MPA Perspective: Science, Participation, and Politics in MPA Management

MPA News

Editor's note: Nancy Dahl-Tacconi is a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Queensland, Australia, studying the roles of science and social context in evaluating effectiveness of MPAs. She is also employed with the Marine Protected Areas Taskforce of the Australian Department of Environment and Heritage (DEH). The views expressed in this essay are her own and do not necessarily reflect those of DEH.

By Nancy Dahl-Tacconi, University of Queensland

Once upon a time, there was a young MPA lost in the first review of its management plan. The plan, drafted in a rush five years earlier by an understaffed management agency, had led to conflicts between management and stakeholder groups. Displaced fishermen, arguing for a smaller no-take zone, wanted social and economic costs to be considered in the new plan: "You need to involve us more in decision-making," they told the managers. Conservationists, arguing for a larger no-take zone to protect an endangered species, told the managers, "You need to base your decisions on science, not politics."

What would you advise the managers to do?

Many management agencies face pressures like these. Stakeholders are often dissatisfied with prior management decisions, which they view as not having considered the relevant environmental or social systems. There seem to be two distinct themes in society's reaction to this discontent: a push for science-based management and a movement toward more participatory decision-making processes. There are benefits and limits to each approach. I propose that these two approaches should be applied together, not separately.

The term "science-based management" is used frequently in policies and scientific publications on MPAs, as well as other fields of resource management. Proponents claim that this approach is implicitly more rational and objective than other strategies - thus, more capable of delivering acceptable decisions. The concept emphasizes the need for rigorous examination of natural and social conditions to increase understanding and capacity to make better decisions. The underlying assumptions are that rigor leads to transparency and that better scientific knowledge leads to better management decisions. (Other stakeholders may disagree.)

If "science-based management" means that decisions are justified primarily on the basis of scientific knowledge alone, there are at least three reasons why it may be neither feasible nor desirable practice:

  • Management that involves complex interactions among natural and social systems is not a technical problem easily framed by the ways we have tended to do science. Reducing complex problems into component parts tends to produce results that are detached from the actual management context. Alternatively, methods aimed at investigating multiple interactions concurrently are difficult to ground in scientific theory.
  • Science does not necessarily enable consensus on policy choices; on the contrary, continuous debate on methods and results is desirable in scientific institutions because it provides quality control and maintains credibility.
  • Public demand for more responsible decision-making processes cannot be satisfied by switching from one type of authoritarianism to another, which is essentially what happens by shifting decision power into the hands of scientific experts. With regard to managing public resources, decision-making processes that are not inclusive or deliberative are increasingly unacceptable in democratic societies.

These points highlight the gap between scientific reasoning and political reality in decision-making. Experienced practitioners understand that good decisions come from more than just good science. The decision-making process includes framing the management problem; developing objectives; creating alternative options; assessing risks; making trade-offs; considering uncertainties; and planning ahead. Most of these steps require political tact as well as reliable information.

Where public demand requires more transparency in decision-making, practitioners are increasingly turning to a range of participatory processes, ranging from one-way communication to more interactive dialogues and shared decision-power. Proponents assert that participatory processes are critical to uncovering and interpreting a diverse pool of information that comes from natural and social sciences - in addition to informal knowledge about social and cultural norms, local language, historical experiences and technical practices. Participatory processes are also promoted to facilitate mutually acceptable decisions when a variety of interests are involved. If done well these processes can lead to increased awareness and appreciation for different value systems. The underlying assumption is that the most acceptable decision is the most appropriate and sustainable one. (Some scientists may disagree.)

Participation can also be expensive and time-consuming. In addition, it risks hardening inflexible positions if information is not free-flowing, if interactions are not well-facilitated, or if participants are not committed to the process.

Both scientific knowledge and participatory processes are desirable for improving management effectiveness. Neither is adequate in isolation. Finding a way to merge the two approaches, to take advantage of the strengths of each, involves processing multiple sources of information in a complicated social context with multiple value systems and multiple conflicting interests. This is not an easy task.

A promising alternative for improving management decisions comes from the business world. Rational negotiation, which makes use of interactive participation and a range of information sources, can lead to creative solutions that are both acceptable and sustainable. Negotiating rationally involves focusing on interests rather than positions and exploring integrated alternatives rather than tug-of-war. When managers and stakeholders negotiate this way, information - scientific or not - is used jointly to forge a common path forward rather than as ammunition to defend opposing positions. It is an approach that integrates scientific reasoning and political reality rather than segregating them.

For more information:

Nancy Dahl-Tacconi, School of Natural and Rural Systems Management, University of Queensland, Australia. E-mail: s4024956 [at] student.uq.edu.au


BOX: More on rational negotiation

For readers who want to learn more about rational negotiation, Nancy Dahl-Tacconi recommends these books:

  • Bazerman, M. H. and M. A. Neale. 1992. Negotiating Rationally. Free Press.
  • Keeney, R. L. 1992. Value-focused Thinking: A Path to Creative Decision Making. Harvard University Press.
  • Raiffa, H., J. Richardson and D. Metcalfe. 2002. Negotiation Analysis: The Science and Art of Collaborative Decision Making. Belknap Press.

BOX: MPA News poll

In decision-making for MPA management, what role should negotiation with stakeholders play? Are there times when decisions should be based primarily on natural science with less consideration of stakeholders' socioeconomic concerns ... or vice versa?

Please e-mail your responses, with "Poll" in the subject line, to mpanews [at] u.washington.edu. We will print responses.