Joint fact-finding (JFF) remains a relatively novel approach to policy development, yet some of its earliest cases, whether explicitly labeled JFF or not, date back almost three decades. Some are regarded as important contributions to both policy development, but also to the reputation of public scientific institutions, including the University of California, as engaged contributors to good public policy.
The tributyltin (TBT) case provides a good example. Here’s how this narrative unfolded: This year marks the 50th anniversary of the Bodega Marine Laboratory (BML), a world-renowned facility that supports scientific research in diverse disciplines including biology, toxicology, and oceanography. To celebrate five decades of research and collaboration, BML invited members of its community, reaching back to its early days in the 1960’s, to reunite and reflect on the lab’s accomplishments and foundational projects that made great strides in improving the health of our oceans. One such project highlighted by Paul Siri, former Associate Director at BML, was the recognition of work done in 1985 through partnership with Scott McCreary—then an MIT PhD student—and top scientists in the field that lead to Congress enacting “an immediate ban on the use of TBT-based bottom paints.”
In the late 80’s high levels of TBT, a highly toxic paint additive, had begun showing up in California mud flats raising concern that this contaminant could be detrimental to shore birds and the ocean environment. Aware of TBT’s harmful effects, bans in France and Great Britain were already in place, but TBT was yet to be regulated in the United States. A number of scientists and organizations mobilized efforts and arranged a meeting at the BML to discuss the environmental effects of TBT, and brainstorm possible policy options to eliminate the effects of TBT.
After a recommendation by his UCB colleague, Professor Robert Twiss, McCreary was called upon by Siri to not only facilitate the one-day discussion, but also offer guidance on how to structure the meeting to best address the task at hand. Collaboratively, McCreary and Siri outlined an agenda for the meeting which included three parts: briefings by top scientists, a question-and-answer period, and discussion devoted to developing a consensus summary. During the second part of the meeting, McCreary tasked the scientists to map out areas of scientific agreement and areas of scientific disagreement and uncertainty, effectively the core of a JFF process. This exercise allowed all present to understand the steps necessary for the current science to translate into the policy linkages required in restricting TBT.
Less than one month after the meeting following a presentation to a state legislative panel, Siri, with assistance from Senate staff, met with legislators from six western states to review the group’s findings, hopeful that action might be taken. At the culmination of this meeting not one, but three resolutions were passed in California, Oregon, and Washington effectively banning TBT. Following the states’ initiatives, President Ronald Reagan was compelled to create federal legislation banning TBT in all fifty states.
This extraordinarily successful action reinforced communications among the three West Coast States helping to lay the groundwork for what later became the West Coast Governors Agreement on Ocean Health. These annual meetings, recruiting scientists, managers and policy makers focusing on priority action items, are an important collaborative management tool across the shared Pacific Coast ecosystem.
On the face of it, the TBT project is an exemplar of a JFF process translating scientific collaboration into policy innovation and implementation. It illustrates the promise of JFF, which brings us back to the question of why, three decades on, the approach remains novel. There are many answers to that question, but the lack of codification and honing of best practices seem to be factors. Another may be that not every case has such as evident pay off for the effort involved. The work ahead seems to be advancing JFF as a recognized area of practice and more systematically evaluating and compiling the lessons learned from across the myriad of cases. Giving it a name is a start, as is documenting and sharing these stories from over the years to bring these insights to the attention of senior policy makers.