OOSKAnews Voices: Bridging Science and Policy -- It’s Not Just a Talking Point

26 Jul 2016 by OOSKAnews Correspondent
FORT WORTH, TX, United States

OOSKAnews Voices is a series of guest “opinion columns” on water, written by senior participants in different parts of the international water community. The columns provide a global platform for organizations and individuals to promulgate their views and messages.

In this piece, Gabriel Eckstein, professor of law at Texas A&M University School of Law, member of the Texas A&M University Water Management and Hydrological Science Graduate Faculty, founder of the International Water Law Project, and Chair of the International Scientific Committee for the XVI World Water Congress, looks at ways to bridge the gap between scientific knowledge and policy.

The opinions expressed in this article represent the views of Gabriel Eckstein, and are not endorsed by OOSKAnews Inc.


While humanity has widely recognized the necessity of water, it has not always implemented sound approaches to the utilization, conservation, protection, and administration of the resource. One of the key challenges has been the disconnect between scientific knowledge and policy actions -- between those making scientific and technological discoveries and advances, and those who can mobilize governmental and societal adoption and implementation through practical and robust policies.

Examples of this “science-policy gap” abound. For example, while flood control management mechanisms have been studied for decades, the slow implementation of strategies to minimize flooding scenarios related to heavy rainfall, melting snow, and storm surges have caused much human suffering, countless avoidable deaths, and innumerable economic losses.

Most recently, an overwhelming international scientific consensus on global climate change, which is predicted to have significant impacts on freshwater resources, showed the need for concerted action. Yet global and national efforts to mitigate and adapt to this phenomenon have been lackluster and slow to arise.

One of the factors perpetuating the divide and challenging stronger linkages between science and policy is uncertainty. While scientists are typically comfortable speaking in terms of ambiguities and complexities, the public and policymakers prefer more predictable and deterministic solutions. Where scientists speak in terms of flexible exploration and accept risks and failures as part of the process, decision-makers seek to address problems in rigid constructs where risks must be minimized and failures are intolerable. As a result, the two camps often have difficulty communicating and coordinating their efforts, and policy actions lag behind scientific knowledge.

While mechanisms to bridge the science-policy gap have been elusive, there are success stories. Research into water-borne infectious diseases, coupled with concerted governmental and non-governmental efforts, have resulted in improved treatment technologies, hygiene practices, and medicines that have greatly reduced suffering and deaths from cholera, guinea worm, giardia, hepatitis A, salmonella, norovirus, typhoid fever, and other maladies. Likewise, developments in plant science and water distribution technologies have reduced water use in agriculture while vastly increasing productivity.

A key feature of these successes has been an active and robust dialogue amongst all parties and groups with an interest in the subject matter. Yes, it involved the scientists and policymakers, but not exclusively. Critical dialogue participants also included engineers, technological experts, financial stakeholders, social scientists, and professionals involved in capacity-building. Key features of the processes included dialogue, collaboration, and transparency.

In an effort to encourage such dialogue and collaboration, and bridge the various gaps in knowledge, communication, and coordination, the International Water Resources Association (IWRA) has selected “Bridging Science and Policy” as the overall theme for its XVIth World Water Congress (www.worldwatercongress.com). The Congress, scheduled for May 29 – June 2, 2017, in Cancun, Mexico, is hosted by Mexico’s Comisión Nacional del Agua (CONAGUA) and Asociación Nacional de Empresas de Agua y Saneamiento (ANEAS).

The chief aim of the Congress is to link water professionals with information and experiences related to water resources issues around the world, as well as with experts -- in both the public and private sector -- working on key global water agendas and strategies.

The Congress is targeted at natural and social scientists, practitioners, managers and engineers, technological innovators, policy and decision-makers, and legal and regulatory specialists, as well as entrepreneurs, financial stakeholders and investors, and groups involved in capacity-building.

It is designed to catalyze cooperation and coordination to impact Sustainable Development Goals, particularly those related to water; efforts to alleviate water-related challenges, such as those promoted at the Sendai Disaster Risk Reduction Summit; agreements with critical water-related components, including the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change; and thematic priorities of past and upcoming major global events, such as World Water Forums and World Economic Forums, as well as other water-related programs.

To achieve solutions for the multiple water challenges facing our world, we must strengthen the linkages between science and policy; we must facilitate active dialogue throughout the water community and learn how to translate across disciplines and professions; and we must find opportunities to align our objectives and approaches toward problem solving.

As a platform for dialogue and exchange, the World Water Congress offers a unique space for advancing all of these objectives. Moreover, it will facilitate opportunities for coordinating research efforts with policy objectives.

By collaborating and combining all of our efforts, by bridging and fortifying relations among scientists and policymakers, we will ensure a more sound future for the world we leave to our children.