‘Science Unusual’ to Counter Fake News!
By Debra Tan, Feng Hu 13 July, 2017
Science & policy have their own language. Hu & Tan on the urgent need to bridge science & policy
Every three years, the International Water Resources Association (IWRA) hosts a World Water Congress. The purpose: to advance water resources knowledge, policy and management around the world. As a result it is less “public-friendly” compared to World Water Week and more of a gathering of people from the “water world”.
This year, China Water Risk ventured to the XVIth Congress for the first time presenting on our work on Yangtze water-nomics with MEPFECO. Held in Cancun, this year’s theme was “Bridging Science and Policy” and aimed to bridge the gaps in knowledge, communication, and coordination. With the US pulling out of the Paris Agreement and climate change deniers abound, the theme appears to be on topic.
Speaking in tongues
Science and policy has its own language. It is also different from the language of social media, although this is also merging. Different speak and performance yardsticks have also left gaping holes and disconnect between scientific knowledge and policy actions.
At the end of the Congress, a ‘Cancun Declaration’ was released. It highlights:
“Water is one of the most crucial needs for the Earth and all of its inhabitants. The holistic ambition of sustainable development in a changing world needs multidisciplinary knowledge, evidence based policies, involvement and participation of everybody for a more effective implementation of solutions”.
In plain speak – Water is essential for our survival, we all (no matter who you are) need to work together so will still have this resource in the future. We all need to work harder at getting the message across.
Policy makers need “to assimilate science into the decision-making process” and scientists & water experts need “to respond to the needs of civil society and to make new knowledge available for public debate”. Translate – scientists and water people need to make it easier to understand and access important facts so that government/businesses can make better decisions.
In short, information and data needs to be digestible and credible to combat fake news.
In Asia, we face huge water & climate challenges
Our water challenges in Asia are enormous and pressing. At the Congress, Simon Lagan (from the Water Futures and Solutions Initiatives (WFaS) at IIASA) warns that future water demand in Asia may see a 30%-40% increase by 2050 from the 2010 level.
Climate change impacts 10 rivers which flow into 16 countries in Asia …
The source region of 10 major rivers in Asia, the Hindu Kush Himalayas is feeling the impact of climate change. These rivers provide water to 210 million people who live in the Hindu Kush Himalayan region but these 10 rivers also flow into 16 countries providing water to up to 1.7 billion Asians. One in three of us rely on water from these river basins.
We have been lamenting about vanishing ice and the lack of financing. Up close and personal time on these retreating giants are sad experiences.
It comes down to the fact that they are out of sight and out of mind of policy makers and other key decision makers in Asia. So we thought we would try bridge the gap between science and economics.
Water-nomics of 10 of Asia’s mighty rivers
Over the last year and a half, we have been working with Center for Water Resources Research at the Chinese Academy of Sciences on the water-nomics of these 10 river basins. We hope to publish the report later this year.
Upcoming report includes climate trends for 10 river basins
Insights from modelling results have found increased temperatures and reduced snowfall across all 10 rivers basins over the last 50 years. Unfortunately even under RCP4.5 (more likely than not to exceed 2°C by 2100), projections show that temperature will rise at a faster rate in the next 50 years across all basins.
Snowfall decrease will also be more pronounced in the next 50 years. Temperature rise and snowfall decrease vary dramatically depending on basins.
These clearly have impact on river run-off which will in turn affect the economies along these rivers. Can these rivers sustain economic growth? All will be revealed soon…
G19 vs. 1 does not exempt US from climate risks
Last week we saw the G19 breaking-off with the US position on climate change. Unfortunately, ignoring climate change will not change impending events and rising water risks. Ignoring climate change just means no plans or funds directed to adapt to such risks.
New report show southern parts of the USA will suffer first, especially Florida
Just this month, we saw a research paper released on the uneven impacts of temperature rise across the USA. The southern parts of the USA, in particular Florida, will suffer more first than the north. Mean sea level rise alone could cost several coastal states up to 2.3% of their state GDP if temperature rise surpasses 4°C by 2100 (RCP8.5).
Current scientific research model could be the roadblock
Climate change and therefore climate related risks know no borders. Global policies should clearly cater for national as well as spatial differences. Such data should be already relayed to key decision makers but it is often not. The current scientific research model could be the unwitting roadblock. It has also in a way helped climate deniers spread misinformation and doubt…
Scientific research model needs a “business-unusual” revamp
Good research is hard to access. There are only a few water-related open-access journals. Some platforms offer an open-access option if the author/research funder pays the open-access publication fee. This can prove costly for some researchers, especially those in their early-stage careers or those in developing countries with already limited funding.
