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Canadian Science Policy Centre | Panel 117 - Water at the science-policy interface: Challenges and opportunities for Canada

Panel 117 - Water at the science-policy interface: Challenges and opportunities for Canada

Conference Day: 
Day 2 - November 8th 2018
Takeaways and recommendations: 

Water at the science-policy interface: Challenges and opportunities for Canada

Organized by: The University of Waterloo, Tatjana Milojevic and Nancy Goucher

Speakers: Philippe Van Cappellen, Canada Excellence Research Chair in Ecohydrology Laureate; Steve Cobham, Manager of Canada-U.S. Relations in the International Affairs Branch, Environment and Climate Change Canada; Nicola Crawhall, Principal, Westbrook Public Affairs; Gail Krantzberg, Professor of Engineering and Public Policy in the Walter G Booth School of Engineering Practice and Technology, McMaster University; Alain Pietroniro, Executive Director for the National Hydrological Service within the Meteorological Service of Canada, Environment and Climate Change Canada

Moderator: Homa Kheyrollah Pour, Research Scientist, University of Waterloo

Takeways and recommendations


  • Historically, the concern for water pollution was focused on point-source stressors, such as effluent from a factory, which was relatively easy to identify and address.

  • Now we are learning more about the impact of non-point-source stressors such as nutrient enrichment and their effects can be compounded by climate change and interaction with other stressors.

  • These are “wicked problems” because solutions involve trade-offs between ecology, economics, and stakeholders – there is no perfect solution.


  • Boundary groups who facilitate the science-policy interface can reduce the cost to researchers for communicating with policymakers. This doesn’t mean we need to create new organizations – there are many that currently exist (e.g. International Joint Commission (IJC)). It is important these organizations remain as neutral, evidence-based as possible. They can do themselves a disservice when they don’t stay neutral).

  • Solutions these days require us to make trade-offs.

    • No single solution will satisfy all stakeholders or return ecosystem to pristine conditions.

  • People (and skillsets) are needed to fill gap between science and policy.

  • Customize science to be relevant to policy.

    • Boundary organizations can help translate to allow science to be more easily relevant.

    • Reduce translation costs for academics.

  • Metrics and tools are needed to understand science-policy.

    • E.g., Valuation of ecosystem services (loss of wetlands can cost hundreds of millions/ year)

    • Measuring ecosystem services can be used to make an economic evaluation and determine the replacement cost of a water system.

  • Economies of scale work in monitoring fresh water in Canada. For instance, there are provincial/federal partnerships where provinces pay the federal government to conduct monitoring operations.

  • At the federal level, water monitoring is operational – there isn’t a lot of time to come together with scientists to develop new innovative systems.

  • Fiscal realities and a relatively low profile often dictate resistance to increasing water monitoring. Are there other options? The issue is often not visible to the public until there is a crises or extreme event. Public memories are relatively short.

  • Science and policy timeframes are different: science may say that if we make a change now, we will see the outcome in years or decades. Politicians are driven more by shorter term election cycles. As such, adaptive management approaches may be helpful in enabling policy to be developed based on best available science and updated once more is known.

  • Policymaking needs to be more agile and less linear (problem, analysis, decision, funding). Approach more flexible manner.

  • Water policy development and implementation in Ontario is complicated by the number of players involved (i.e., municipal, provincial, federal). The trend towards devolution of responsibilities for water to local communities and private owners is problematic in terms of access to science and knowledge.

    • The source water protection program in Ontario is an interesting example of the science-policy interface. Science was used to develop source protection policies. Now Risk Management Officials are responsible for working with landowners to figure out how to implement those policies on a case-by-case basis. Their job is to:

      • Broker information: science and regulations

      • Communicate the risks to drinking water from local activities

      • Negotiate between stakeholders

  • Having a staff member dedicated to water at the municipal level is resource-intensive. Can we support those budgets?

  • Canada needs to invest in monitoring and science. Lake Erie is in distress due to algal blooms that form because of increased inputs of phosphorus (fertilizer). Canada has provided little monitoring data to support a Canada-U.S. understanding of this problem. Canada is relying on computer models and extrapolated data from the US.

  • Train policymakers in science and vice versa. Each group needs to better understand one another. Policymakers ask different questions – why should we take action at this time? Scientists ask about how the world works, and relationships between factors. They experiment, learn by doing, reduce uncertainty, improve understanding with increasingly better certainty. Preventative action is very hard for a policymaker to take because we already have so many issues in a crisis mode. Improving mutual understanding of the pressures and perspective of one another can help identify a common path forward.

  • If scientist or engineer wants to have impact, they need to learn soft skills, politics, and legal instruments so their uncertainty can be accommodated.

  • Look for opportunities for policy to move faster. Microbeads is a good example and happened for a number of reasons:

    • The scientists did a great job communicating results and impact.

    • The issue was tangible and the impact on people was clear (and also involved children). People felt deceived by the companies they were buying product from and industry was willing to act because of public pressure.

  • Provide opportunities for scientists and policymakers to connect more frequently (e.g., seat them together in the same part of the office).