Hundreds of members of the North America Congress for Conservation Biology got shoved out of their comfort zone first thing Monday morning when their opening panel of experts urged them to get out of the lab and into politics.
Former six-term U.S. Rep. Jim Greenwood of Pennsylvania noted that while few Americans can name a living scientist, the number of scientists who can name their local member of Congress is poor as well. That must change if problems like endangered species management, climate change, energy efficiency or knowledge-based issues will get the solutions good science recommends.
“There are incredible amounts of money being spent to influence decisions in Washington,” said Greenwood. “And the joke in Washington is if you’re not at the table, you’re what’s for lunch. Don’t pretend you care about saving the world if you can’t find your own member of Congress.”
The weeklong gathering has brought scientists, policymakers and journalists from around the world to the University of Montana. While much of the gathering is focused on the latest scientific discipline discoveries, this year’s agenda also features many discussions about getting more science to the general public.
Dominick DellaSala, president and chief scientist of the Geos Institute in Ashland, Oregon, argued that even different political camps can end up following the same policy aims. He said that while the George W. Bush administration caught fire for recommending logging and thinning in spotted owl habitat with little evidence that would help the bird, the Obama administration has pursued a very similar policy.
“The thinning goes forward even though the science says, ‘Wait a minute,’ ” DellaSala said. “With the precautionary principle, the agency has the burden of proof to demonstrate it’s not harmful.”
“Legislatures have really micromanaged our wildlife, particularly where it comes to wolves,” Bob Ream, a former state legislator and Fish, Wildlife and Parks commissioner, as well as University of Montana biology professor. He encouraged the audience to get involved in branches of government – as expert witnesses in judicial cases, as advisers to executive offices, and as supporters or even candidates for office.
“Think of how much money you spent coming to this conference,” Ream said. “Think about spending that same amount on a candidate who supports good science.”
But that’s going to take a higher level of commitment and organization than most scientists are willing to assume, said David Johns, a professor of politics and law at Portland State University and co-founder of the Yellowstone-to-Yukon Conservation Initiative.
“Conservationists have abandoned grassroots organizing,” Johns said. “It’s mostly check-writers supporting professional staff. But when you’re only playing the inside game, you can’t match the resources of our opponents.”
U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Director Dan Ashe said managing people is much harder than managing wildlife, especially where science is involved. When people “stack facts based on beliefs,” to make political decisions, it becomes extremely hard for scientific evidence to persuade someone to change an opinion.
“We have to be responsible for our actions and our words,” Ashe told the audience. “We need a sense of civility in the conversation.”