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Science-Policy Interfaces and Regional Environmental Governance: The Case of the Mediterranean

Thursday, 21 February 2019
by Julien Le Tellier, Socio-Economic Affairs Programme Officer, UN Environment/MAP & Ilias Mavroeidis, Governance Programme Officer, UN Environment/MAP*
Science-Policy Interfaces and Regional Environmental Governance:  The Case of the Mediterranean
In the Mediterranean region, there are longstanding procedures and practices of dialogue and interaction between Science and Policy within robust institutional frameworks established for a better environmental governance and sustainable management of marine and coastal ecosystems, in particular within the UN Environment/Mediterranean Action Plan (MAP) – Barcelona Convention system. Being subject to an increasing number of cumulative pressures and threats associated with human activities that have significant impacts on marine and coastal ecosystems, the Mediterranean basin is both a showcase and a testing ground for environmental governance and for evidence-based policy-making at the regional level.
Evidence-Based Environmental Policy-Making: The Role of Science-Policy Interfaces 

The United Nations Environment Programme (UN Environment) defined a Science-Policy Interface as a structure or process that aims to improve the identification, formulation and evaluation of policies to improve the effectiveness of governance (UN Environment, 2009). “Strengthening the Science-Policy Interface: A Gap Analysis” is the title of the most recent report published by UN Environment, in 2017, on the Science-Policy Interface (SPI). This report provides the gap analysis that has been requested by United Nations Environment Assembly Member States, to identify new ways to approach the science-policy interface entailing: a summary of the characteristics of an effective science-policy interface; an identification of the gaps found in practice in science-policy interfaces; and a set of practical steps that Member States and international organizations can take to fill these observed gaps. This report also summarizes the key actions that UN Environment is undertaking to strengthen the science-policy interface to better address the changing nature and implications of human-environment interactions, global megatrends and policies on sustainable development and human well-being.

Why do we need an improved science-policy interface? The world is increasingly faced with environmental challenges which are exacerbated by an absence of coordination among different actors around the globe. In a global political context where scientific evidence is not often understood or used by policy-makers, there is a growing disconnect that has emerged, which not only dismisses, but excludes opportunities for collaboration. Science and policy are at a crossroads. The interface needs to be framed by an effective and efficient governance structure to promote better interaction between the two. This intersection can be facilitated by operational knowledge from non-state actors. A dynamic science-policy interface can be a core instrument to support well informed decision making on the environment while also engaging the right actors in achieving the Sustainable Development Goals” (UN Environment, 2017).

Environmental issues are complex, with cumulative drivers and impacts, and full of uncertainty. The obstacles to be overcome for establishing appropriate environmental policies therefore require closer dialogue between scientists and policymakers. However, this dialogue can be hindered by communication barriers between these two spheres, i.e. Science and Policy, or different priorities. For instance, research timeframes are generally very different from policymaking timeframes: policy decisions need often to be made very quickly, or even urgently, whereas research can take years. In addition, results of research activities can be difficult to communicate effectively to policymakers as they may not contain a key message, may be too technical, or may have too subtle or localized conclusions (Plan Bleu, 2018).

SPIs seek to improve communication and do away with a linear communication model where scientists simply pass on knowledge to policymakers, leaving them to subsequently decide what should be done and what actions should be implemented. Instead of just communicating information, scientists and policymakers interact and exchange ideas to understand and address problems together. In this arrangement, policymakers can inform scientists of their research needs and expectations, their analysis of issues and current policymaking processes, while scientists can clarify the scope of their research and the way it can be translated into recommendations and concrete measures.
There are many forms that SPIs can take, from informal discussions between scientists and policymakers to the creation of intergovernmental bodies and the implementation of policy-oriented research projects. “In terms of environmental issues, there are numerous, well-established and multifaceted opportunities for researchers and decision-makers to network and mutually influence each other, which occur in local, national or international arenas” (IDDRI – AFD, 2017). Three criteria are unanimously recognized as fundamental for building relevant SPIs such as the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) and Intergovernmental science-policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES), i.e. Credibility, Relevance, and Legitimacy. UN Environment convenes science-policy forums in many ways, including through the co-design and co-production of research activities and assessments and the exchange of knowledge. The credible scientific information from such processes is essential for informed policy formulation and implementation and strengthens collaboration between research disciplines and public administrations to find solutions for environmental challenges.
Science-Policy Interfaces and Regional Cooperation in support to Sustainable Development in the Mediterranean  

