Crisis, Crescendo, Consensus
How Bay Science (sometimes) Changes Policy
Donny Eastridge pulls in a crab pot somewhere east of Chesapeake Beach. Steering the boat and checking the catch is Bobby Abner. New science-based policies restricting harvests have helped blue crab populations recover from historic lows. Photograph, Michael W. Fincham
IF BLUE CRAB NUMBERS START DECLINING again in Chesapeake Bay — and they will at some point — then scientists and policymakers will re-open some old debates about what policies to recommend for rebuilding the fishery.
Should they recommend that fisheries managers
a. reduce the harvest of male crabs, or
b. reduce the harvest of female crabs?
Which option would you choose? If you think the question is complicated, and it is, then you may want to try a yes-or-no question:
Should science findings play the deciding role in solving problems like this and setting policy for preserving the fishery?
Most people would probably answer yes — there is a widespread belief that science can show us the best way to conserve and manage the living resources of the Chesapeake.
If you answered yes to that question, you might think about this one:
How do science findings make their way into policy decisions about environmental issues?
The answer is not as simple as most people think. There is, it seems, a widespread fantasy that science findings flow easily and quickly into environmental policymaking. But that's not the case, according to Don Boesch, the president of the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science. For the last 25 years he has been serving as science adviser on the Governor's Bay Cabinet.
This fantasy about the easy flow of science into policy has a name. Boesch calls it "the linear model," and it works like this: The flow of findings begins with researchers who develop what Boesch calls the new "and sometimes inconvenient truths of science." They hand off their findings to technical advisers who work with state agencies such as Maryland's Department of Natural Resources (DNR) or federal agencies such as the EPA. The technical staffers forward those findings up the line to department managers. On some issues those resource managers can take actions on their own. On other issues the managers lay out policy alternatives for the consideration of elected officials like legislators and governors.
"That's the food chain," says Boesch, "And that could not be farther from the truth."
Don Boesch, president of the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science, serves as chief science adviser on the Maryland Governor’s Bay Cabinet. Photograph, Anne Gauzens
Try another analogy: try thinking of science findings as a flow rolling down a ruler-straight river channel. At the upper end of the channel new research findings start to flow downstream. At the other end of the channel, those findings pour into the policymaking arena.
But the flow doesn't work that way in America, in part because of the nature of science, in part because of the nature of democracy. There is no straight-line, free-flowing channel leading from science to policy. "It's much more complex than that," says Boesch, and a number of other policy observers agree with him.
Here's one cause for the complexity: science findings about an issue may not always flow in the same direction and they may not give a clear answer to a policy question — at least not right away. Take that opening question: what's the best option for rebuilding blue crab populations? Over the last two decades scientists at certain times have recommended Option A: reducing the harvests of male crabs. More recently they've been recommending Option B: reducing the harvest of female crabs.
It should be no surprise that scientists don't always agree with each other. They are trained, after all, to criticize each other's findings. As a result, science never seems to stop, it keeps moving shark-like to attack earlier findings, to develop new tools, to revise old paradigms, to rework any earlier consensus about problems and their proposed solutions. The process, essential to scientists, can be frustrating for policy makers who have to make decisions or recommend options. "When the hell is the jury in with science?" says John Griffin, former Secretary for Natural Resources in Maryland. "Well the jury is never in. There is always gray!"
And it should be no surprise that politicians who vote on policy issues are not comfortable with gray. Before they agree to any major policy change, they need a certain amount of security, says Ann Swanson who works with both scientists and politicians as executive director of the Chesapeake Bay Commission, a tri-state agency that advises the General Assemblies of Maryland, Virginia, and Pennsylvania. Security means confidence in any science-based recommendations — and confidence that those recommendations are widely understood and accepted by the voters who gave them their jobs. Politicians, after all, go through a new job interview with voters every two or four years. "Can you imagine every four years, if your employment went back to ground zero" says Swanson. "And other candidates were brought in to be interviewed?"
