2023 Science Panel comments on science and policy

Photo of two kayakers paddling in Commencement Bay, near Tacoma. There's a pier on the right-hand side of the photo, and Brown's Point is in the distance.

The Puget Sound Partnership’s Science Panel expanded on its comments in the 2023 State of the Sound report in the following letter about science and policy.

Recovering Puget Sound requires bold actions combined with creativity and collaborations to meet the increasingly complex challenges facing the region. Indicators show that we are not making the progress we want nor having the impact at the scale we need. The system is dynamic and uncertain, and changing at a rate that we have not seen before. Climate change and rapid population growth are systemic factors driving the rate of these changes while also exacerbating ongoing problems. With the rapid nature of change in Puget Sound, creative and innovative solutions are more necessary than before.

A key aspect of bold actions is that they are transformative, have a large scale, and fundamentally change the way an ecosystem and its interactions with human communities work. Human impacts are a primary driver of the structure and function of the Puget Sound system. Thus, working through human systems, such as governing entities at all levels, Tribes, conservation and community organizations, the business community, and more, will be a critical component of achieving success in recovering Puget Sound. In the face of uncertainty, science has informed sound decisions in the past with great success, which is where the Puget Sound Partnership Science Panel sees the opportunity today to inform the next generation of big ideas.

We acknowledge that bold actions require courage, because uncertainty is intrinsic in these decisions. Science can help navigate the uncertainty. Natural sciences allow us to think about complicated and complex situations by informing models that are needed to explore multiple attributes at once (i.e., the many ways the system works is complex and dynamic). They also help identify the new ways the system works after implementing projects to restore landscape processes. Multiple ways of knowing are an important component of knowledge and creative solutions. We understand multiple ways of knowing to mean scientific inquiry that expands beyond traditional Western boundaries. For example, vibrant Tribal nations have been here for millennia and their knowledge and leadership is essential to charting the path forward. Important in this effort are also the social sciences, which can help understand public acceptance and resistance. We believe all of these modes of scientific inquiry can also be used to inform the effectiveness and impact of transformative decisions. Finally, with sufficient data on the performance of actions, adaptive management can be employed to identify adaptations to them during implementation.

Our region has experience with bold action. Examples that collectively embody these attributes of bold, creative, and collaborative solutions include the restoration of the Nisqually and Skagit estuaries, removal of the Elwha and Klamath river dams, and revising contaminated site cleanup strategies to prioritize bay-wide cleanups rather than one-at-a-time sites as part of Ecology’s Puget Sound Initiative. At their inception each of these initiatives required embracing a new perspective that challenged the way ‘things had been done’, thinking big and focusing on ecological scales that transformed ecosystem processes, required building collaboration and partnerships, and took persistence. Often, these required time and effort to resolve uncertainties through scientific assessments and policy, while simultaneously legal ambiguities were clarified through court cases.

A complicating factor for decision-makers today is that the region has and continues to change; and change will continue into the future. The decision to do nothing is a decision for unmanaged change. Myriad impacts to Puget Sound stem from historical actions and increasing urbanization, increasing population growth in the region, changing climate, expanding wildfires, and increasing inputs of chemical contaminants ranging from tire dust to estrogenic chemicals. The COVID19 pandemic has shifted the way we work, live, and interact. These changes, and climate change in particular, mean that the past is no longer a guide for the future. New and unforeseeable disruptions will emerge.

Although the system is changing at an accelerated rate, we have the scientific community to help navigate this uncertainty. The Science Panel is an important node in a network of individuals and organizations contributing to scientific efforts for Puget Sound recovery. This network includes robust natural, and social sciences research, modeling, and monitoring efforts. The Panel also recognizes the need to ensure this network includes entities with different perspectives and ways of knowing. This includes the Indigenous knowledge and science by the many Tribes in the region, local natural history expertise, and research from an array of natural and social science disciplines. The Partnership and Science Panel are uniquely tasked with taking a regional ecosystem perspective of recovery. Within the distributed network, the Partnership and Science Panel seek to convene and encourage collaboration.

