Thursday, November 29, 2007

Economics, ecology & policy

I’ve been rather disappointed by the European Conference on Ecological Modelling. Partly because many of the ecological models are numerically-oriented and computer-based (there is a minor component that uses dynamic modelling and game theory that is more interesting) without a lot of emphasis on qualitative insight. There is a strong preference for ‘black box’ modelling – indeed conclusions are often presented without explicit reference to any model.

Most of all however is the obvious disconnect between ecologists and policy issues. The ecological models of the effects of climate change on plant and marine communities are complex, in terms of their science, yet many do not allow for interspecies competition or even for relocation mechanisms such as seed dispersal. In some cases new forests are supposed to emerge in disconnected areas of landscape because climatic patterns alone would make this feasible.

But the key challenges of climate change analysis with respect to biodiversity are how such changes might actually come about in fragmented landscapes over the short-term horizons of 100 years or so over which we expect significant climate change to occur.

I asked ecologists and biologists here about this and they said they were not trained to do (or interested in doing) policy exercises. That’s a pity it leaves people such as myself - without a scientific background - to try to do such things. Economics is often accused of being imperialistic but is that partly because of this gap? Things are happening in the natural world as a consequence of climate change and governments are spending dollars trying to deal with the problems. Someone has to try to work out where the dollars will be spent. Don't they?

It is a good question I will think about further. There are no market signals out there to provide guidance and economists have only general insights. They might well get it wrong.

By the way, there are several Aussies at the ‘Conference from CSIRO and other groups. Their papers seemed conspicuously good – I modestly, of course, exclude my own effort. These papers were, moreover, more immune to the polemical remarks above than many other contributions I listened to.

1 comment:

conrad said...

This doesn't surprise me -- Doing tiny little computational simulations for the work I do, I get a feeling for some of the difficulties that complex systems modeling present. Some are practical -- I don't have a Cray to use -- I don't have enough data in certain areas etc. Others are theoretical -- The mathematics doesn't exist for some areas, and I'm not smart enough (or perhaps don't have the time) to think about it. Some are political -- its easier to get simple papers published than complex ones. etc.

I imagine the time issue is also the reason people don't care about policy -- people don't have enough time to do everything, especially those that have to teach/do other stuff as well (they could ask you, why don't you learn about the science?). I presume that in a few areas people also don't want to get their heads kicked off (metaphorically) by politicians, as I seem to remember happened at CSIRO with some of the climate guys.

This is what these big interdisciplinary teams are supposed to solve. People have their own little areas, but are supposed to co-operate. It just doesn't work well often.