UEA's Andrew Watkinson: we need to be much more open about how science works

| 16th February 2010
Former Director of the Tyndall Centre and a Professor at the University of East Anglia, Andrew Watkinson explains why 'a few loose sentences' in the IPCC report shouldn't change people's opinion of the science

Matilda Lee: You sit on the advisory panel for the new, £40 million Ecosystem Services for Poverty Alleviation programme. Its brief says that, unlike other economic goods, ecosystem services are considered 'free' by the market. How do you go about putting a price tag on ecosystem services?

Andrew Watkinson: We are still exploring it. With carbon trading coming in, it potentially opens the door for a wide range of ecosystems services - putting prices on pollinators, clean water, things like that.

We are at a stage now where the financial markets are beginning to wake up to the fact that with carbon trading we do need to put a value on goods and services. We need to grasp this window of opportunity and get it right.

The other important thing is the recognition, in the UK and elsewhere that land has got to fulfil multiple functions. If we want to maximise the production of land, say, in the Peak district, then you can add lots of fertiliser and maximise sheep production, but clearly then the biodiversity goes down, the water quality goes down and the number of pollinators goes down.

So you can't maximise food and also get the other ecosystem services, there has got to be a trade off. One of the appalling things about ecology is that we don't know the shape, or nature, of those tradeoffs.

ML: What's a best practice example of maintaining ecosystem services?

AW: In the Caribbean Islands, the marine protected areas help maintain reefs that protect the shoreline, and reduce the vulnerability to hurricanes, and they also provide food.

ML: What role do you see yourselves playing as advisers on government policy

AW: A lot of the problems in the past [come from the fact] that ecological research has been undertaken in a vacuum, divorced from political and governance issues of a country. By bringing together The UK Department for International Development (DfID), the Natural Environment Research Council (NERC) and the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC), we've got the link across the various disciplines, with the inclusion of the political economy. It is a way of doing research that ensures it delivers into policy.


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ML: As regards climate change adaptation, are you using future projections, or basing work on what is happening now?

AW: Both. In Ethiopia, agriculture and GDP and how they relates to rainfall are very highly correlated. Their agricultural system can't cope with current climate variability. There are ways potentially of making them more resilient by [changing] the type of crops, and how they use water.

One of the big unknowns is what happens to the monsoon in India and Africa. We don't understand how the monsoon is going to change in the future. We are not very good at predicting it now, let alone in the future.

Understanding the monsoon along with the snow melt in places like the Himalayas is absolutely critical to understanding the livelihoods of people in the deltas, on the Ganges and bramaputra. It is absolutely essential that one looks into the future at how some of these ecosystems services may change as a result of the changing climate.

ML: Speaking of snow melt in the Himalayas... how do we go about restoring public trust in climate scientists following 'climategate'?

AW: Obviously there is an issue of trust: I don't think, though, that there is a real problem in terms of what is happening in science. I think what happened at UEA has not exposed major problems in the science system or even the way science is carried out.

There probably are a few loose sentences in the IPCC report: those things generally do not get through to the higher level report and once you get to the executive summaries and the summary for policy makers, the evidence trail of those is looked at very carefully all the way through.

While there may be one or two phrases that have not been fully backed up within the chapters, the authors within the chapters are doing the best they can within multinational, multidisciplinary teams with limited amounts of time available. They did a very good job. Statements are constantly being challenged; that's what scientists do.

We do need to understand better why the public reacts in the way that it does to these types of stories. Clearly these headlines are taken on in different ways - some people don't see there being a problem; other people interpret it as there being a massive problem.

We do need to be much more open about the way science works. Science isn't always exact. There are elements of interpretation in what we do, elements of judgement, and we constantly challenge each other. We need to make this process more transparent, and make data more available and engage with the public much more about science.

When you look at the science coverage on TV it is very poor, and radio - slightly better. In the newspapers, there is rather little. There is no real engagement with the public. A lot of scientists are actually not that good at communicating. In certain cases, scientists do try to obfuscate.

I was a review editor on the IPCC, the chapter that I was involved with was sent out to review twice - there were hundreds of comments. We went through every one. I required the authors of the chapters to comment on every one. It is a very complex job keeping a tab on all the text changes. We certainly do that, but it doesn't surprise me that there are things open to question in the IPCC - in every scientific paper there are things open to question.

ML: Which ecosystems and ecosystem services are at greatest risk of reaching their environmental limits?

AW: In sub Saharan Africa, people are getting a pretty raw deal - that is obviously, from DfID's perspective, a priority area.

When you look at agricultural productivity, if you look at Southeast Asia, over the last 20 years the increase in production has been largely as a result of an increase in production per unit area of land. Whatever increases you have in Africa are from expansion of the area. They are going into marginal land and degrading it. In terms of absolute poverty I think Africa has much more pressing problems.

There are particular ecosystem service issues that relate strongly to Amazonia, in relation to the regulating service you get from the rainforest.

In India and China, you've got the two most populous countries in the world, putting enormous pressure on resources and both impacted by the monsoon, about which we know little. What happens in that area has potential to impact that area - but also to spill over and affect people in the rest of the world - because there are so many mouths to feed.

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