July 28, 2011
For over a year, I’ve been serving on a working group of the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology (PCAST). Our working group was comprised of leaders from educational and non-profit institutions, as well as corporations large and small, who all had expertise in matters of ecosystem preservation, environmental economics and information systems. During this time I’ve had the privilege of working with these people to draft a set of policy recommendations that were recently presented to President Obama.
The result of our work, titled Sustaining Environmental Capital: Protecting Society and the Economy, has now been published and is available online. While the details in the report are quite dense, the content is quite important for several reasons.
First, there is a clear focus on explaining the measurable economic value of ecosystem preservation which goes far beyond the traditional arguments for protection that focus on nature’s intrinsic values. The report explains that the deterioration of “natural capital” (or ecosystems) has led to large scale economic impacts on society. Some examples include the degradation of wetlands leading to massive flooding and damage to the built environment, depletion of fisheries from coastal wetland destruction and rising healthcare costs due to increased exposure to toxins. These are all issues that many of us who have worked on ecological issues know, but bringing them to the forefront of national policy debate at the Presidential level is very important.
Another important point that is made in this report is that the solutions to these problems need to involve federal government action. In my opinion, far too many short-sighted people rush to the conclusion that because there may be waste in some government budgets, that government’s role in solving some of humankind’s largest problems must be reduced. Waiting for industries to self-regulate to adequately protect the public commons that ecosystems represent is not a prudent path forward. The report makes several recommendations for specific improvements to government agencies that oversee ecosystem protection and reporting, while also outlining multiple ways that corporations and non-profits need to be involved.
The area of the report that I had the most influence on has to do with the collection, analysis and reporting of ecological data. Many of our recommendations in this area are focused on how to make ecological data more accessible, published in a timely manner and flow among federal agencies as well as the private sector. I am especially proud of the inclusion of many of the tenets of open and transparent data that were promoted to the top-level recommendations the report makes. Agencies can save tremendous amounts of money by pooling technical resources, conducting data collection and publishing in an open and transparent manner. For example, the report included detailed recommendations that included publishing data in machine-readable, interoperable formats and promoting best practices in data interoperability such as the use of universally unique identifiers for data records. Further, the report points out that many agencies that deal with ecosystem data are not making use of existing open data initiatives such as Data.gov. Further recommendations are included for improving Data.gov so that it is more widely adopted and useful. I never expected these type of “in the weeds” recommendations to be included, but am very happy to see how seriously they are being taken.
While publishing a report itself is not going to change the world, I was very heartened throughout my interactions with White House staff, policy makers and agency leaders, at how open they were to new approaches to solving these problems. There is a deep level of scientific knowledge and curiosity that exists at the highest levels of our government, which gives me hope that we may soon get on the right track towards triple bottom line policies that equally value preserving ecosystems, human health and our economy.
I would also like to thank the many staffers at the White House and the Office of Science and Technology Policy that helped our working group at every step of the way. The interactions with my fellow working group members, as well as the PCAST members who helped guide us, made this experience a truly rewarding one.