Interview & Opinion

“There is an emergency every day”

The American ecologist Martin Doyle deals with environmental policy issues at the renowned “Nicholas Institute”. Among other things, he advocates access to clean water. Source: Christine Miess/FWF

FWF: Your work lies at the interface of environmental science and policy-making. Climate issues are a good example of how the promise that more and better science would lead to better political decisions has proved to be wrong. Do you have an explanation for that?

Martin Doyle: Science doesn’t matter as much as we’d like to think it does. There was the idea back in the 1980s and 1990s that if we just shout loud enough people would start listening to science. More recently, there is a recognition among scientists that policy makers have a range of different constituents and concerns and science is just one of them. So while there are issues like climate change and ocean acidification, where we feel strongly that there should be an overwhelming science imperative for policy action, in reality politicians have to balance a lot of competing demands for their attention. So science has to take its place in line with all the other concerns as well. And it is very depressing for a scientist not to be at the front of the queue. But it is definitely a reality that we face.

FWF: Have researchers worked hard enough to communicate the severity of these crises?

Doyle: Yes, but I think scientists should be savvier. A lot of issues that we talk about, like climate change or biodiversity loss, are issues that span decades. One of the biggest things that I have learned by working with policy makers and in the federal government is that there is an emergency every day. So one thing researchers should become better at is recognizing what the issue for that particular policy maker is on a given  day and being sensitive to that, so as to be able to seize their opportunity when science and policy issues coincide.

I give you an example: When I was working directly in policy there was a record drought in 2016. There were many reservoirs that were shrinking, forest fires and so on. – Everyone cared about water. So it was a great time to be able to talk about water, climate change and things like that. But then we would have scholars come to our department who urged that what was needed was more water for biodiversity or in streams. What they were communicating and what the policy maker was concerned with during that year was terribly out of sync.

FWF: Does academia have enough access to political processes in the first place?

Doyle: One of the limitations that we often have is that our worlds are very different. There is little overlap, particularly in a basic social sense. So the opportunity to simply know each other is very unusual. But accessibility is definitely relationship-based. There is a fallacy that when posts become available in government or whenever politicians are going to ask someone for input,

The worlds of academia and politics are very different.

Martin Doyle

they are going to find the absolute best person. The first thing that you do is actually to contact someone you know. So part of the challenge for scientists entering the policy making sphere is for them to simply become known to policy makers and their staff.

FWF: Half of your position is doing basic research, the other half is working at The Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions. Both take place at Duke University. How did the idea arise to establish a policy think tank affiliated to the university?

Doyle: It was an unusual idea that they had at Duke 15 years ago. We are the only one as far as I know like us. None of the people who work at the Nicholas Institute are traditional academics, most of the people come from Congress and government and all have a background in policy making. That gives us the opportunity that whenever issues come up where we need to tap research, it is right next door. Conversely it allows us to bring academics into the policy making universe. It permits a lot more translation back and forth between the two groups, which was a clever idea of the founders. Still, there can be tensions with the University, who wants us focused on research, whereas we want to be doing policy as well. These tensions reflect the tension inherent between science and policy generally, and so it’s a healthy tension.

The purity of science is both its greatest strength as well as its greatest weakness.

Martin Doyle

FWF: There is growing distrust in science and politics today. How can public trust be regained and what role does science play in this?

Doyle: This is probably the greatest challenge for the next decade: regaining trust in public institutions. And science is a public institution. For scientists to regain that trust means to be sensitive to the social and economic impacts of addressing challenges like biodiversity loss or decarbonizing the electricity sector, for example. The latter would be devastating to a large number of people. So scientists may have very pure motives but there is almost a loss of recognition of what the impacts would be. Especially for environmental researchers it is important to at least be sensitive to the fact that while changes may be necessary, there will be social impacts of such changes. It is that balancing act that policy makers have to address. So the purity of science is both its greatest strength as well as its greatest weakness whenever it flows into policy making.

Martin Doyle, who worked in the federal government, knows that as a scholar it takes a great deal of intuition to communicate his concerns to politicians. Source: Christine Miess/FWF

FWF: Is there too much fragmentation of disciplines and responsibilities in the scientific as well as in the political field?

Doyle: At the Nicholas Institute we have adopted the motto: “If, then …” One of the most powerful things that we can do as scientists is to provide a policy maker with five to six options and their implications instead of advocating any one of them – as we actually tend to do. Providing that kind of systematic analysis of options is a very valuable role that a scientist can play. In the end it has to be the decision of the people in charge. One of the other things that we have started to recognize is that scientists are drawn to big government, like the European Union or the federal government in the US. But what we observe is that a lot of the interesting policy innovation is happening through small local governments.

