The role of the babel fish: integrating at the final frontier

The National Policy Statement for Freshwater Management (NPS-FM) 2014 (NZGovt 2014a) is the latest in a series of freshwater reforms that is significantly changing the way in which freshwater resources are managed in New Zealand.

This ‘new’ freshwater management, and in particular setting of freshwater objectives and limits, requires integration at a number of scales, including integration of:

  • National, regional and local values,
  • Surface water and groundwater,
  • Water quantity and water quality,
  • Rivers with connected waterbodies (such as wetlands and lakes) and estuaries,
  • Many individual tools and models,
  • Technical work (environmental, economic, social and cultural information) and uncertainties into lay terms - the work of the babel fish,
  • Communities into local government decision-making processes, and
  • Iwi māori into co-governance and collaborative processes.

Our mission is to boldly integrate where others have not integrated before. Our focus is on the integration of multi-disciplinary technical work into a clearly communicated, risk-based framework that will help communities to make decisions. In this world, the role of scientists is changing - no longer are we the sole experts in the room in offering our opinion as ‘the best’ option for our communities’ resource (or hazard) management decisions. Pielke (2007) defines four potential roles for scientists in regard to policy making, and describes them using an analogy whereby you are a visitor to town and you want to know where to go for dinner. The pure scientist shares fundamental research on the general topic without consideration of how useful that is – they might give you some nutritional information about the food pyramid. A science arbiter can answer factual questions using the best information available, and has no interest in the decision – perhaps telling you any restaurants within a 10 minute walk from your hotel if that is what you ask. An issue advocate summaries implications of research for a particular agenda – for example letting you know which of those restaurants offer the best Italian food. An honest broker integrates science with stakeholder questions to offer alternate possible courses of action – expanding your dinner choices and maybe letting you know about a different type of restaurant which exactly meets your needs. Hopefully this analogy shows that the information received from the honest broker is the most helpful in making your dining decisions, and the same goes for policy making. The role of science in society, and that of ‘honest brokers’ to help policy making, is being discussed nationwide (Gluckman 2014, NZGovt 2014b), with plans to enhance science education, to encourage scientists to share their science and communities to engage with science, and both to participate in citizen science initiatives. How will scientists be able to help in these initiatives? In previous work (presentations to the NZHS conference), we have outlined the importance of scientists (martians) communicating clearly with planners (venutians) and vice versa, and how specialist integrators or ‘babel fish’ can help in that process. We have outlined how the increasing role of stakeholders and community, now encouraged through the NPS-FM, introduces even further complexity to these conversations. At the Water Symposium in Blenheim last November (2014), we expanded on the role of these babel fish, and how they need to:

  • Understand and translate acronyms and jargon,
  • Understand the transdisciplinary complexity of the whole, and
  • Help line-up inputs and outputs of various tools and models.

To do this requires clear language and agreed (simple) terminology; active listening; and a willingness to explore many viewpoints, as well as a process that allows time for dialogue (understanding) before debate (what could we do?) and negotiation (what will we do?) occurs (Forester & Theckethil 2009). We briefly described a case-study in Canterbury, where the key aspects of success for our collaborative freshwater management process were identified as:

  • A team with a good mix of skills, knowledge and experience,
  • Robust information from science & locals,
  • Early and clear communication using a mixture of tools,
  • A commitment to a participatory process,
  • Support from the council to deliver the agreed outcomes, and
  • The resources (time and $$) to see it through.

In summary, the recent reforms and NPS-FM 2014 have brought a step-change to freshwater management in New Zealand. There are multiple (conflicting) uses and values of freshwater to balance in any decisions made, and these decisions are normative – science is only one strand of the information being used. The level of work and learning required is huge, so everyone is on a journey and learning together. Scientists and babel fish have a very important role to play, integrating at this final frontier.

External Collaborator: Ned Norton (NN Consulting Ltd)