MSE Research Symposium: Bridging the gap between science and policy

By Jim Hynes

There was a time not so long ago when policy makers would respond to alarms sounded by environmental scientists, and relatively quickly at that. Think acid rain, pesticides, or chlorofluorocarbons and the ozone layer.

Now think fossil fuels and climate change, and the mixed reception – and foot-dragging by our policy makers – to the findings of scientists on that subject.

Part of the problem, says Anthony Ricciardi, Professor at the Redpath Museum and the McGill School of Environment (MSE), is that environmental scientists no longer have the same authority or command the same respect they once did.

“Many people confuse environmental scientists with environmental activists, a perception fuelled by years of ad campaigns and the lobbying of industry stakeholders,” Ricciardi said. “Nevertheless, most Canadians accept the scientific consensus that humans are altering the Earth’s climate.”

So how can scientific findings and their uncertainty be communicated to the public and to government? And how can we train environmental science students to properly interact with stakeholders?

Getting people to listen

Four prominent scientists who have spent much of their careers advising policy makers on environmental issues like climate change, acid rain and species endangerment will offer unique insight into how to more effectively bridge the gap between science and policy in a panel discussion at McGill on April 14. The event is part of the two-day MSE Research Symposium on Global Environmental Change, held in the New Residence Ballroom.

Norman Yan, an aquatic scientist who splits his time between the Dorset Environmental Science Centre and York University; David Pearson, Dept.Earth Sciences at York University; David Green, the Director of the Redpath Museum and the former Chair of the Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada; and Nigel Roulet, former MSE Director and a contributor to the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, will make up the panel. Ricciardi, the Symposium’s Coordinator, will moderate .

Raising awareness, showcasing work

The 2011 edition is the fourth such Symposium organized by the MSE. The event gets underway on April 13 with a keynote address by Norman Yan on how lakes on the Canadian Shield are being transformed by a rather sinister synergy of environmental stressors, followed by a series of presentations by McGill professors (including three Canada Research Chairs) and students.

“The MSE’s mission is to promote an understanding of the world’s most pressing environmental problems, so it’s important for us to organize events like this,” Ricciardi said. “The Symposium also offers an opportunity to showcase some of the cutting-edge environmental research being conducted at McGill and elsewhere. I think students in particular will be excited and inspired by the work presented during it.”