Although much research has been conducted towards quantifying the benefits that ecosystems provide us, this information seldom reaches those with the power to influence. Simon described some of the factors causing this 'Implementation Gap': inaccuracies, lack of capacity, models that are too complex for non-specialists to understand...Besides these, 'scientists don't always provide the information that policy makers need'. Pushed for time and with limited background knowledge, policy makers do not want to be directed to journal articles or mathematical models! So one of ESPAs recent projects involved directly asking policy makers in South Africa what forms of information would be most useful to them. Crucially, the groups who were approached - academics, NGOs and governmental workers - were those who had already made a commitment to use ecosystem services data in policy planning. Hence, the will was there but this was not being translated in practice. Not surprisingly, very few of the respondents liked using complex models, and preferred using reports, maps and lists. A common criticism meanwhile was that much of the information was conducted on national or global scales, yet for many factors (such as water supplies) only local information is relevant for the participants needs. Similarly, static maps that reflect a single time point do not reflect the dynamic interactions and seasonal trends which policy makers needed to understand. However, in some cases, lack of infrastructure - such as intermittent power supplies and Internet connectivity - were the main limiting factor for the information being used.
Despite these flaws, the respondents had a clear thirst for MORE ecosystem services related information, particularly regarding mitigating natural hazards, including flooding and drought. Perhaps surprisingly, there was also a call for more information relating to the cultural and social benefits that ecosystems supply, besides economic services. 'Politicians view things through many lenses, only one of which is science' explained Simon. 'We need to work with the other lenses, such as human welfare'. This can pose problems to researchers however - how does one quantify happiness? 'We have to ask people' Simon said 'for instance, in some cases 'happiness' will be 'goats'.
Even when the data is freely accessible and clear to understand, what is the best way to encourage politicians and governments to use it to make informed decisions? According to Simon, diplomatic approaches work best. 'We deliberately don't go to policy makers and say 'You should do this', we go with a well-researched model and say 'What are your plans?'' He gave the example of a government that was considering a choice between scrapping a fertiliser subsidy or just restricting it to households headed by women. A good model would outline the consequences of each choice, showing if it was possible to save money without affecting food production. This depends, of course , on the data being high quality and accurate . 'We don't tell them what to do but we try not to feed them rubbish' Simon added. In Africa, it can also be more effective to use alternative information mediums. Apparently, broadcasting information by radio or television 'goes a long way'. In a real life example, during a drought in Lake Chilwa famers began to notice large swarms of locusts and discussed this on the radio, which brought it to the attention of the FAO ( Food and Agricultural Organisation). Because of this, intervention measures were taken to spray the crops and save the harvest.
For the researchers present in the audience, the session was a stark reminder that getting data is only half the battle in making our scientific investigations have any impact. By not considering the needs of our audience, we run the risk that our models and theories will remain buried in specialist journals and in a form only a few can understand. But with the work of organisations such as ESPA, there is hope that all those man- hours of work will not go to waste!
Written by Caroline Wood, PhD student in the Department of Animal and Plant Sciences and SiP committee member
See more of Caroline's work on her blog http://scienceasadestiny.blogspot.co.uk/