A New Problem-Solving Strategy for Global Environmental Issues

Article excerpt


Few will still doubt that our modem technological culture has reached a turning point and that it must change drastically if we are to manage our environmental problems. It may not yet be as widely appreciated that science, hitherto the mainspring of that technological progress, must also change. From now on its central task must be concerned with the pathologies of our industrial system; and this imposes new problems and requires new methods. These concerns are the subject of our study.

Now the global environmental issues present new tasks for science; instead of discovery and application of facts, the new fundamental achievements for science must be in meeting these challenges. Because of the very rapid changes in the environment, society, and science itself-and in their interactions-a general awareness of the new state of science has yet to be achieved. Here we make the first articulation of a new scientific method, which does not pretend to be either value-free or ethically neutral. The product of such a method, applied to this new enterprise, is what we call "post-normal science."

The concept of uncertainty is at the core of the new conception of science, but hitherto it has been kept at the margin of the understanding of science, for laypersons and scientists alike. Whereas science was previously understood as steadily advancing in the certainty of our knowledge and control of the natural world, now science is seen as coping with many uncertainties in urgent technological and environmental decisions with global dimensions. A new role for scientists will involve the management of these crucial uncertainties; therein lies the task of quality assurance of the scientific information provided for policy. We have developed a method for assessing and expressing the quality of scientific information in terms of its characteristic uncertainties. This will be of use to scientists and will also help lay persons perform a critical assessment of the technical information presented to them in policy-related research.

The new global environmental issues have common features that distinguish them from traditional scientific problems. They are global in scale and long-term in their impact. Data on their effects, and even data for baselines of "undisturbed" systems, are radically inadequate. The phenomena being novel, complex, and variable are themselves not well understood. Science cannot always provide well-founded theories based on experiments for explanation and prediction but can achieve at best only mathematical models and computer simulations, which are essentially untestable. On the basis of such uncertain inputs, decisions must be made under conditions of some urgency. Therefore, science cannot proceed on the basis of factual predictions but only on policy forecasts.

We adopt the term "post-normal" to mark the passing of an age when the norm for effective scientific practice could be a process of puzzle-solving in ignorance of the wider methodological, societal, and ethical issues raised by the activity and its results. The leading scientific problems can no longer derive from abstracted scientific curiosity or industrial imperatives. They are thrown up by issues where, typically, facts are uncertain, values in dispute, stakes high, and decisions urgent. When research is called for, the problem to be studied must first be defined, and this will depend on which aspects of the issue are most salient; hence political considerations constrain which results are produced and thereby which policy implications are supported. In general, the post-normal situation is one where the traditional opposition of "hard" facts and soft" values is inverted; here we find decisions that are "hard" in every sense, for which the scientific inputs are irremediably "soft."

The inherent limitations of the traditional problem-solving strategies are revealed by a structural feature of the new global environmental issues. …