The role of science in federal policy development on a regional to global scale: Personal commentary
- Cite this article as:
- Bierbaum, R. Estuaries (2002) 25: 878. doi:10.1007/BF02804913
Nutrient enrichment of coastal waters is an example of the large-scale, highly complex environmental challenges facing decision makers today. Conventional monitoring networks and advanced observational capabilities permit the detection of changes in the environment at continental to global scales (e.g., hypoxia in the Gulf of Mexico, aerosol plumes stretching across the ocean, global atmospheric enrichment of carbon dioxide). Much more knowledge is needed, however, to fully understand the societal consequences of environmental change and of actions taken to address them. This paper discusses the emerging role of assessment in developing effective U.S. policy responses to large-scale, complex environmental change while improving the scientific understanding of the problem. In the cases of global climate change and coastal hypoxia, the U.S. Congress passed legislation authorizing assessments recognizing that decision making must proceed in the face of scientific uncertainty. Evaluating the state of knowledge is usually the first step in an assessment in order to provide a picture of what is known and where there are knowledge gaps. Assessments should also provide the policy maker with an idea of the level of uncertainty, how long it may take to reduce the uncertainty, what information is most critical to resolve, and the consequences and benefits of the various management options. In this paper I draw upon several examples from national assessments, including those of climate change impacts on the U.S. and relationships between Mississippi River water and Gulf of Mexico water quality, to illustrate the strengths and difficulties of using science and assessment to inform the policy process.