We at the Nicholas Institute have rather set aside big government with the current politics as they are and instead we have looked at local level innovation that is actually happening. We analyse it to see how it works, if it is translatable to other towns and scalable to a bigger government. So we are using science as a way to amplify smaller scale types of policy experiments that are underway. And what we find is that this is actually getting a lot more traction than big government intervention at the global level. It looks like small policy making but actually it is very important because if we do have big global changes in policy regulation they are going to be implemented at the local level. So for a scientist to figure out how to engage at the local level is actually very worthwhile.

FWF: More and more people join movements like “Extinction Rebellion” or “Scientists for Future” to protest against climate emergencies we face and to hold politicians accountable. For a researcher is there a moral duty to go on the streets?

Doyle: I think it should be dealt with on an individual basis. We want scientists to be objective but if the harm is so intense that it becomes personal you will cross this line from neutral science to personal investment.

Focusing on local politics is worthwile, recommends Martin Doyle. It is on this level where innovative projects emerge. Source: Christine Miess/FWF

FWF: You work on a lot of different levels and in different projects cooperating with private organizations as well as public institutions. What have you learned as a researcher in communicating with different groups?

Doyle: I have definitely learned the most about science communication of all topics. Each community has a particular habit of communication. Scientists, whether in a paper or presentation, always have the same pattern: They tell you the problem, then

No matter what the topic is, boil it down to one page.

Martin Doyle

they spend a lot of time on the methods and then they tell you the results. And it takes forever. In almost every other setting no one cares about the methods up front; they care about the findings.  So one of the key things that I learned early on was preparing a one page memo and using no visuals. Most of the world outside of academia communicates like that. Thus I work a lot with my students on this: No matter what the topic is, boil it down to one page. – It takes a lot of work to do that.

The other lesson is that when there is an event on the government side, there is a window of opportunity. So for example if you do research on floods and this topic is on the front page of the newspaper then you have about 48 hours to get in touch with a policy maker and grab his or her attention. It is very often about momentum in science communication and whether you manage to implement small change in a window of time.  And over time the whole thing starts moving.

Implementing good ideas into society can be a long grind.

Martin Doyle

FWF: In 2017 you launched the “Internet of Water” as a co-founder and raised a lot of money for this project. What is it about?

Doyle: The idea was, especially after a couple of big water disasters in the US with huge public health implications, to be able to “google” our water quality. We can look up the traffic in Mumbai and the weather in Chile but we have a dearth of public information about the substance that we depend on for life. It turned out to be much harder than we thought in terms of getting the water agencies on board and figuring out how the data is going to be managed, also by the public. So it is not a technical but more a social problem. We have now a start-up team working on it and we will find solutions. But implementing good ideas into society can be a long grind.

FWF: In your recently published book “The Source“ you explore how rivers have shaped American politics, economics and society from the beginnings of the Republic to today. What were your main insights in doing research for the book?

Doyle: There were a couple. One of them is that every major city is there because of a river. And getting this appreciation for the geography of the US with respect to the rivers was very good for me. I travelled around the US and talked to many people who work on rivers. That turned out to be the most interesting thing for me in writing: We often think about rivers and their historical role, but there are a lot of people who still make their living on the water: Fishermen, people who drive barges, people who work in dams etc. Also what has resonated with people is how much of America’s history has been tied up with rivers. We have particular forms of government because of trying to manage rivers and some of the ways of financial management for example have a history in managing water systems.

FWF: History also shows that there have been wars over water all the time.

Doyle: In the drier areas of the Western US we still fight over water a lot. We have not had a war over it in quite a while, but give it time, I am sure we will.

FWF: What kind of picture do the rivers draw of today’s America?

Doyle: In 1969 two of our famous rivers were burning. They were so polluted with oil waste that they caught fire. Then we passed a lot of laws and now the rivers don’t burn any more. So in that sense we have been inordinately successful in cleaning up a lot of rivers. Like in Europe when environmental protection boomed in the 1970s and 1980s due to pollution and other catastrophes. Today we have very significant droughts and floods that cause enormous damage to regional economies. It is only now that a lot of people realize: This is what climate change looks like. And that is what scientists have been saying is coming. So I think there is this realization now in the United States that we have fixed some of the easy problems and now we face the hard problems.

Martin Doyle is Senior Associate Dean and Professor of river science at Duke University. He is also director of the Water Policy Program at the Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions. Doyle worked within the federal government during the Obama administration. Since 2013 he has co-led the annual water forum at the Aspen Institute and has won several awards for his research and publications at the interface of science, finance and policy in water management. In 2018 his popular science book “The Source: How Rivers Made America and America Remade its Rivers” was published.

scilog met Martin Doyle on the sidelines of the Symposium of the International Society for River Science ISRS  from 8-13 September 2019 in Vienna.

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