"You get to a place where you can change things," says Ann Swanson. "When the community is witnessing a problem, and the scientists are observing it, and when the writers are talking about it." As executive director of the Chesapeake Bay Commission, Swanson works with scientists and politicians to help the Commission advise the General Assemblies of Maryland and Virginia and Pennsylvania on Bay issues. Photograph, Michael W. Fincham
Security about new science can be hard to come by. Science findings flow into a policymaking arena that is often cluttered with competing groups: scientists who disagree with the findings, commercial fishermen or sportfishermen or farmers who dislike the findings, resource managers who can't see how they can apply the findings, advocacy groups who may want to publicize the findings — or bury them.
All that noise can leave politicians cautious about big changes. The result, according to Swanson: "Science-based policy making is incremental, it is about incremental change. It is only rare that you do something massive, like an all-out rockfish ban."
To understand what she means by incremental, consider the "crisis" of the oyster fishery. The great reefs in the mainstem and major river systems of the Chesapeake were allowed to drop to one percent of their historic levels. The decline of oysters and the near disappearance of a busy and profitable fishery developed over a century and a half, a time span dotted with numerous surveys, studies, and commissions, all designed to use science findings to save oysters and oystermen.
For much of that time, all the science findings from those studies and commissions produced only minor adjustments to policy: small oysters had to be thrown back, shell planting was tried for catching spat, seed oysters were moved around, harvest limits were reduced or expanded, power dredging was restricted to only two days a week. Incremental changes. Muddling through. Nothing radical. Nothing massive. No moratorium on harvesting, not even when stocks sank to one percent. No introduction of Asian oysters.
When science starts flowing downriver towards the policy arena, that stream often encounters dams, high walls thrown up by political caution or public confusion or organized opposition by watermen or farmers or industries. A dam can slow the flow of science findings. Or let a trickle through. Or shut off the flow completely. Over time science findings can pile up behind those dams, just as springtime runoff rises up behind Conowingo Dam up on the Susquehanna River.
But on occasion large storms arise, say a policy debate, an environmental crisis, or a lawsuit. Under sudden stress the floodgates on the dam can suddenly open — and a lot of that backed-up science surges through and changes policy in dramatic ways: a Chesapeake Bay cleanup is started, a ban on phosphates in detergents is passed, a moratorium on striped bass fishing is enforced, harvests of blue crabs are reduced, oyster sanctuaries are suddenly expanded (see A Bay Timeline).
"I think there are these fleeting moments when you can get information through," says Boesch, moments when the normal processes of science and of democracy no longer slow the flow. "Why should it be different than anything else in life, including evolution, punctuated equilibrium, or traffic," he says. "You make significant progress only in short spurts."
A Question of Trust
JUDGING ONLY FROM HEADLINES, it can seem like American citizens and scientists are frequently at odds. According to scholars of science communication, this discord over what science has reliably proven masks underlying conflicts over political values and religious interpretations on certain questions like evolution. But such highly publicized fights don't mean that Americans are down on science or scientists altogether. In the two articles below, Jeffrey Brainard writes about what several recent surveys, nationally and in Maryland, showed about how citizens feel about science and scientists.
This crisis-as-progress view of recent environmental history has its true believers and its non-believers. And it has some half-believers like Ann Swanson, who has been watching policy battles for 27 years. When massive and abrupt policy shifts are put in place, she says, those changes are not as sudden as they appear. As with any exciting movie, science-based policy making, at least according to Swanson, follows a three-act structure: crisis, crescendo, consensus.
A policy crisis arises, it moves through a crescendo stage, a wave of surging public attention to an issue. Science findings come together, media attention expands, political negotiation ensues, the general noise level of discussion and debate keeps ramping up. In lucky cases, the crescendo concludes with a consensus among scientists and some confidence among politicians about which policy choices make the most sense.
A crescendo, however, can take a long time to raise the decibel level. Sometimes it starts with leadership, a scientist or politician or activist willing to speak out. A rookie politician like Bernie Fowler raises the alarm about sewage pollution in the Patuxent River back in 1970s, then an experienced politician like Senator "Mac" Mathias raises the alarm about the entire Chesapeake Bay.
