BAY DELTA SCIENCE CONFERENCE: Felicia Marcus on the use of science in complex public policy decision making

bay-delta-sceince-conference-thin-headerThe Bay Delta Science Conference, held in November in Sacramento, brought together more than a thousand scientists, engineers and resource managers to exchange ideas, learn about problem-solving science, and explore creative solutions to the Delta’s and San Francisco Bay’s myriad of problems.

As Chair of the State Water Resources Control Board, Felicia Marcus is a consumer of the science produced by those working in the Delta.  Before her appointment to the Water Resources Control Board, Chair Marcus served in positions in government, non-profit, and the private sector, including an appointment to EPA Region 9 during the Clinton Administration, where she was known for building alliances between diverse and often conflicting stakeholder groups to achieve environmental progress, and for making the agency more responsive to the communities it serves, particularly Indian tribes, communities of color, local government, and agricultural and business interests.  In this speech from the plenary session of the Bay Delta Science Conference, Ms. Marcus talks about how scientists can help to make their science usable as well as useful.

bdsc-marcus-1Felicia Marcus began by noting that it’s been an inspiring, useful, and fascinating couple of weeks as she has attended a number of science meetings, as well as the variety of reports and updates that have come out, including the State Water Board’s scientific basis report for phase 2 of the Bay Delta Water Quality Control Plan update.

The level of focus, the level of product, and human interaction is all important and really great, and my impression and my suggestion is that we value and revel in it, and use the time to gain knowledge but also to reflect on what we know, what we don’t know, and how do we figure out how to work best together to make a constructive difference in the world.”

Ms. Marcus pointed out that this doesn’t just happen.  “It requires reflection, intention, and actions.  It requires intellect, but it also requires insight.  And it requires heart and compassion and empathy, including empathy for each other in addition to our beloved stakeholders and species.”

There are some other requirements which may seem obvious, she said.  “We obviously need science that answers key management questions going forward; we need to be able to move forward with regulatory decisions that are supported by science without perfect science; we need clear communication of science to decision makers and we need decision makers to respect science and scientists; and we need a well-functioning coordinated science program so that we don’t lose important opportunities to gain information, have our historic record put together or build on what’s gone before.”

Ms. Marcus said that in her talk today, she would be discussing how to use science in public policy but she’ll also be focusing on how to make science more influential, accessible, and usable in decision making.  Second, she’ll also give some observations on how to help us incorporate the best science possible into our decision making.

This is not just about approach and attitude, or intellect and integrity; it’s about how scientists can help make their work more relevant and accessible to decision makers,” she said.  “There’s also no question that decision makers also need to focus on understanding and respecting science and scientists.  It’s a two way street.

marcus-plenary-1_page_03Ms. Marcus then explained how the State Water Board uses science.  “We identify the problem; we gather the information; we elicit information from agencies, the public, and experts; we do lots of workshops; and we bring together external expert panels on almost everything,” she said.  “We do science workshops, we pull in the Delta Science Program, the Delta Independent Science Board, and increasingly we do that in the spirit of One Delta, One Science, which is probably one of the most important evolutions that we’re all engaged in over the past few years.

She noted that they rely on expert panels for a lot of their regulatory work.   “There are benefits to this,” she said.  “We like science, and we like to be as reality based as we can be, and it also helps get buy in in a public setting.  Our expert panels also meet in public on their own or in workshops we convene; frankly there’s a lot of combat science going on out there, and transparency gives us all a shot at questioning anything and everything, but also hearing what a group of experts feels is important, what the public feels is important.”

Our staff spends a lot of time doing synthesis and pulls together scientific basis reports or a staff report,” she continued.  “We propose a regulation, we go through CEQA and the like.  We do a lot of external peer review under the health and safety code to ensure we’re based on sound science; we do that blind peer review.  We do a lot of input in front of the board, lots and lots.  Some people think it may be too much, but it really does get us to better decision making, and since our decisions make a difference, we hope it’s worth it.  They also tend to cost someone a lot of money and effort, so that’s another reason to put in the time.”

Ms. Marcus said it’s important to understand that in the work that the State Water Board does, they have to balance between competing uses.  “In the context of our water quality control plan updates, our mission is to try and recognize and maximize all beneficial uses – whether that’s ag or fish and wildlife or recreation or hydropower – the list is actually very long,” she said.  “We don’t get to say one wins and the other loses, and yet the way people argue in front of us, you would think that it’s a contest where we just pick one …  in essence, we’re actually trying to do complex balancing that involves science and so much more.”

marcus-plenary-1_page_07Ms. Marcus then turned to the Bay Delta, noting that all of the reports they’ve produced and all the workshops they have convened are posted on their website.  “We take it very seriously,” she said.  “That’s why it’s always very striking when folks come in and tell us we should base our decisions on ‘science’ meaning the science that they favor, or the science that favors the result they would like to see us come to.  It’s a lot of time.  I’m not impugning the intention; a lot of it is very heartfelt, but it doesn’t really help us do our job so much.”

