Recently I listened to an economist being interviewed on the radio about Pest Free NZ. He was asked about how challenging it will be to enact this policy in habited areas given most of NZ’s pest eradication gains to date have been on offshore uninhabited islands. Why one might ask an economist this, is a moot point, however, the economist claimed that people could be boxed into those who agreed with pest management, those who disagreed and the silent majority in the middle. He claimed that while Great Barrier and Stewart Islands’ communities had vocally opposed pest management, such resistance could be quelled by pulling the middle towards the pro-pest management side to quieten the noisy naysayers.
It is not uncommon for commentators of potentially contentious environmental issues to categorise communities into discrete boxes. As a social scientist who has worked extensively for the past 18-months with the community of Great Barrier Island to create an ecological vision for their island, we have found that people’s perceptions of ecology and in particular of pest management are far more complex, sophisticated and nuanced than the discrete categories indicated by the economist.
When it comes to pest management, our work shows that people have hugely varied perspectives around any scale of operation, type of control and the target species. Even though communities (and indeed most New Zealanders) may agree with the overall aspiration of a ‘Pest-free’ environment, people differ over how this should be achieved. Views around pest management cannot be simply boxed into FOR, AGAINST, DON’T KNOW or DON’T CARE. The community of Great Barrier for example view pest management within a much more complex view of ecology and they do not focus solely on ‘pests’. The Minister of Conservation who has claimed that “poison” will be the mainstay of pest management for the foreseeable future may wish to reflect on this.
Pest management in habited areas IS a complex problem because it is about “values and politics” as much as it is about science and technology. Surveys, which are typically used to gauge people’s opinions only provide a snapshot and shallow view into community perspectives since they do not capture the nuanced understandings that people have of complex issues. Without being embedded in a rich comprehensive and sound social science programme, sole use of the findings from pest-focussed surveys can lead to weak decision-making in complex issues. Social science is however, generally very poorly integrated into conservation programmes. In an article recently published in Conservation Biology, the authors identify four barriers to mainstreaming the social sciences in conservation - ideological, institutional, knowledge (disciplinary training) and capacity.
I have found overcoming such barriers takes a willingness from all parties to genuinely recognise the value offered to projects by incorporating different knowledge and perspectives into decision-making. When community engagement is sought, the inclusion of social scientists experienced at community engagement and facilitation cannot be under-valued. However, it is critical to recognise that their inclusion is not to smooth the way for pre-ordained outcomes. Community input may lead to very unexpected outcomes – ask David Cameron, and it is far too simplistic to label unexpected or unwanted outcomes as the voice of the uneducated, as I have typically heard the Brexit ‘leave’ voter described in New Zealand.
I had the pleasure of being in the UK and Europe during the Brexit vote and the final decision did not surprise me at all. This was a vote, rightly or wrongly against perceived feelings of decreasing sovereignty and increasing globalisation. After sitting and listening to campaigners in Speakers’ Corner in Hyde Park on the weekend before the vote and then two weeks later having the pleasure of listening to a man for three hours on a train tell me why he voted to leave the EU, it would be very simplistic to dismiss leave voters as uninformed.
Certainly community opinions may be enriched by outside expertise, however, it is arrogant to dismiss opposing community views as uneducated and it is foolhardy to overlook including local knowledge in decision-making. My research consistently shows that a community’s reaction to an issue is influenced more by the manner in which they are engaged, or more frequently not engaged, than over the subject of the engagement. When environmental decisions affect communities, people have a right to be heard and involved.
In 1999 Sir Robert May, the then Chief British Scientific Advisor, wrote in a publication on GM Crops:
"There are real social and environmental choices to be made. They are not about safety as such, but about much larger questions of what kind of world we want to live in."
Science does not have the monopoly on values-based questions and advocates of Pest Free NZ need to be bear this in mind regardless of how noble their intentions and aspirations might be. If Pest Free NZ is ever to be realised (and this blog is not a commentary on the merits or otherwise of this policy) those charged with implementing this ambitious policy must learn to successfully understand, listen to, and engage with the full diversity of perspectives in communities around pest management.
A recent opinion piece in the Dominion Post shares a similar view on the need for social science, although as a social scientist who works in complex environmental issues, I contend that policy is best advanced through community collaboration rather than a primary focus on 'behavioural change'.
Beyond 'Wow Science'
I have taught science communication at the University of Auckland, New Zealand for 24 years. Back in 1992, when I began teaching, science communication was a boutique, innovative course taught to a small number of students. Now science communication has become a popular subject for undergraduate students, focussing on important communication skills to round out a student’s science degree by teaching them how to communicate science with diverse audiences.
Academics from across science disciplines have also joined the call for scientists to engage in the wider dissemination of science. This is often undertaken to increase the public’s scientific literacy and enrich family dinner table conversations (if such conversations still exist). There is an underlying hope this will improve public understanding of science and maybe increase public support for scientific technologies and innovations. There is also a growing implicit and indeed sometimes an explicit objective to engage in science communication to stimulate the younger generation to enrol in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) subjects at University. Any cause and effect relationship between this objective and any outcomes are, however, rather unknown.
The Soap Box is my blog where I write about and comment on science / society interactions, especially as they relate to environmental issues.