08 August 2011

Beyond Assessment at the Science-Policy Interface

[EDITORS NOTE: I am among a group of scholars who has authored a short letter on science advice for biodiversity in the current issue of Science (Hulme et al. is also here in PDF). This blog post, co-authored with Silke Beck and Christoph Görg of the Helmholz Center for Environmental Research (UFZ) in Leipzig, Germany, provides some additional background and links for those wanting to learn more.]

In the area of biodiversity and ecosystem services efforts to establish an international body to connect expert advice with decision making have coalesced in the IPBES (Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services). Such efforts are sometimes based on a call for an ‘IPCC-like mechanism for biodiversity.’

Even with the recent challenges faced by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), it still provides the role model for global panels, such as for biodiversity and food security. We believe that a formailzed approach to expert advice in the area of biodiversity and ecosystem services must look beyind the IPCC model.

Under the label ‘nested networks’, an interdisciplinary group of scientists at the Helmholtz Centere for Environmental Research at Leipzig has been exploring alternative options on how to produce and govern global environmental assessments. Such explorations also seek to contribute to ongoing debates, including those related to the IPCC reform process and the establishment of the IPBES, which will formally take place in autumn this year.

The Leipzig effort has centered on two international workshops that brought together different group of actors involved in political negotiations and outstanding scholars from different scholarly disciplines and backgrounds. Here is a brief summary, with links to further information:

•In October 2006, a group of highly experienced scientists and practitioners argued that the blueprint suitability of previous assessments for biodiversity governance is very limited because the task, the information needs, nature of the issue at stake and the political contexts mainly differ from former assessments.

As an alternative, they called for a move away from a single, global-level, intergovernmental assessment for assessing different aspects of global change, to more pluralistic, decentralized and heterogeneous ways of interaction they called nested networks. These recommendations played a role in the subsequent consultations about setting up a science-policy platform on biodiversity and ecosystem services.

•In May 2011, a second workshop took place in Leipzig. In a letter to Science published last week, the group of high-level experts called now for moving the focus of the discussion on the IPBES process in two directions:

First, the group argued a need to move beyond conventional scientific knowledge assessments which legitimizes, almost exclusively, only peer-reviewed material. We need plural and conditional knowledge emerging from multiple sites and processes of knowledge production.

Second is the need to link IPBES assessment results to nested levels of decision-making at multiple spatial scales (including tackling biodiversity loss ‘on the ground’)

These novel challenges have to be reflected by novel procedures and the governance structures. Provision must be made, for nested, decentralized, largely autonomous sub-global networks, activities, focused on the needs of specific actors in specific decision-making contexts and on enhancing the empowerment of local communities to contribute meaningfully to global policymaking.

For further information please contact Silke Beck.


  1. Roger, since I only made it through law school I'm not equipped to understand what you wrote. It sounds like an argument that lots of people need to get together to talk about stuff in a way that's different from the way they talked about stuff in the past.

  2. "a formailzed approach"

    Hmmm ... I'm not sure if this a typo, or a new jargonism that is part and parcel of the "novel procedures and governance structures" you are proposing ;-)

    "First, the group argued a need to move beyond conventional scientific knowledge assessments which legitimizes, almost exclusively, only peer-reviewed material."

    Are you suggesting that "peer-reviewed material" is not "legitimized" until it becomes incorporated into an assessment report?!

    Nonetheless, I very much doubt that either AR3 or AR4 could legitimately be described as depending on peer-reviewed material "almost exclusively" (although such claims have repeatedly been made).

    I did see the Leipzig report the other day. IMHO, it is in dire need of "translation" into pre-post-modernist English!

    But that aside, the biggest hurdle confronting IPBES is not one that you've mentioned: from everything I've read about it, this latest "child" of the UNEP seems to be founded on the premise of yet another variant of the "greatest threat to mankind" scaremongering.

    But under this new, improved regime, we may not have to worry about our "carbon footprint" anymore, because it could easily be subsumed under our "ecological footprint" - and TEEB has already got all the "mechanisms" dreamed up for putting "nature on the balance sheet", including "biodiversity offsets or other schemes to mitigate and/or compensate…”.

    FWIW, the following links contain my thoughts on IPBES and TEEB - when they first hit my radar last October.




  3. Roger,Stan, and hr001 -
    I have been looking at this for hours. My assessment: the camel continues probing, sticking his nose under the canvas.
    Your group "argued {in favor of}" validating material which has not 'passed' peer review. Done: consider IPCC products.
    Further, "We need ... conditional knowledge ..." Likewise, Done: see above.
    Conditional funding, provisioning local contributions from nested actors. Yep! That does it.

  4. Roger,
    With all due respect we need the opposite of what you propose.
    We need in the future strict evidence based decision making. We need an end to conditional centralized agenda driven politics that use the veneer of science as a credibility prop.
    We need to limit the roles of NGO's and increase the accountability of those who claim to speak authoritatively to insure they are adhering to strict ethical standards.
    We need to hold those making extraordinary claims to the traditional, proper, level of extraordinary proof. And proof should not defined ever again as relentlessly repeating the same garbage over and over.
    Full voice must be given to critics, and any audits and reviews must be actual, not pal or self-directed. All work must be transparent and disclosed as to method and data and potential conflicts.
    We have gone the other route, we call it the IPCC and it does not work well at all.

  5. I've always looked the the field of biodiversity with suspicion since reading about efforts to eradicate HIV being discussed at a biodiversity conference in South Africa years ago. There is some irony to the entire ideal.