that policy-makers and scientists don’t talk to each other very often, and that more integration between these two groups is needed. At least before coming to this meeting, we also thought this was the case. But, turns out that (at least at this meeting) this is not true!

In fact, most of the draft decisions of the policy documents discussed here are well-informed by science. Many paragraphs have a wealth of scientific terminology that encompasses relevant scientific information, and to our surprise, even new scientific advances. But we would like to share three lessons we have learned about science informing policy in this setting.

The good: policy is paying attention to science

  •      Some policy-makers are indeed paying attention to current science

We have attended the plenaries and listened to the discussions and negotiations about the aforementioned topics. Some national policymakers are indeed paying attention to science, and importantly to current science, such as the science on microplastics.

  •  The discussions of policy-makers are often about scientific terms

For a specific paragraph, we often spend 1 hour negotiating the appropriate language. A fascinating discussion occurred over the following paragraph, which referred to priority actions for mitigating and preventing the impacts of marine debris on marine and coastal biodiversity and habitats:

“Establish a collaborative platform for sharing experiences and exchange of information on good clean-up practice in beaches and coastal environments, pelagic and surface sea areas, ports, marinas and inland waterways… “[1]

Parties went back and forth over the inclusion or deletion of the world pelagic and surface areas. Morocco wanted to delete “pelagic and surface areas” and use “at sea areas”. Canada wanted to keep pelagic, and said that parties should not omit this area for cleanup efforts because the microplastics accumulate also in the water column. Australia, Philippines agreed with Canada. Colombia wanted to keep the word pelagic and said that this is the accurate scientific terminology. Kenya agreed. Oman proposed using “and other marine environments instead”…. On and on. It was an arduous discussion. At the end “pelagic and surface areas ended up staying”. Discussions like these reflect both how scientific terminology is actually being addressed by policy-makers, but also reveal the background politics that may influence the decision currently in discussion.

Contact group on EBSAs during COP13, photo by IISD, ENB

  • Many of the party delegates are scientists.
We met amazing people throughout this week. We learned that for the big delegations (e.g., Canada, Colombia) half of their team (ca. 8 people total) are scientists, who are trained in various topics, such as population genetics, fisheries, terrestrial ecology, etc. The other half are lawyers or policy analysts trained in the legal aspects of environmental issues. Many of these delegates have worked as scientists and researchers for many years, and delegations seem to arrange their team in order to have one scientist paired with one legal/policy expert at the table at all times. However, many countries are underrepresented (e.g., Syria only has 1 delegate in total), so this is not the case for all delegations.

The bad: Many scientists present their work to policy-makers as if they were academic colleagues


At many side events organized by big organizations that we respect (e.g., International Union for Conservation of Nature) , panel sessions are full of scientists. These sessions are often 1.5 hours long and talks take up almost all the time, leaving only 15 minutes at the end for questions. In principle, these talks are interesting. But they follow the same format of scientific conferences, which does not seem to be useful for policy-makers. Scientists present their results in the same way they present it to their academic colleagues, e.g., with complicated graphs and fancy conceptual frameworks. They don’t engage policy-makers into their conversations because they don’t leave room for discussion. Also, concepts are presented as abstract and theoretical, rather than concrete and grounded in real-world examples. We would favour sessions organized as workshops, with fewer presenters overall. Such a format would leave room for better dialogue and richer collaborations. Although scientists have made efforts to make their findings known at policy conferences, in our opinion they have failed to tailor their messages for policy-makers.

The Ugly: Much of the science presented is not helpful for policy


Some scientists advocate for more science to be included in policy, and on the political side we see increased demand for “evidence-based-policy”. But much of the science being presented here is not helpful for policy. For example, it is hard to understand why scientific talks that are “tailored to policy-makers” keep referring to future research questions, and keep acknowledging that despite spending the last 8 (or X amount of) years studying an issue, we don’t have a clear answer and that we need to learn more—why not focus on what we do know that does have relevance for policy? If scientists want to inform policy more, we really need to focus on the product rather than the task. By this we mean, explaining how to use the frameworks, indicators, etc. that we develop.



Plenary room during COP13. One of the tables is reserved for scientists, who get a voice during the negotiations. Photo by IISD, ENB.

Despite challenges and areas for improvement, our exposure to hundreds of scientists and policy makers from 196 parties who are trying to reach the Aichi Biodiversity targets is a motivating reminder of how many of us care deeply about these issues, and are working hard to make progress.

Alejandra Echeverri and Charlotte Whitney are youth delegates with GYBN (Global Youth Biodiversity Network) at COP13 in Cancun, Mexico. Alejandra is a PhD student in the CHANS lab working on bird communities and their associated ecosystem services, and Charlotte is a PhD Student in the Marine Ethnoecology lab at the University of Victoria studying marine spatial planning and adaptive capacity for climate change




[1] Paragraph 10c. CRP2. WG2, available at: https://www.cbd.int/conferences/2016/cop-13/documents. 

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