Science and politics in dialogue: “To be convincing, we need to combine knowledge with emotion”

The words “statistics” and “state” are etymologically related. This reminds us that governance is inconceivable without data. Environment magazine speaks to two experts, a producer and a user of environmental data, who shed light on the interplay between scientific statistics and policy-making.

Interview: Lucienne Rey

René Longet
René Longet has advocated sustainable development at all federal political levels for years. He participated in the Rio+10 and Rio+20 environmental summits, where he represented the point of view of a user of environmental data as a previous mayor of the City of Onex (GE) and a former Swiss National Councillor.
© Flurin Bertschinger, Ex-Press

Environment: Mr. Longet, according to the Swiss Federal Statistical Office, in 1985, 31.1 percent of the land in the commune of Onex was sealed. In 2004, 38.5 percent was sealed. When hearing these figures, what goes through the head of a politician who champions environmental causes?

René Longet (RL): The figures reflect what is already plain to see - even when you look at aerial photos from the 1930s: Settlement areas had spread out tremendously, and the landscape was fragmented. It is shocking to see this. Still, the visual evidence does not tell the whole truth. After all, not everything that is green is flourishing nature, and not every covered area is a dead zone. Not only private gardens and parks, but also industrial sites returned to nature and military camps can be attractive sites for biodiversity. Agricultural areas, however, are often hostile to many species of life. But to see beyond superficial appearances, we need objective information in the form of scientific data.

Felix Kienast
Felix Kienast is a titular professor of landscape ecology at ETH Zurich. In addition, he heads the Landscape Dynamics Division of the Swiss Federal Institute for Forest, Snow and Landscape Research (WSL). In this capacity, he handles many indicators, among other duties, for the Landscape Monitoring Switzerland programme (LABES) led by the FOEN.
© Flurin Bertschinger, Ex-Press

Mr. Kienast - about 60 percent of the city of Geneva is sealed: Does this figure tell us something about the quality of the landscape?

Felix Kienast (FK): Definitely. The sealed area, the settlement area and the urban sprawl index are measured as part of the Landscape Monitoring Switzerland programme, known as LABES. The three indicators show us the heavily built-up areas and the compact settlement structure measures that have helped contain urban sprawl. That is also the actual objective of monitoring: Its main aim is not to lay blame, but rather to identify problematic developments and suggest solutions. Yet, when politicians see that Switzerland's national sealed soil average is only 6 percent, they won't lift a finger.

RL: Despite the fact that the national average does not really say that much, especially since almost two-thirds of our country is uninhabited.

FK: Fact is that unsealing efforts are made only when the figures are alarming. If the figure was around 65 percent, policy-makers would contemplate measures such as creating green spaces on roofs, water-permeable flooring, high-density housing or even urban gardening.

The Swiss Federal Institute for Forest, Snow and Landscape Research (WSL) collects data on landscape quality. Do scientists take politicians' wishes and concerns into consideration when planning these types of analyses?

FK: We try to address topical issues in our monitoring that are being discussed in society and politics. But not only that, we look ahead in many issues, such as by collecting data on perceptions of the landscape. But politicians were behind the initiative to collect data on landscape compatibility with renewable energies as part of our monitoring efforts.

RL: Still, it is important for scientists not to let political agendas pre-determine the issues! We need objective figures that can be used to criticise policies, when necessary. Science is not responsible for filtering data according to the moods of politicians.

FK: We do not filter data, but rather select the issues. If we had followed the political agenda, we may not have measured perceptions of the landscape. In fact, we considered this issue very important, given our society's focus on recreation. And if the issue ends up on the political agenda at some point, we will already have a time series of relevant data available.

RL: International studies actually confirm that the attractiveness of the landscape can also have an effect on the economy - especially for a tourist destination like Switzerland.

How do the national environmental data benefit cantonal environmental policy? Or in other words, how comparable are federal data and cantonal data?

RL: Data are, for example, critical for the benchmark - and for comparing the monitoring results of organisations or corporations. They are necessary for a coherent policy. In the area of energy, the data also help the cantons see where they stand. Statistics are critical in organising - and evaluating - policy.

FK: Yes, the cantons should be able to compare their data with each other. To do so, the Swiss federal government tries to provide a large quantity of high precision data. This makes it possible to draw conclusions about individual cantons.

RL: Unfortunately, this is not possible for every issue. Decentralised figures for CO2 emissions are very important. But we don't have them.

