Still travelling … still thinking …

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Lago di Maggiore, photographed on Thursday evening, after my protracted journey. 

My hopes of a lazy morning looking at the alps reflected in the calm water of Lago di Maggiore as I sipped an espresso were dashed by the French strike and, instead, I spent most of the morning in transit and reflecting on the purpose of the meeting.

My trips to JRC have all been associated with the EU’s intercalibration exercise. Because the EU operates under a principle known as “subsidiarity”, every state has developed its own approaches to implementing the Water Framework Directive (and all other Directives). Consequently, the ecological targets that each country sets for itself may differ and this, in turn, will have knock-on effects for subsequent investment. If there is to be a “level playing field”, in other words, we first need to calibrate all these national targets. Imagine a row of ecologists peering over the edge of a bridge and comparing notes on the condition of the river flowing beneath them. That’s intercalibration. Except that the ecologists are more likely to be looking at a tray full of bugs, or down a microscope or, to disrupt my Arcadian image yet further, staring at enormous spreadsheets. And an ecologist from Scandinavia might be standing next to one from Cyprus, each of whom will bring very different experiences with them.

It has been, as a result, a huge challenge and, though the results are sometimes a little more ragged around the edges than we would have liked, enormously satisfying. As ever in science, many of the successes come from applying rigorous and objective processes to the data but, as we emerge from the end of the process, I wonder how much differences in approach between countries reflect deeper currents of culture and economy that scientists tend to overlook?

Does a country with a tradition of high taxation and public spending produce methods that are more resource-intensive than one where the public sector is less well financed? Does a country in the midst of economic recession have the budgets to develop methods as advanced as those in the wealthier parts of Europe? Does a country with a high population density (and, as a result, less wilderness) have lower expectations for the state of its freshwaters than one with a low density? The answer to all those questions is “perhaps” and, hopefully, the intercalibration exercise has given us an opportunity to iron out the major differences – whether scientific or cultural – and bring us closer to this “level playing field”.

However, because so many new methods have been developed over the past few years in response to the demands of the Water Framework Directive, I have one extra concern: many of these new methods have emerged “box fresh” from academia and are still not fully tried and tested in the real world. My long-term worry is that academic science generally sets high standards for “data” whereas end-users are more focused on “information”. Between the two there can be much redundancy yet, at the same time there is a fine line between “streamlining” data collection to increase efficiency, and “cutting corners”, which might lead to poor decisions. Maybe a state that has not been hit hard by the Eurozone crisis and which has a tradition of a genorously funded public sector will not be unduly concerned by this but, elsewhere, costs of implementation are a real concern.

I am convinced that the relationship between data and information follows the law of diminishing marginal utility (the “Pareto principle”) whereby we get most of the information we need to inform a judgment relatively quickly, and then spend a lot more time dancing the stately pavanes as decreed by the traditions of our academic sub-disciplines. I also suspect (from the quality of “applied” ecology papers I read) that few journals have sufficient stakeholder/end-user engagement to challenge these traditions. The risk is not just higher costs of ecological assessment, but that the process will remain in the hands of a “priesthood” of elite scientists and that this will, ultimately, limit our ability to communicate with stakeholders. They, ultimately, pay the bills, so we ignore them at our peril.

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2 thoughts on “Still travelling … still thinking …

  1. Pingback: Simplicty is the Ultimate Sophistication: McEcology and the dangers of call centre ecology | microscopesandmonsters

  2. Pingback: An England fan in Vilnius … | microscopesandmonsters

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