Diego de la Hoz, a winner of the IBSS blog competition, explores the use of computer models in public policy making in his entry below. Starting with the painful memories of the foot-and-mouth crisis, he leads us to innovative solutions for environmental policy. Computer modelling may not be at the heart of politics yet, but Diego shows us that if the academic world is anything to go by, it will not be long until the bytes will start flying.
You may know that some of best farmers’ markets in the UK emerged out of the despair and tragedy of the Foot and Mouth outbreak in 2001. This is the case, for instance, of the popular farmers’ market in Edinburgh, the city where I live. You may also remember that the decisions made by the UK officials in the face of the crisis became the subject of fierce criticism. At the core of the controversy was the mass slaughter of farm animals to control the spread of the epidemic disease. Significantly enough, these culling strategies relied on the outputs of computer modelling designed by epidemiologists rather than on the advice from vets and virologists who understood the specific nature of the disease. With the benefit of hindsight, ten million animals slaughtered was a grotesque overreaction. The media and the farmers coined a very illustrative expression ‘carnage from a computer’.
The handling of the Foot and Mouth is a good example of how computer models may matter for policy. They have an increasing role in the formulation of policies. At the same time, they also represent a common way of doing scientific work in the era of high processing power, enabling research in those areas where field experimentation cannot be considered. Computer models are all over the place! Therefore, I believe that they constitute an excellent tag for my first experience with IBSS. Moreover, it is interesting to test how IBSS responds to an entry that, while being a headliner within natural sciences and engineering, enjoys a mild popularity at best within the social and political sciences.
So here we go, I enter ‘computer model’ into the search engine and IBSS bounces back 66 results. Well, probably not an outstanding amount of hits but, definitely, enough informative material to get you started without feeling overwhelmed. For instance, I come across Vág (2005) ‘The short history and the plausible future of world modelling’. World modelling refers to any set of equations that attempts to capture some particular global dynamics. They became popular at the beginning of the 70s with the spread of IBM computers, particularly the model behind the Limits to Growth report. Published in 1972, it addressed the consequences that a world of finite resource supplies projected over its fast growing population. Policy informative models have continued to pervade public policy making, following the increase in computing power. However, to what extent are they used by policy makers? Interestingly, not to a great deal according to Måns et al. (2008) in their article ‘The use and non-use of policy appraisal tools in public policy making: an analysis of three European countries and the European Union’, also one of the results offered by IBSS.
At this point, while keeping the focus on public policy, I decide to refine my search by combining ‘computer model’ and ‘environmental policy’. This time IBSS returns only 4 hits, less than I would expect. Yet I am able to spot an interesting case study by Tuinstra et al. (1999) entitled ‘Using computer models in international negotiations: the case of acidification in Europe’. It provides insights of the key role of mediation played by a computer modelling in the context of the Convention on Long-range Transboundary Air Pollution (LRTAP) in 1994. Meanwhile, another hit points to a promising volume called ‘Public participation in sustainability science: a handbook’ (2003).
In a final search I opt to combine the tags ‘computer model’ and ‘climate change’, one of the most pressing environmental problem of our days both for modelling and policy making. Again IBSS returns only 4 hits, which is surprising given that this is a popular area of scholarship and general interest. Nonetheless, some of the results are thought-provoking. Nielsen-Gammon (2007) in the paper ‘An inconvenient truth: the scientific argument’ tells us about the relatively poor use of model-based evidence in Al Gore’s famous documentary film. Meanwhile, in ‘Seductive simulations? Uncertainty distribution around climate models’ Lahsen (2005) discusses how climate change modellers are so charmed by their models that they are unable to see the full range of uncertainties and shortcomings in the same way that the users of those models sometimes can. The final article that I want to single out is ‘Computer models and public’s understanding of science: a case-study analysis’ by Yearley (1999), who brings in the analysis of the public responses to computer model. Contrary to the general belief that use of computer models in policy is a barrier for the lay citizens wanting to express an opinion, Yearley accounts for their valuable contributions for the case of a the computer-based air-quality monitoring in the city of Sheffield.
In sum, when it comes to computer models IBSS covers informative sources for anyone having a general interest in these tools from a social and political sciences perspective. At the same time, I believe that it is just a matter of time before IBSS will fully reflect the ubiquity and importance of computer models across a wide range of environmental policies. I will stay tuned.
Diego de la Hoz
In addition to Diego’s research, a helpful way of searching IBSS is to use truncated forms of keywords. For instance, a combination of ‘comput*’, ‘model*’ and ‘environmental policy’ brings up a substantial 83 records. Similarly, ‘policy making’, ‘computer’ and ‘model*’ with 23 hits, is a practical search counting both models and modelling amongst the results.