The Princeton Guide to Ecology

By Simon A. Levin | Go to book overview
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VII.11
Assessments: Linking Ecology to Policy

OUTLINE
Clark A. Miller
1. Assessment purpose and function
2. Assessment design and organization
3. An illustrative example: The Millennium Ecosystem Assessment
4. Conclusions: The politics of assessment

Finding ways to deliberate and communicate knowledge and ideas among ecologists, policy officials, and the public has not always proven easy or straightforward. In response to these challenges, governments have sought ways to systematize and rationalize the flow of ecological and other scientific knowledge into policy processes. The tool that they invented to do so is called an assessment. This chapter examines the purpose and functions of assessment, identifies central questions that confront assessment organizers, and argues for careful attention among ecologists to assessment design and management choices. The chapter also explores the need to think about assessments not only in scientific terms but also as an important location for fostering the societal deliberation of ecological knowledge and ideas.


GLOSSARY

assessment. Assessment is a tool for accomplishing three tasks: first, identifying, synthesizing, and evaluating a wide range of claims to knowledge; second, certifying a particular set of knowledge claims as relevant to policy decisionmaking; and third, fostering necessary communication among scientists of many disciplines, others with relevant knowledge, and policy and public audiences.

Millennium Ecosystem Assessment. The Millennium Ecosystem Assessment was a 5-year effort to assess global trends in ecosystem services and to transform the resultant knowledge into political action to reduce ecological threats worldwide.

Ecology is a highly policy-relevant science. As a discipline, ecology, perhaps as much as any other field of science, creates knowledge and ideas that are essential to the proper design and conduct of environmental policy. Yet, finding ways to communicate and deliberate knowledge and ideas among ecologists, policy officials, and the public has not always proven easy or straightforward. In a democracy, politics is inevitably contested, and ecological ideas, like all policy-relevant scientific ideas, are often uncertain, subject to tacit assumptions and models and open to interpretation from divergent scientific and political perspectives. Hence, beginning in the 1970s, government agencies sought ways to systematize and rationalize the flow of ecological and other scientific knowledge into policy processes. The tool that they invented to do so is called an assessment.

Today, assessments are central to the practice of ecology. Each year, ecologists contribute to thousands of assessments. High-profile assessments such as the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment (MA) and the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change provide ecologists with the opportunity to convey their ideas on a global stage. Far more mundane, but no less important, ecologists contribute every day to drafting the multitude of assessments required by the environmental laws of the United States and other countries: risk assessments, biological assessments, ecological assessments, wetlands assessments, endangered species assessments, biodiversity assessments, ecosystem assessments, etc. The collective impact of this work has enormous consequences for shaping the knowledge and ideas that are ultimately brought to bear on the making of public policy and, therefore, for what aspects of the environment are, and are not, preserved and protected for future generations. Hence, it is vital that ecologists give serious attention to the conceptual and practical foundations of assessment.

My objective in this chapter is to introduce and describe assessment, with special attention to questions of assessment purpose and function, assessment design and organization, and the broader politics of ecological and environmental assessment. In these discussions, I

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