Ginni La Rosa and Katie Martin
Last Friday, February 3rd, UMCES students in the Science for Environmental Management class from multiple campuses across the state gathered together at the IAN synthesis office in Annapolis to speak with two experienced practitioners on the frontier of science and policy decisions. Ben Grumbles was confirmed as Secretary of the Maryland Department of the Environment by the Maryland State Senate two years ago, after nomination by Governor Larry Hogan. He had previously served as Senior Staff Member of the Science Committee of the US House of Representatives and as Assistant Administrator for Water at the US Environmental Protection Agency, among other notable appointments. Also speaking with the class was Charles Fox, who is also a former Assistant Administrator for Water with the US Environmental Protection Agency, as well as former Secretary of the Maryland Department of Natural Resources. He is currently Program Director of the Oceans 5 philanthropy grant program.
Discussion ranged from international to state-level environmental policy actions and ideas. Charles Fox explained to the group that, contrary to concerns that scientists may not always be taken seriously by policy makers, scientists in fact play a fundamental role in policy by providing real numbers and ranges for often vague legislative terms. For example, executives turn to scientists for clear definitions of ‘safe’ drinking water and for distinct pollutant limits for the Clean Water Act and the Clean Air Act. When scientists are trained for effective communication with policymakers, they gain a high level of respect and credibility. In turn, politicians must understand how science differs from policy, particularly in terms of each field’s approach to uncertainty.
Fox also emphasized the need for more interdisciplinary forums for scientists to engage in policy discussions. From such dialogues, scientists can learn the best ways to make information accessible to decision makers as honest brokers. He described his own involvement in designing policy to remove phosphates in detergents to reduce nutrient runoff into the Bay and other water bodies. Through communication with researchers he learned that phosphates do not significantly improve detergents’ cleaning power, meaning they could be taken out of the formula without noticeably affecting product performance. Policy makers are faced with severe time constraints; they rarely can afford to read through technical materials on a given day. Thus scientists must be able to produce concise information and concrete recommendations that enable decision makers to clearly interpret the course of action needed.
An ongoing current issue in Maryland is the implementation of best available technologies (shortened as BATs) for newly-installed septic systems to reduce nutrient input to the Chesapeake Bay. In response to some constituent opposition, a compromise was agreed upon to require BATs within a ‘critical zone’ of the watershed, while allowing counties outside the zone to decide what they deem necessary. Secretary Grumbles highlighted this case study as an example of trade-offs that must occur in order to effect change in a net positive direction. He envisions a watershed management approach in which stakeholders can engage in shared governance rather than sole reliance on top-down government regulatory methods.
Finding reliable and adequate funding sources remains one of the most persistent constraints in environmental project planning. The Oceans 5 program relies on private philanthropy for establishing marine protected areas and other initiatives. In other cases, public programs may be supported by federal funds. Grumbles addressed the Chesapeake Bay watershed’s nutrient pollution issue with several current and potential policies. One common source of revenue is through tax-based programs such as the Bay Restoration Fund, colloquially known as the “flush tax.” This tax is collected from local governments and invested back into Bay restoration activities. Fox, in contrast, advocated the implementation of regulations at the level of the wastewater treatment plants, suggesting that such regulatory actions are likely more cost effective in the long run.
Alternatively, interest is building for a market for nutrient emission allowances that can be bought and sold by wastewater treatment industries and possibly agricultural entities. Industries that successfully reduce output below basic nutrient limitation requirements could use the credit as a source of revenue, creating incentive for further improvements. Such an emissions trading system has proven successful in reducing acid rain-causing sulfur dioxide release in the United States, and it is gaining momentum for greenhouse gas emissions as well. The proposed nutrient exchange plan has even been given the off-color nickname “crap-and-trade” by some in the spirit of the atmosphere-based system’s “cap-and-trade” moniker.
Recent reports suggest that severe funding cuts will be made to the US Environmental Protection Agency and many of its partner programs, particularly the Chesapeake Bay Program, a key driver in the Bay’s ongoing recovery. Proposed cuts may reduce the Chesapeake Bay Program’s funding from $73 million to as little as $5 million. Despite the apparent finality of the decision, Charles Fox reminded the group that the process of undoing regulation involves a regulatory process of its own, so time will tell what will actually occur.
Although an environmental issue may be a high priority from a scientist’s points of view, that issue may be a relatively low priority to a politician concerned with their constituents’ immediate demands. Building rapport with policy makers and relating environmental concerns to issues and values they care about are ways that environmental action can be brought to the forefront.
Last Friday’s conversations were visible proof that science and civility can (and must) coexist in the same room to enact the best environmental policies moving forward. Both parties share the responsibility of picturing the perspectives of one another and ensuring that ideas are not lost in translation, be they political or scientific jargon.
The meeting concluded on an encouraging note, inspiring students to continue advocating for sound science in management decisions, even in the midst of new challenges. Perhaps the main take-home message from the summit was the need for scientists to engage in conversations with practitioners rather than lectures at practitioners. Using a phrase coined by UMCES President Don Boesch, building a practice of ‘rapport over reports’ will make the best science communicators stand out from the rest and effect lasting change in environmental management.
To commemorate the eventful meeting, Dr. Bill Dennison composed the following poem:
The Practitioner Discussion
William C. Dennison
Our Science for Environmental Management class met in Eastport
So that our visitors Chuck Fox and Ben Grumbles could hold court.
Katie facilitated our discussion, slinging them good questions
And they provided our emerging scientists some good suggestions.
Ben and Chuck told us that communicating science was not a thing to fear
But warned us that facts are not enough to get people to hear.
We talked about nutrient trading and government regulations
And watershed governance and the environmental organizations.
And the role of private philanthropy for things like illegal fishing
MPAs as a way to protect Chesapeake oysters who are currently missing.
Crap and trade, political realities, finger pointing were touched upon
And nobody even had to stifle a yawn.
In the end, we got insights into the way these leaders think
And appreciate that what they said did not stink!