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A thirst to know. Questions about the quantity and quality of future water supplies topped policymakers’ list.

A thirst to know. Questions about the quantity and quality of future water supplies topped policymakers’ list.

Böhringer Friedrich/Wikimedia

A New Top 10: Policymakers Reveal Their Top Questions About Ecosystems

The best-selling book title in the world of research policy: Scientists Are from Mars, Policymakers Are from Venus. OK, maybe not, but you'd be forgiven for thinking so.

"The conventional wisdom and rhetoric is that decision-makers and scientists don’t see the world the same way," says Erica Fleishman, an ecologist at the University of California, Davis. Scientists, thank you very much, are methodical, detail-focused, and partial to nuance and caveats. In contrast, policymakers want clear-cut solutions to real-world problems right now. Some people worry that scientists might not even be working hard enough on the issues most relevant to land managers.

Fleishman wanted to find out if the concerns were true. She teamed up with Murray Rudd, a social scientist at the University of York in the United Kingdom, who studies science policy. The two started with 40 scientific questions about resource management that had been identified as important by a large survey of scientists and policymakers in 2011. Then they created a web-based poll and asked scientists and policymakers (including advisers and resource managers) across the United States to rank the 40 questions in order of importance. More than 600 surveys were completed between October 2011 and April 2012. Specifically, participants were asked which questions, if answered, would affect natural resource policy the most over the next 5 to 10 years.

It turned out that both groups had generally similar views about the relative importance of the questions. "We were surprised that things were as aligned as they were," Fleishman says. When Rudd sent Fleishman a chart showing the degree of consensus about the single most important issue, her reaction was "Wow! That was striking." The analysis ranks all 40 questions by how likely each was to be voted as most important and was published online 5 February in BioScience.

Here are the top 10, paraphrased slightly for clarity:

10. How do different kinds of governance lead to ecosystem resilience?

9. What will happen to ecosystems as land use and climate change alter the composition of species?

8. What are the ecological and economic effects of restoring forests, wetlands, and streams?

7. What are reliable scientific metrics for detecting long-term changes in ecosystems?

6. How do different agricultural practices and technologies affect water availability and quality?

5. What is the ecological cost of developing new sources of energy?

4. How might land be managed to maximize carbon storage, ecosystem resilience, and other benefits?

3. How will coastal residents and ecosystems be affected by sea-level rise and climate change?

2. How do you quantify ecosystem services? And trade-offs among those benefits?

1. How much water will be needed by people and nature over the century? How clean must it be?

Fleishman says this kind of survey could be useful for agencies or organizations that are trying to establish an objective basis for how to invest limited resources. Soliciting opinions and ranking them to find clear winners can help avoid doing “colossally stupid things," she says.

A few notes about the survey: Respondents included 194 policymakers, 70 government scientists, and 228 academic scientists. More than half had Ph.D.s; 77% had more than a decade of experience.