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Econ 919 — Getting science into policy despite politics

A panel at the Kenai Peninsula Fish Habitat Partnership on April 20 discusses ways to support science-based policies.
Jenny Neyman/KDLL
A panel at the Kenai Peninsula Fish Habitat Partnership Science Symposium on April 20 discusses ways to support science-based policies.

We all know about the laws of nature. What we might not realize is how difficult it can be for those who study nature to get their research translated into modern-day laws.

The goal is to have legislation based on the best data possible for the good of ecology and economy. But there can be a disconnect between science and policy when politics gets in the way.

A panel discussion at the Kenai Fish Habitat Science Symposium on Thursday attempted to bridge that gap.

“All the, I guess, political side of things that I never thought about. I just thought if you gave people good science, they used it. And that’s not really the way it works,” said Coowe Walker, manager of the Kachemak Bay National Estuarine Research Reserve.

Walker suggested the panel as a way to share strategy for science making a bigger impact on policy.

Jan Keiser, Public Works Director for the city of Homer, says scientists shouldn’t assume decision makers are speaking their language.

“You’re also not always very good at communicating. Because we don’t understand you,” Keiser said.

Translating can be key. Robert Ruffner is the planning director for the Kenai Peninsula Borough and a former Alaska Board of Fisheries member. He was also executive director of the Kenai Watershed Forum when the organization was trying to get regulations passed to ban two-stroke motors on the Kenai River to reduce pollution.

“Yes, this is a big deal. If I was to stand on the bridge in Soldotna and throw a 55-gallon drum of gas off the bridge every two hours, it wouldn’t be long before I’d be hauled off in handcuffs," Ruffner said. "So, coming up with creative ways to deliver that message so that people could understand, ‘Oh, this is a serious issue. And put it in terms they could understand, rather than parts per billion of xylene.”

Sue Mauger is the science and executive director of Cook Inletkeeper. She’s found success in not just telling policymakers what she wants them to know but finding out how to deliver the information. Expecting someone to look up the study you’re citing might not be effective. Providing GIS data that agency staff can use in their own programs can be the better approach.

“So I think, as scientists, we’re beginning to ask those questions a little more specifically. ‘Like, how do you take in information?’ And it’s not the way that we typically have given it to them,“ Mauger said.

Kenai Peninsula Borough Mayor Peter Micciche just finished his last term in the Legislature as the Senate president. He says it’s about building relationships.

“You have to find ways to create an understanding with those policymakers so that they will listen and realize that you’re not — let’s see, what would they title some of you as — left-wing whack-job greenies or something. They have to respect you as a person for what you represent. You have to find a way to sell the message in a way that they can appreciate. That’s the only way you’re going to create champions,” Micciche said.

Mauger points out the difficulty and expense in getting to Juneau to meet with legislators. Even one trip per session can be a stretch for some constituents.

“But if we just rely on Alaskans having to take days off away from their families, go down to Juneau to advocate for something. Or that they have to sit at the Board of Fish meeting for two weeks to have any sort of influence in fisheries management, I would say that’s not an effective public process. And it definitely marginalizes an awful lot of people who do not have the resources,” Mauger said.

Micciche agreed. He says relationships don’t have to be built in Juneau. They can be over the phone or while legislators are home, but they need to be consistent, respectful and one-on-one to stand a chance against voices with other motives.

“Waving signs on a corner and yelling things at legislators that you see once a year is completely ineffective. Because they see others every day. … And we can’t compete on that level, we can’t compete with hundreds of thousands of dollars or millions of dollars in campaign contributions. We have to compete with information, science and face time or voice time until they know us when we call,” Micciche said.

One recommendation from the panel is for the Fish Habitat Partnership to create a position for someone to be that liaison with lawmakers. Keiser, from Homer, says having that consistency is key.

“It’s hard. I know it’s hard for you scientists out there. But stay with it because it will be worth it. At some magic moment in time, you will find someone who will listen,” Keiser said.

Jenny Neyman has been the general manager of KDLL since 2017. Before that she was a reporter and the Morning Edition host at KDLL.
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