Collectively, we have tools to help navigate uncertainty. Multiple modeling tools have emerged and are becoming more powerful: VELMA (Visualizing Ecosystem Land Management Assessments, managed by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency) is a comprehensive hydro-ecological model being linked to the Salish Sea Model of tidal flow, and then into the Atlantis Model of marine food web dynamics and toxics in marine mammals and fish. CoSMoS (The Coastal Storm Modeling System, developed and overseen by the U.S.G.S.) is illuminating risk from sea level rise, storm surge, and saltwater intrusion. The Puget Sound Future Scenarios Project, which the Science Panel invested in and supports, has produced both detailed map-based and qualitative network models to consider multiple facets of uncertainty in the social-ecological system, including climate change, population growth, governance, and human perceptions. With these models and others working in concert, our understanding of the Puget Sound as a system has and will continue to be immeasurably improved. We are now in a position to use those models to identify and explore the impacts of policy and management decisions with greater reliability and credibility. We are likewise poised to help incorporate these rich sources of data into policy decision-making processes that move us closer to a healthy, vibrant Puget Sound for all.

Our ecosystem is changing quickly. Yet in the context of this rapid change and uncertain future, we remain steadfast in our goal: to center scientific evidence in the decision-making processes that lead to a Puget Sound that is resilient ecologically, environmentally, and socially. While there is much that comprises the scientific endeavor of a resilient Puget Sound, we believe the following four ideas can catalyze the kind of collaboration and creativity needed to support bold initiatives.

The Science Panel is a partner in moving bold action forward with their support of innovation research

The Science Panel plays a key role in supporting the science and research on which Puget Sound recovery initiatives are based. Through the 2020-2024 Science Work Plan the Panel directs state funding to spark innovative scientific research that advances Puget Sound resilience; the forthcoming 2025-2028 Science Work Plan will strive to further identify and prioritize funding scientific activities that are crucial and timely. Additional resources from our federal and state partners will further advance this opportunity. In the face of navigating the uncertainty inherent in bold initiatives to restore ecosystem processes, we invite policymakers and communities to support and turn to this science that the Partnership and Science Panel supports and spearheads in our region.

The Science Panel convenes the recovery community to advance recovery science

The Science Panel supports knowledge sharing and innovation through convening community leaders, policymakers, and scientists to identify policy problems and the science-based actions needed to address them. As a node in the recovery network, the Panel is committed to its focus on communications to ensure that pressing scientific findings are conveyed to all and, conversely, so that all have a voice in recovery efforts. We invite engagement from policymakers and our Puget Sound communities and sovereign Tribal nations because our work on the panel and others’ work is stronger when a diverse group of people engage toward greater collaborative science.

The Science Panel supports sustained and expanded monitoring efforts

The importance of monitoring data in Puget Sound recovery efforts cannot be understated. Monitoring data is the bedrock on which we build models, make projections, and grapple with an uncertain future. For example, the Puget Sound Ecosystem Monitoring Program (PSEMP) provides essential data and synthesis to understand the current state of the Puget Sound system. This type of monitoring is important to maintain in order to assess the effectiveness of any action taken and provide the information needed for adaptive management. We urge policymakers to support and potentially expand investments in monitoring systems and data across local, state, and federal jurisdictions and in activities that synthesize this data, because these investments will yield the scientific evidence on which we base policy in the future.

The Science Panel acknowledges that Puget Sound recovery is strengthened by embracing multiple ways of knowing

With a sense of humility we acknowledge that traditional Western approaches to scientific inquiry have marginalized entire knowledge systems that belong at the table when it comes to collaborative Puget Sound restoration work. We remain committed to contributing to an inclusive knowledge network in our region that reflects the many forms of knowledge needed to inform policy and science that achieves equitable outcomes. We encourage policymakers to support scientific inquiry in its many forms and explore funding opportunities that expand the diversity of voices that contribute to our scientific community in the Puget Sound.

The challenge ahead is complex and ever changing. The state of the system suggests that our current course of action has made some gains and perhaps stopped or slowed some declines, but not achieved the resilient Puget Sound we strive for. The Puget Sound community has the information, tools, partnerships, and the political will to take bold action even as we continue to improve our knowledge and tools. Waiting will only limit our options and increase the challenges.

As the Science Panel for the Puget Sound Partnership, we invite policy makers, program managers, and scientists to join us in identifying and exploring the bold, creative, and collaborative actions through which we can confront the increasingly complex challenges that affect the success of Puget Sound recovery.

About the Science Panel
The Science Panel’s expertise and advice are critical to the Puget Sound Partnership’s efforts to develop a comprehensive, science-based plan to restore Puget Sound. The members, appointed by the Leadership Council, are chosen from the top scientists in Washington State.

Like this article?

Share on Facebook
Share on Twitter
Share on Linkdin

Making Waves is the Puget Sound Partnership’s online magazine. Making Waves features stories from the people protecting and restoring Puget Sound.