More often, though, the first drumbeats come from an environmental organization or a policy commission, from a sportfishing group or a commercial fishermens association or an industrial lobby, each of them pushing an agenda important to their members.
For science to get a hearing amidst the rising din, says Swanson, there have to be translators in the game: scientists who can explain science to the rest of us in language we can understand, writers who can explain science in stories we want to read, and allies in the advocacy community who can lobby for applying recent findings to recurring issues.
Translators can often be found in large advocacy organizations and they can play a major role in policy debates, says Will Baker, president of the Chesapeake Bay Foundation. These organizations keep scientists on staff who follow current research and synthesize and interpret its findings for legislators. All these translators don't have to play in the same key or follow the same score. What counts is that they play, that they raise the noise level.
"There are these fleeting moments when you can get information through. You make significant progress only in short spurts."
To understand how a crescendo can work, consider the case of the last "blue crab crisis." By 2008 the blue crab fishery was facing an apparent collapse, the result of a decade that had brought declines in recruitment and increases in fishing pressure. As a result, a historic and radical policy change was put in place that year. The states of Maryland and Virginia and the Potomac River Fisheries Commission broke with a long record of non-cooperation and agreed to jointly reduce the harvest of female crabs. And the cutback was significant: a 34 percent reduction in the number of female crabs that watermen could harvest.
The crisis was clear, but the crescendo of public discussion and political debate took more than a decade to build. The prime builder, in this case, was the Bi-State Blue Crab Advisory Committee (BBCAC), a multi-year effort that brought together groups from both states to talk with each other about crab science and management. Organized in 1996 by Swanson's Chesapeake Bay Commission, BBCAC set up workshops and conferences where all the stakeholders — legislators, watermen, seafood processors, and resource managers — were able to watch scientists publically disagreeing with each other. Should Maryland and Virginia reduce the harvest of male crabs? Or female crabs? By how much? For how long? What about threshold levels? Or target levels?
It was a learning experience for everybody. "Scientists are trained to tear each other's work apart, that's what peer review is," says Swanson, but policymakers need to see scientists come to some basic agreements about workable options. "When you have all of them [the scientists] shaking their heads in the same direction, you know you have a crescendo that is at a level where you have to really listen."
By the time Maryland and Virginia "suddenly" decided to take action in 2008, the scientists had worked out a consensus, the public had been paying attention, and the politicians had reached a level of security they needed. Watermen and crab house operators are voters, after all, and they weren't going to be happy. Maryland crabbers weren't going to catch as many females as they made their annual autumn migration towards the southern Bay. And Virginia watermen were going to be shut out of a historic winter dredge fishery that let them dig up pregnant females buried in the mud.
Crisis, crescendo, consensus: the whole process seemed to work. That last crab crisis opened the floodgates for blue crab science. It led to a major change in harvest policy. And it left a legacy: scientific consensus about biological reference points, targets and thresholds, the data that can help fisheries managers know when and where and how to adjust harvest levels and harvest gear and harvest seasons in order to sustain blue crab populations through boom years and bust.
Four years after the harvest cutback was announced, the Governor of Maryland stood on the back deck of a local crab house in May 2012 and announced there were more blue crabs in the Bay than any year since 1993. The estimate from the winter dredge survey put the population at 764 million blue crabs, a number that doubled the average annual counts during the decade before any crisis-level cutbacks were put in place. The "blue crab crisis" subsided — at least for a while.
A different kind of crescendo followed that announcement. Scientists and policymakers and politicians were applauded in the press — and justly so. They had worked through to consensus on the science and then consensus on the policy options. That let them make the smart, tough management decisions that helped an essential fishery recover from crisis.
Crisis, Crescendo, Consensus: A Bay Timeline
Science findings often play a major role in
designing policies to improve management of the
fisheries and water quality and environmental
resources of the Chesapeake Bay system. Especially
during moments of environmental crisis.