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Connecting Evidence and Policy When There is High Uncertainty and Disseminated Responsibility. The Case of Health at the Interface of Nature, Economies and Society

December 8, 2015
By: 
Craig Stephen DVM PhD



Executive Director, Canadian Wildlife Health Cooperative

Professor, University of Saskatchewan

Canada’s 2013-2016 Federal Sustainable Development Strategy recognizes the need to protect and sustain the links between nature, economy and society. Like the UN 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, this strategy is predicated on the idea that prosperity and human well-being cannot be achieved without regard to the planet and partnerships. There are, however, three uncertainties that must be confronted before mapping the most effective ways for evidence to influence policies sustaining healthy relations between nature and us.

Uncertain goals: There are winners and losers in the relation between nature, economy and society. For example, human prosperity in coastal Newfoundland was impacted by policies rebuilding cod population health. Policy dilemmas currently surround salmon aquaculture where jobs, food accessibility and reduced pressures on a fishery are contrasted with ecological concerns about industrialized ocean food production. Evidence-based resolution of this dilemma has been elusive because research has tended to examine parts of the issue – specifically mechanisms of single harms in isolation – rather than identifying the constituents of a healthy coastal system and better understanding the place for aquaculture in that system. The lack of a shared vision of what a healthy coastal system looks like has resulted in evidence being weighed and evaluated inconsistently, precluding a shared understanding of the meaning of the available evidence. This problem was evident at the Cohen Commission into the Decline of Fraser River Sockeye Salmon. Despite desires to find the ‘smoking gun,” Justice Cohen noted the many drivers and determinants of sockeye salmon health and their value to society but saw little capacity to integrate information into a unified perspective. An obstacle to a shared perspective was the inability to define salmon health from a socio-ecological perspective. Like many issues at the human-nature-economy nexus, fish and wildlife health is replete with uncertainty and disagreement that arises due to ignorance about the desired outcome (what does it mean to be healthy); and emphasis on evidence regarding mechanisms of harms (death, disease, extinction) rather than the origins of health as a cumulative effect of the lived experience. Policies aiming to co-manage prosperity and health of nature, economies and society in the face of unprecedented environmental and social pressures will need to develop a transparent, defendable and acceptable cross-sector health standard against which we assess evidence.

Uncertain predictions. Major threats to us and nature come from multiple, interacting trends such as landscape change, globalization, and climate change. Yet, most international and national standards and the typical research approach deals with predicting one risk, in isolation, at a time. People, animals and their shared environments interact as a complex socio-ecological system. Like all complex systems, this interface is ambiguous, uncertain and unpredictable due to ignorance of the interactions between the parts and the fact that ecosystems are ever changing due in part to ongoing human transformations. Complex systems theory provides the conceptual basis to conclude that surprise is inevitable at the human-animal-environmental interface. Because well-being and prosperity results from the interplay in a complex, dynamic system, it could be concluded that there are no general laws of well-being (as there are general laws in physics) and that deductive research for prediction is not relevant. Health at the nexus of environment, economy, society is, therefore, not well suited to research seeking a mechanistic truth, precluding many criteria for identifying excellent research. The relative weight of each sub-discipline in socio-ecological systems-research will vary from project to project based on the problem, the funder and the team, resulting in varying conceptual understandings, which in turn makes it almost impossible to generate evidence that is comparable and transferable between studies and settings. This stands in sharp contrast to physics, for example, where a new physicist could replicate all of the past experiments upon which the theoretical underpinning of her discipline rests using tools agreed to as the right tools by other physicists and achieve the same results as her predecessors.

Uncertain ownership. Many problems – health, poverty, security – require an all-of-government approach but the gulf between government agencies seems exceptionally wide at the nature-economy-society nexus. One reason is the diffusion of legislation and authority to manage this nexus. Take wildlife health as an example. Healthy fish and wildlife are essential contributors and excellent indicators of the health of the environment upon which our social and economic well-being depends. Wild animal health, however, lacks a single clear private interest and because of its cross-agency relevance also lacks a single clear policy “owner.” Environmental, public health, resource development, agriculture and social policies all are influenced by or can influence wild animal health. Unlike public and domestic animal health which are the mandates of specific agencies, wildlife health falls across multiple agencies in multiple jurisdictions, challenging integrated and coordinated policy development. There is no single evidence recipient with the capacity, authority or resources to influence and manage all the policy levers that affect wildlife health or the values and service they provide Canadians.

Conclusion: Surprises have been the most influential event of any era and are the inevitable result of interactions between people and their environment. The research and policy focus to date has been on finding more information through better measurement to forecast surprise rather than accept that surprises are inevitable and focus instead on finding the circumstances that create resilience against surprise. Before we can provide robust evidence for the UN 2030 Agenda or the Federal Sustainable Development Strategy, investment must be made into the science of the whole rather than science of the parts and our perspective must shift less towards finding mechanism for predicting risks to supporting pragmatic research that creates confidence in decisions that produce capacity to cope with inevitable change and uncertainty. Organizational and philosophical changes are needed before we can more effectively use evidence to effect prosperity and well-being by co-managing people, animals and environments. These include; negotiating a shared aspiration for management success by defining health as a shared capacity that crosses species and systems; investing in infrastructure and human intelligence needed to link insights across disciplines; and re-focussing research and policy less on risk prediction and more on developing resilience against the next inevitable but unpredictable surprise.