Ms. Marcus then gave three things that would make it easier for them to use science.  “First, the context.  Acknowledge and try to understand the context in which the decision maker is making decisions. Second: accessibility and intelligibility.  Work on making that science accessible and intelligible to policy makers, experts and non-experts – and most of us are non-expert.  Yesterday on the DPIIC meeting and reporting out on that Science Enterprise Workshop, Mike Chiatkowski used the phrase, ‘make science usable, not just useful’ as something that came out of that conference.  I’ll just say ‘Amen” to that.

Number three, dare to recommend, but don’t decree,” she continued.  “Retain your scientific integrity but dare to make recommendations.  At the same time, own your power and be responsible with it and have empathy for the decision makers who have to balance, even as you would have them respect you.”

We’re entering the era of adaptive management that requires all of the above as well as integrating social sciences into our work,” said Ms. Marcus.  “To make adaptive management work, we all have to learn how to be better ‘egosystem’ managers in order to be better ecosystem managers in the real world over time, versus lurching from sound bite to sound bite or wringing our hands that other players just don’t get it.”

Ms. Marcus said she would focus on Bay Delta decisions, but the points she would be making can apply to almost anything.  “Number one is, it can be a war zone out there; there’s a lot at stake, especially when talking about changes in flow standards that to some are essential for the very continued existence of endangered and threatened species, let alone ecosystem health and that others think are a complete waste of a precious resource to farms and communities in favor of a theory,” she said. “There’s tremendous amount of heat when we need light, and folks will seize on what sounds better for their legitimately held interests and try to trash whatever is inconvenient to their interests.”

marcus-plenary-1_page_09My second point is that this not an academic exercise,” she continued.  “As decision makers, we actually have to make decisions, and in the case of the water quality control plan updates, our task is to balance all beneficial uses and try to maximize them all, not pick one.  And that’s really tough.  Knowing that context doesn’t mean you need to do that for us, but be aware that this is what we have to do.”

I have to say that we do get whiplash sometimes to be honest,” she said.  “Where one panel of experts or an expert tells us what we absolutely have to do with flow or bust, that can be annoying or unhelpful; while others will ponder innumerable imponderables in front of us and tell us they can’t tell us anything.  Context, my friends.  Think about the position we’re in and what we’re called upon to do.”

Obviously the ecosystem health of the Bay Delta has plummeted over the past couple of decades since the last time we updated the water quality control plan, despite many good intentions on the part of many and a lot of actions.  Obviously in our view, the science indicates strongly that the intense level of diversion for human uses are a key factor if not the key factor, but diminished flows aren’t the only factor, but they are big factor that also influences the other non-flow stressors, like predation, water quality, or habitat, etc.

You also know that other water bodies that have had this much water diverted have not flourished or have collapsed entirely around the globe, and yet on the other hand, we know that agriculture and urban communities have been built on that historic diversion of water, and that there’s a real cost to returning that water to our water courses,” Ms. Marcus said.

There’s intense political and social interest and there’s a lot at stake.  People who are opposed to any constraints on diversions other than Mother Nature are wanting definitive science to justify any further regulatory actions and are looking to poke holes in whatever science is advanced to justify what in their minds is taking their water away from them and that’s understandable,” she said.  “Fishing families and environmentalists who are freaked out at the ecosystem collapse want every drop of water needed to restore healthy fish stocks that were recommended in our 2010 flow criteria report.  One side says it’s all really about predation, the other side says it’s not at all about predation.  We have to balance.  So put yourself in our place.”

