New paper from Nelson Institute professor encourages transparency about values in natural resource management

Adrain Treves
Adrian Treves

A new paper co-authored by University of Wisconsin-Madison Nelson Institute professor and founder of the Carnivore Coexistence Lab, Adrian Treves, identifies the role value judgments play in wildlife management decisions and encourages managers and scientists to more carefully evaluate when a value judgement is masquerading as science.

The new research entitled “Transparency about values and assertions of fact in natural resource management” was published in the journal Frontiers in Conservation Science and was co-authored by experts from the University of Victoria in British Columbia, Raincoast Conservation Foundation, Little River Band of Ottawa Indians Natural Resources Department, and Slovenia’s University of Ljubljana. Together, the authors provide guidance to scientists, policymakers, and the public on making transparent and science-based natural resource management decisions.

“It’s really obvious to scientists who are working in this area how easy it can be to mix science with a value judgment,” Treves said. “[Through this paper] we offer a way to disentangle those more clearly so that the public can gain more trust in scientists and so that decision-makers know what the facts are when they do make the value judgements through the political process.”

In particular, the authors highlight two cases of natural resource management that were influenced by unstated value judgements as well as outlining four guidelines for scientists and decision-makers to consider when enacting regulations around natural resource extraction and hunting.

First, the authors encourage decision-makers to acknowledge the distinction between values and science. In other words, science is an observation or measurement describing how things are or predicting an outcome, but ultimately the communication of that science may become shaped by the values of a scientist, policymaker, or organization reporting their interpretations of those findings. Secondly, the authors encourage decision-makers to understand and acknowledge the role that values play in identifying winners and losers in policy and management.

“At the root of our paper is the question of, ‘how do you keep the facts separate from our value judgements about the facts?’ because science doesn’t tell you what you should do. It tells you the state of nature and helps you predict future conditions or what your interventions might do, but it doesn’t tell you what to do. That’s a value judgement,” Treves said. “We saw the dreadful effects of politicizing public health science in 2020, so our team came together to highlight similar politicization of endangered species and natural resource management policy to the detriment of state, national, and planetary ecosystem health.”

That’s why the authors also encourage scientists to evaluate multiple scenarios and be transparent with policymakers about any assumptions or uncertainty in the data. Finally, the authors implore scientists to understand that they are trustees with a legal duty to the broadest public, not to funders, government, or special interest groups.

“There’s a very clear set of standards for how science is conducted. But, a lot of scientists then stumble on the issue of communicating their science,” Treves said. “And by stumble, I mean they either hold back and don’t communicate for fear of being seen as an advocate or activist, or they launch into it and stumble in regard to their own personal value judgements. This is where we can get into trouble. That’s where the public loses confidence in science. Through this paper, we are trying to help the scientific community regain some of its lost credibility and therefore empower the public in regard to decisions about endangered species and natural resource use.”