FK: Indeed, there are not suitable methods of converting national to cantonal figures for all issues; this is often due to the large amount of resources required to collect data. But by measuring perceptions of the landscape, we are trying to obtain specific information about the cantons, despite the shortage of resources.

Felix Kienast and René Longet
Felix Kienast and René Longet
© Flurin Bertschinger, Ex-Press

Data are an important basis for decision-making in evidence-based policy, where policy is developed on firm findings. But evidence can also be corroborated by economic or sociological studies. And data from different areas may at times be used to recommend conflicting decisions. How do politicians get around these conflicts?

RL: The art of good policy-making lies in solving conflicts at the higher levels. It goes without saying that people have to be doing well economically. But in the long term, there is no economy without natural resources. That is also the goal of a sustainable economy. In politics, the prevailing attitude needs to be that protecting nature and developing society are not necessarily conflicting goals.

FK: In science, we are trying to solve this dilemma with the concept of ecosystem services. Science is making major strides along these lines. But what is also helping evidence-based policy is that data have become way more accessible: The public can even consult them with Google Maps and get a sense of the developments. Politicians no longer have an exclusive pre-emption right, and that helps us introduce the figures from the scientific data collection process into the political discussion.

RL: Actually, science is now more important to politics than it once was, and political debates involving data have become a normal part of the process. Data collection methods, which are continuously being developed, are creating optimism; what isn't so positive, however, is that policy tends to lag behind science.

So are political debates on problems now more heavily shaped by scientific data than before?

RL: The climate and ozone debates have at least spilled over from science into politics. Whenever a global perspective is involved, the stimulus comes from science. The problem with these types of issues is that they are not readily experienced in everyday life. This is where dialogue between science, society and politics is important.

FK: That is precisely why virtually all of the larger science projects now make sure that they open dialogue with all interest groups. It seems to me that both sides have become better partners: Politicians have a better understanding of scientific projects and their occasionally conflicting results, and scientists now see themselves more as part of the social system.

Have data collected by the WSL ever been misunderstood or misinterpreted?

FK: To date, there have not really been any incorrect conclusions drawn from our landscape monitoring findings. There have been some unexpected findings, and though we were able to interpret them properly using scientific methods, they were not always easy to understand. For instance, in Ticino, the public's answers in the perception indicators turned out to be similar to those in densely settled agglomerations. At first glance, they did not fit the image that many people and politicians have of the Ticino landscape. But if you know that large parts of this canton are urbanised, this finding is not surprising.

RL: Politicians need to become better acquainted with scientific methods. But at least there are now legal instruments to make them more aware of the need for data. Environmental compatibility tests, zoning plans for pylons and other such groundwork cause politicians to systematically ask for data.

Mr. Kienast, are you satisfied with the way that your data are perceived and used by politicians and the administration? Or do you sometimes wish that your findings would make more of an impact?

FK: Fortunately, the landscape issue allowed us to put our finger on the pulse of the population: People see the landscape every day on their way to work, or when they relax. That is why we often find that politicians are ready to listen.

RL: Personally, I find the discussion about the landscape somewhat uncomfortable. Because the landscape is constantly changing - and most people perceive this change as a negative development at first. We see this, for example, with the renewable energy production plants that nobody wants to have.

FK: Renewable energy is an interesting example. If we replace not only nuclear energy, but also petroleum and natural gas, society will have to come to terms with energy consumption and the desirability of these infrastructures. This will require a solid plan with exclusion zones and social acceptance. And to attain acceptance, society will first need to attribute a symbolic value to these infrastructures. But we still have a long way to go for that.

RL: Hydropower was highly controversial at first, but views on it have definitely changed over the years. In the 1940s, people were not happy about it. Today, many see it differently.

You bring up the historical aspect: How are new problematic situations incorporated into monitoring without endangering comparability to past data collections?

FK: Lengthy time series are necessary to identify problems early on. For that reason, we develop our monitoring as much as possible on data sets that can be subsequently expanded. Everything that can be reconstructed from the 1:25,000-scale national map is suitable for this, and we work with many similar types of indicators.

Do these long-term statistical series help politicians communicate planned measures?

RL: Yes, because there is a lot of interest in historical developments. We have always struggled with the discrepancy between the data and the personal experience. We can create a personal relationship with historical data by showing that people also discussed their environmental problems in the past. This makes for a good approach and draws attention. History and geography are integrated - and this creates a connection. This is particularly important to me: We can only convince people when we combine emotion with knowledge.

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Last modification 11.02.2015

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