It’s rather challenging for scientists to make information accessible to decision makers, Ms. Marcus said.  “I think part of the challenge of making it accessible to us is to think about who you are talking to,” she said.  “It’s not about your ego; it’s about thinking about the people in the room.  That means seeing the decision makers as humans with a hard job versus being your tormentors or ignorant non-scientists.  My main point is that we do need to take the time to see, to appreciate, and to try to understand where each other sits, what we have to do, and recognize that it takes some effort to do that and to communicate across expertise and situational divides.  It’s really not about being the smartest guy in the room; it’s about bringing all of your human skills to the effort, not just your professional skills, and it’s definitely being sensitive to others.”

marcus-plenary_page_15The Chinese have a saying, ‘it’s like a chicken talking to a duck’ which is about people talking past each other, and this means just talking in the language of your science peers to us isn’t going to work because we don’t’ understand,” said Ms. Marcus.  “I’ll give you two quick examples.  Early in my career as a lawyer for the group that became Heal the Bay, we were fighting with the City of LA, and you would think from our rhetoric that the guys from the sewage treatment plant went there in the morning to generate sewage for the fun of dumping it in the ocean and destroying the ecosystem of Santa Monica Bay.  When we went into meetings to try and talk with the chief engineer, I would ask questions, and he would answer in a way that was unintelligible and we assumed he was just trying to blow us off.  One day, I said, ‘I’m just going to keep asking this question in a different way until he answers it,’ and so I asked it in a different way, and he totally answered the question.  I realized that engineers just speak another language, and we need to figure out how to translate.  That epiphany that we all had in the room led to a partnership that arguably led to the biggest environmental turn-around of any major city in the 80s and the 90s in the America, and it would not have happened but for realizing that there was translation needed.”

Similarly when I was running the public works department, we had a challenge at Lopez Canyon at our landfill,” she said.  “I went to a meeting to figure out what was going on, and a woman from the community asked, ‘what’s the 100 year flood?’  And an engineer gave the answer in cubic feet per second.  So I said, I think I know what the problem is.  Just think about that.  It’s not just language, it’s also style of speech.”

A recent meeting I was at, scientists very well intentioned and speaking in the language of scientists spent what felt like an hour talking about everything they didn’t know, every caveat, and seemed to conclude that it would take us 15 years to find anything out,” Ms. Marcus continued.  “Similar, just yesterday in a meeting, someone who was really good and very excited gave a talk about everything we don’t know and all things that could happen in 50 years, not recognizing that what he was saying could be read by combatants as, ‘we don’t know a damn thing and we can’t do anything so why bother.’  It was  perfect argument for stakeholders on why we shouldn’t move forward, and he was apparently clueless that that was how it was being heard in the room.  A wonderful guy.  I thought, why does he think that way? Why might he think that way?  Why does that make sense to him?  I realized that I was lucky that I had been through two weeks and a lot of other presentations that talked about the art of the possible, so that there were things that we could do.”

marcus-plenary-1_page_08Just know that for decision makers, you need to give us a pathway on what to do,” she said.  “You don’t have to tell us to the answer because you can’t, and you can caveat it, but you should start with what we could do, and start with language that’s a little more about the art of the possible.

Ms. Marcus had a final point on words.  “You don’t have to be definitive.  You don’t have to know every mechanism, even though folks will ask for those.  You don’t need to be able to predict exactly what will happen.  We don’t want you to be that uncomfortable getting out over your skis, but again, it would be helpful to use words like ‘it’s more likely than not’, ‘the science suggests’, or even ‘the most promising theory is’, or ‘this is worth a try’, and of course, include every caveat.

Give us the sense that there’s action that could be taken, as well as what else it would be good to know,” she continued.  “Especially in this area of adaptive management, which I hope we’re truly entering, instead of just talking about across the decades.  There’s always more to know, but we need to figure it out together, which is why we need to figure it out together and why we need to figure out how to communicate and work together better, rather than sitting back frustrated in our separate silos.  In other words, give us your best guess with caveats in their proper place.  Not assertions with no caveat, but not all caveats.”

These three elements: acknowledging and being aware of our context, making your work accessible to the non-experts, and daring to make recommendations even with appropriate caveats will go a long way towards making science usable as well as useful,” she said.  “Having folks wanting to support more of it, and making a thoughtful difference in the world.  At heart though, it is about connection and consciously seeking to connect with each other, as we bring our different skills and missions to the party.  They are also absolutely essential to do better and more frequently and more in concert with others in the context of adaptive management, which is what we’re all going to have to learn how to do together, scientists and policy makers and advocates on all sides of the Bay Delta issue.”

If we have a prayer of having a healthier ecosystem, healthier agriculture, and healthier urban communities, we’re all going to have to stretch and all have to translate, even as we learn how to interpret others, but it’s going to be for the better – for the world, but also for ourselves.  Now more than ever, we need to effectively use our knowledge, science and fact-based information in policy decisions that allocate resources which impact the health and wellbeing of all people in California and beyond.”

Let’s do that better together, with intellect but also with compassion, and empathy for all, as well as for each other,” Ms. Marcus concluded.

For more from the Bay Delta Science Conference …

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