If Science is Created and Nobody Listens, Does It Make a Difference?

July 23, 2014

Few things set off the government waste alarms like state agencies proposing to spend money on "branding."

Last month, the Puget Sound Partnership released a request for proposal with a budget of $60,000 for "Branding, Strategic Communications Plan, and Annual Report." There is a long list of annoying government projects along these lines (here's one example) - government spending money to make itself look good or lamely trying to get citizens to behave as government would like. 

The more I chewed on this one, though, the less bothered I was by it. The reason has to do with the purpose of the Puget Sound Partnership.

Four years ago, when we graded the success or failure of a range of environmental policies, we gave the Puget Sound Partnership a positive score. This was due to a mission we supported:

Prioritizing the environmental efforts to protect and restore Puget Sound is a necessary tool, and this approach can maximize the benefit we receive from the various funds spent on the Sound. The Puget Sound Partnership deserves credit for the effort in prioritizing.

One of the PSP's challenges, however, has been how to get others to follow that science-based prioritization. The agency does not have authority over the Department of Ecology and other jurisdictions responsible for carrying out those priorities. And, of course, they are reliant on legislators to follow the budgeting recommendations they develop.

If legislators, agencies and others simply ignore, in part or entirely, the PSP's prioritization, we are likely to waste large amounts of money on projects that are politically popular but of low value environmentally.

This is why a project to improve PSP's outreach with decision makers may be worthwhile. Since the PSP's effectiveness relies on its ability to convince legislators and agencies to follow its lead on scientific prioritization, spending $60,000 to prevent the waste of millions on environmentally useless projects could be a good investment.

Put simply, if nobody listens to the PSP, it will simply be an agency that produces scientifically sound shelf art.

In some sense, the PSP acts as an environmental auditor, highlighting useful and wasteful projects. Like the State Auditor, the PSP's power comes from its expertise and credibility. That means the PSP must create sound science, but it also means working with policymakers to make that science usable and persuasive.

This could still end up being a waste of money. If it resembles videos telling people to scoop their dog's poop or what not to flush, it will be another stubbed toe for an agency that has a history of them.

If, however, the effort is focused on providing the PSP with credibility and leverage among policymakers and the many agencies and jurisdictions involved in cleaning the Sound, it could be a step toward fulfilling the PSP's worthy purpose.