The stupidity of policy makers (a personal experience)

The only time I came close to getting proper funding in Cyprus was when I almost got put on a team, with my part being monitoring the invertebrates of the Akrotiri salt lake, a seasonal lake in Cyprus most well-known for its seasonal waterbird migrations, but which also has a very interesting invertebrate fauna. My involvement fell through for reasons I still don’t know, but that’s all in the past. The proposals I wrote for that project were the first time I ever had to take non-scientists into account – I had to cater for policy makers and planners, people who don’t care and wouldn’t even understand anything about the scientific value of studying the invertebrate faunas of the lake (it was very interesting stuff to do with metapopulations).

This difficulty I experienced while drafting my proposals is not unique to me. Most of my colleagues feel they have to waste too many lines explaining the obvious and – to be frank – making imaginary benefits up, because the policy makers just look for buzzwords. This experience was fairly enlightening, because it highlighted the real gulf between academic interests and real world interests.

My planned projects had two main branches: characterisation of the faunas of the lake in the wet and the dry season; and food web interactions of one particular species. The former aspect was important in order to characterise the metapopulation dynamics of the lake’s fauna. The latter was to characterise how important the species was to the overall lake’s functioning.

I presented this to my colleague who was advising me due to his greater experience with such things. I was told to delete all the science and models I had presented, and just write something for children. For the former, I was to write the word “biodiversity” in every paragraph, for the latter I was to mention pink flamingos (the main tourist attraction). Even though those were only small aspects of my plans, I was to give them an overemphasis, because policy makers wouldn’t care for my true purposes.

Is that correct on their part? I can certainly see that policy makers have to concentrate on making their ventures successful. But I cannot see how eschewing science would help them at all on their quest. In my case, I was told to prepare a “baseline assessment” of the lake – give them rows of target numbers they should hit: this level of oxygen concentration, this level of salinity, this number of species. This is complete nonsense, as it would take an initial five year study to produce a proper assessment, and the lake is too unique to use data from other lands. Yet, I was supposed to give them these numbers so they can hit imaginary targets. In essence, they told me to make stuff up.

Now this is just for a lake. I imagine that when it comes to larger, global issues, the matters are more or less the same, with policy makers enlisting scientists to make stuff up instead of actually giving scientists the funding and leeway to actually do their jobs to provide proper information for policy making. I really do wonder how widespread this is, but I dread to ever work on such a proposal again. I’d feel dirty taking their money.

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