Friday, December 2, 2016

A Week in Paris: Reflections on the International Science-Policy Dialogue on Resource Use


My name is Kyle Flanegin, and I am a first year MS-STEP student at the Humphrey School of Public Affairs on the University of Minnesota Twin Cities campus. This past week I attended the 19th meeting of the International Resource Panel (IRP) and its Steering Committee in Paris, France. I was accompanying my advisor, Dr. Anu Ramaswami, who is an expert member on the Panel. Back at home, she is the Charles M. Denny, Jr., Chair of Science, Technology, and Public Policy at the Humphrey School of Public Affairs.

Functionally, the IRP has two parts. The IRP Panel is comprised of the 34 top experts on global material flows, responsible resource management and city-level decoupling strategies. Meanwhile, the IRP Steering Committee is made up of 25 governments, international organizations, and civil society organizations which provide strategic guidance and political support to the IRP Panel, which produces state of the art independent science reports. The two distinct parts are brought together by the United Nations Environmental Programme (UNEP) Secretariat, which develops the procedures and outreach mechanisms for the IRP.

The first day in Paris (Monday) was a pre-dialogue for the official IRP meetings, which was a national science-policy discussion focused on reducing our resource dependence to enhance human well-being. It was carried out half French and half English. The logistics at this event were incredible, with live translation provided by two translators in a sound proof booth who translated for six consecutive hours.

Besides the impressive setup of the event, I was fascinated that many of the ideas that we talk about in the MS-STEP program at UMN are the same exact conversations that the top experts on resources in the world have. For example, a large part of the discussion on Monday revolved around the need for metrics that measure growth, besides GDP. One of the fundamental problems in the science of resource use is that human progress, for the large part of history, has been driven and measured by increased economic capacity. Thus, the developing and developed part of the world have tried to maximize economic growth – which is currently the metric of human well-being – by consuming finite resources and creating large environmental impacts. As the group discussed alternative metrics to measure human development, I couldn’t help but to think back to my courses in the Sustainability Research Network at the University, because we had previously discussed many of the problems with alternative metrics under the guidance of Dr. Ramaswami earlier in the semester. I came to Paris wondering if I would even be able to follow the conversations at the IRP meetings, but soon enough I found myself very engaged in the discussion of the most pressing problems our world faces.

The Monday meeting set the tone for the rest of the trip. I soon found myself engaged in other topics that I had been introduced to, including one that interests me in particular: the interactions between the United Nation’s Sustainable Development Goals and sustainable resource use in cities. With 60% of the built environment required to accommodate the globe’s urban population in 2050 yet to be built, resource scarcity and equity on a global scale are of high interest to me, and I was humbled to be able to experience the cutting-edge thought and dialogue.

Experiencing the science-policy interactions at the meetings taught me a lot about the place of STEM research in the larger context of policy. In several of the policy reviews of the IRP’s current reports, I noticed that there was a tension between what the policy makers wanted the IRP to produce and what the IRP thought they could produce within a given timeframe. This tension ranged from the need for higher levels of funding for the IRP to produce more detailed work, to the specific language used in the report, and even to the communication structures in the report. For example, some words that existed within the reports had clear definitions and intent between the science panel members, but between policymakers, phrases such as ‘green economy’ were highly contentious. Additionally, it was interesting to view the science and policy interactions revolving around uncertainty. Several aspects of sustainable global resource consumption have varying amounts of uncertainty, but if the policy makers at the meeting got a hint of any uncertainty of the science they became highly uncomfortable in the discussion. In the end, it very hard for policymakers to justify funding science if there is the smallest of uncertainties, and understandably so. 

One last takeaway that I had was in the arena of science communication. At the IRP meetings, many of the scientific breakout sessions focused on the overall narrative that the IRP wants to create surrounding sustainable resource use. The story of resource use and resource scarcity is connected to many other stories in the environmental realm, but many of the researchers wanted to focus on the specific context of material consumption as the key focal point for the reports that the IRP will publish. On the other hand, others were interested in combining the IRP’s previous narrative with other reports from other groups, such as GEO-6, Habitat-III and other work by the UNFCCC.

These conversations hinged on the decision of communicating a concise narrative with very key policy takeaways, versus painting the overall pictures for larger policy change outside the direct scope of resource consumption. Many agreed that a narrow focus may result in only limited policy action, while flaring the scope too far would inhibit policymakers from acting at all. Even further, the group discussed the methods of communications, and how new methods of creative visualization could help the IRP to expand their impact on the policy world.

Overall, this trip was a very enriching aspect of my education in the Sustainability Research Network at the University of Minnesota. As a Master of Science student, being able to witness this international science-policy interaction firsthand could not have been replaced with any amount of classroom work and study.

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