Open access of scientific knowledge is still lags …
… public is easily flooded by fake or outdated news
So in general, those who want access to good data and new information will have to pay. The public or small businesses will hardly pay USD30-50 to access a scientific paper based on a short abstract. This means that they will only see scientific/ water related information via the news, or they ask “Uncle Google” who appears to nowadays be inundated with ‘fake news’ or outdated information.
This almost seems ‘unfair’ for consumers given many research is funded by public money. Already, the European Union has required articles from all projects receiving Horizon 2020 funding to be openly accessible.
Changing scientist performance metrics may also help
Another disconnect is that a scientist’s performance is measured by the number of papers published. Also the more prestigious the journal, the better. They are not measured on if their research feed into/influence/change policy decisions.
So just as many researchers are calling policy makers to not solely focus on GDP, the scientific community should also reflect on their current benchmarks. Surely in these pressing times both parties should seek better measurement of sustainable impacts of the knowledge generated.
Clearly with so much fake news around, it’s time to revamp the current ‘business model’ of scientific research.
Lack of research & funding despite high stakes
The lack of funding exacerbates this disconnect.
The science of climate change is underfunded & facing cutbacks … time for Asia to step up?
Across OECD countries, overall government-financed R&D has seen a 2.4% fall (in real PPP terms) from 2010 to 2015. As warned by OECD, this may ‘pose a threat to innovation’ given the increasing need for cross-border collaboration in dealing with global challenges like climate change. Scientific fields such as environmental research generally rely more on public money, compared to say medical research which also attracts significant private investment.
In Asia, the science of climate change is underfunded. With Trump cutting climate finance across several federal agencies such as NASA, EPA and U.S. Geological Survey, surely it is time for Asian governments/ foundations/ businesses to step up.
China appears to have emerged as the default leader in the region on this front. China-led Third Pole Environment program has been pooling multi-national resources to facilitate more comprehensive study of the region. Just recently, an international scientific conference on ‘Third Pole’ was held in Kunming. Soon, another one will be held in Lanzhou in early August.
Can China & India avoid border conflict to protect common waters?
But China cannot do this alone; India also needs to focus on its pervasive water risks by protecting their common upper watershed, the “Himalayan water towers”. The fact that both Xi & Modi avoided talking about border conflict and instead told the BRICS that member countries needed to focus on remaining committed to an open global economy and fighting climate change is a good sign.
China’s plan is … plan, plan, plan
China is a planned economy and science has always played an important part in policy making. In Cancun, Li Yuanyuan, the Vice President of General Institute of Water Resources and Hydropower Planning and Design, gave some good examples of current policies in China that bridge science and policy:
- 3rd round of national water resources assessment: starting from April 2017
- Balance sheet of water resources as natural assets
- Evaluation of water resources carrying capacity
- Defining aquatic eco-space (e.g. rivers, lakes, drinking water sources) and redlines
- River basin water allocation
- Implementing the river chief system
Many of these policies were inspired by and/or gained inputs from scientific research of both domestic and international scientists and professionals.
Beyond water, there is the 3rd National Climate Change Assessment Report released just before COP21 in Paris. Around 500 scientists provided input into the report over a span of more than 3 years. This collective effort provides a solid scientific base from which policy makers can make better climate decisions.
The report is not a state secret, you can buy it on Amazon. After reading it you will get why President Xi is so focused on making sure the climate agenda stays on track.
The importance of this collective scientific effort in building consensus amongst regulators can also not be ignored with China playing leading roles from pushing renewables to green bonds in 2016.
Even empowered by science, decisions for a secure water future still lie in our hands
It is true that scientific advances can provide decision makers with more comprehensive and accurate data as well as assessment tools. But, science alone won’t help us arrive at the final decisions. Making sound policies in both governments and businesses will be affected by many other factors such as moral choices and traditions. It is ultimately up to the society to find the ‘optimum’ balance between environment and development.
Meanwhile, we will continue to work as “translators” – to ensure that water experts and economists speak the same language; to bridge science and finance in quantifying water risks; and to ensure that the business and investment communities as well as policy makers understand their water risk exposure.
Can data be better visualized and understood at a glance? Join us on our journey and perhaps in “translating” we can not only drive “business unusual” but also “science unusual”.
Finally, in times of changing climate, it’s best to avoid fake news – stay tuned for our report on Asia Water-nomics later this year! If not already, sign up for our newsletter now
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