Tundi's Take: Science and Scarcity: Is Monitoring the First to Go When Economic Times Get Tough?

The Skimmer on Marine Ecosystems and Management

By Tundi Agardy, MEAM Contributing Editor (tundiagardy [at] earthlink.net)

Debates about the role of science in policy can be polarizing. But one thing on which most everyone agrees is that management, once instituted, needs to be monitored to determine its effectiveness in meeting goals. Here the role of science is clear and uncontroversial: without it, restrictions on use cannot be appraised for their benefits, and no one can be sure if sacrifices made in the interests of keeping ecosystems intact and resource uses sustainable are really worthwhile.

Yet in hard economic times, monitoring regimes are often the first casualty of the need to limit expenditures in marine management. Why? In part, it is because monitoring, and the adaptive management that can flow from it, have no champions. No scientist has achieved fame from collecting and analyzing such data; publishing can only be sporadic after years of data are collected; and the time-consuming and methodical work that monitoring requires has little cachet. Monitoring can be an expensive draw on agency budgets, and often the argument is, "Well, the management measure has been taken, so why pour additional money at the problem?" Especially at sea, continual data collection across seasons - necessary in dynamic marine systems - can be exorbitant.

Recent austerity measures taken by governments support the claim that monitoring of management is one of the easiest things to slash, with adaptive management suffering indirectly as a result. In the UK, draconian measures were taken to trim the public sector (the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs suffered major reductions in budget and staff), and everything from marine reserve science to fishery observer programs seems at risk. The US Congress has yet to agree to a budget for this year, but cuts in all environmental programs are likely. And it is not just national investments in marine management that are being curtailed: in the economic downturn, international aid has suffered, too, leading to the termination of grants programs across the globe. The termination of the Coral Reef Targeted Research (CRTR) program - financed by the Global Environment Facility and World Bank and operating in Mesoamerica, the Indian Ocean, Southeast Asia, and Oceania - is one alarming example.

Yet if there is any silver lining to the cloud of economic crisis, it may be in the forcing of scientists and planners to be more efficient in collecting information. This might mean utilizing sources of information obtained by other agencies for other purposes, in order to evaluate and amend management. Or it might mean looking for co-management opportunities in which users are tasked with collecting certain kinds of information. In addition it could mean catalyzing a shift in the burden of financing monitoring programs: from government (which usually shoulders the burden alone) to private sector financing in the form of payments for ecosystem services or other innovative financing schemes. Finally, tough times demand tough choices and vocal advocacy for the choices that are made. The many scientists and managers involved in generating information necessary for adaptive management and EBM may finally be finding a voice. There is certainly no better time than now to express why monitoring science is crucial and must be funded.

How has the economic downturn affected your ability to do science in the service of management, if at all? Please let me know: tundiagardy [at] earthlink.net.

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