The role played by scientific communities in environmental governance is particularly important in the Mediterranean. Beyond being a multilateral treaty signed by 22 Contracting Parties (i.e. the 21 Mediterranean riparian countries and the European Union), the UN Environment/MAP – Barcelona Convention system emerged four decades ago from the voluntary commitment and action of a community of scientists who shared common convictions. This system benefited from the contribution of scientific communities that highlighted the need to strengthen scientific knowledge for addressing marine pollution and its impacts at the regional level. Scientific knowledge has positively mobilized to increase awareness about marine and coastal environmental degradation and contributed to include environmental issues within the policy agenda.
The need for evidence-based policy making and the role that can play Science to support Policy is embedded in the Barcelona Convention itself, several of its additional protocols and key MAP policies, strategies and action plans. The SPI approach is reflected into and promoted by a number of regional environmental institutions and various policy-oriented research projects that interact with the MAP institutional framework and network: 
  • In order to monitor and assess the trends in the level of pollutants and the biological effects of contaminants in the Mediterranean Sea and coast, as well as to implement appropriate pollution reduction measures, the MAP system mobilizes and strengthen a network of scientific experts to assists the 22 Contracting Parties to the Barcelona Convention via the Programme for the Assessment and Control of Marine Pollution in the Mediterranean (MED POL).
  • Marine and coastal pollution assessment and control is based on a variety of policy and scientific tools, e.g. monitoring, capacity building, assessments, elaboration of control measures, etc., that are successfully implemented from 1975 until now. Furthermore, Decision IG.22/7 adopted by the Contracting Parties at their 19th Ordinary Meeting (COP 19) to gradually apply the ecosystem approach to achieve the ecological vision for the Mediterranean implied introduction of the Integrated Monitoring and Assessment Programme of the Mediterranean Sea and Coast (IMAP). The aim of IMAP is to apply a holistic approach for the monitoring and the assessment of human impacts on the marine and coastal environment. In turn, it brought new perspectives and challenges, including even more demanding needs for SPI, preparation of scientific publications to support implementation of policy measures (e.g. papers to address emerging chemicals impacts on marine ecosystem components, including biological effects, ocean acidification and adaptation to climate changes, etc.), sharing of knowledge on IMAP best practices implementation through SPI, etc. 
  • In parallel of the adoption at the global level of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development and the creation of the High-level Political Forum (HLPF), the Mediterranean Commission on Sustainable Development (MCSD) created in 1995 has been reformed to include the Scientific Community Group[1]. The MCSD is the advisory body that assists the Contracting Parties in their efforts to integrate environmental issues in their socioeconomic programmes and, in so doing, promote sustainable development policies in the Mediterranean region. Acting as a forum for experiences sharing, the MCSD is unique in its composition, in as much as government representatives, local communities, socioeconomic actors, IGOs, NGOs, scientists and Parliamentarians participate on an equal footing. 
  • The UN Environment/MAP – Barcelona Convention Secretariat cooperates with other international bodies, including the FAO-General Fisheries Commission for the Mediterranean (GFCM) and the Agreement on the Conservation of Cetaceans in the Black Sea, Mediterranean Sea and Contiguous Atlantic Area (ACCOBAMS). Memoranda of Understanding (MoU), including provisions on data sharing and scientific cooperation, have been signed with the Secretariats of these bodies. These partnerships provide guarantees for SPIs, ensuring top-quality expert opinions. Of key importance is the MoU with GFCM, under which cross-sectoral cooperation is ongoing to jointly enhance interagency coordination in areas of common interest, including building capacity in marine science. 
  • The European Union (EU) makes a substantial contribution to policy-oriented research projects on assessing the status of marine and coastal environment in the Mediterranean, as well as supporting innovative and scientifically based approach to control and reduce impacts of human activities to marine environment. Numerous projects, to which UN Environment/MAP is a key partner, have been funded by the EU and most have components that make them SPIs.
  • The Global Environment Facility (GEF) is also placing a special interest in the science-policy interface. It provides support to projects addressing specific environmental issues, inter alia, aiming to reach a science-based consensus among countries on the Good Environmental Status (GES) of the Mediterranean region and sub-regions, such as the Adriatic Sea. 
Enhancing Science-Policy Interfaces in the Mediterranean 

At their recent Ordinary Meetings, the Contracting Parties to the Barcelona Convention adopted several decisions calling for stronger SPIs. Examples include the Mediterranean Strategy for Sustainable Development (MSSD), the Integrated Monitoring and Assessment Programme of the Mediterranean Sea and Coast (IMAP), and the Regional Climate Change Adaptation Framework Programme (RCCAF). This requirement to strengthen SPIs also features in the biannual UN Environment/MAP Programme of Work. The Contracting Parties are calling for efforts to structure relationships between decision-makers and scientific communities by creating scientific committees and expert groups with an advisory role to support policymaking processes. This will help policymakers to find solutions to ocean sustainability changes. As illustrated below, action has been taken in a number of specific strands of work to coordinate research efforts in the Mediterranean region and to further develop the regional capacity in marine science and the sustainable management of the Mediterranean and its resources. 
2017 Mediterranean Quality Status Report (MED QSR) 

The 2017 MED QSR is an important and innovative development for assessing the status of the Mediterranean ecosystem and the achievement of Good Environmental Status (GES). The 2017 MED QSR brings together national data and information to the regional level through an indicator-based assessment. It also contributes to the ongoing work at the global level, including the Regional Process on a Second World Ocean Assessment and the implementation of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, especially its ocean-related Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), i.e. SDG 14. The 2017 MED QSR has improved the understanding of the impact of human related threats in the Mediterranean region and identified for biodiversity, coast and hydrography and pollution and litter the research needs that are best addressed through concerted regional efforts relying on reliable internationally available expertise. It has provided a basis for addressing gaps in knowledge and coordination of marine science research in the Mediterranean region. Following the publication of the 2017 MED QSR, UN Environment/MAP prepared the 2023 MED QSR Roadmap and Needs Assessment, aiming to overcome the knowledge gaps that are recognized in the 2017 MED QSR and progressing towards GES in Mediterranean. It provides a list of key priority needs to be addressed, main processes and milestones and related outputs, focusing, among other priorities, to implementation of the best available practices related to cross-cutting issues and region-wide challenges, effective integrated GES assessment, while SPI is strengthened, structured and sustained to ensure that ongoing scientific projects can address IMAP national implementation needs.

Regional Plan on Marine Litter Management 

UN Environment/MAP was the first Regional Sea Programme to approve a legally-binding Regional Plan on Marine Litter Management in the Mediterranean, providing for a set of programmes and measures and implementation timetables to prevent and reduce the adverse effects of marine litter on the marine and coastal environment, as well as regular assessment, monitoring and promotion of collaboration and involvement of regional actors. The Regional Plan includes innovative and traditional measures of policy, legal, institutional, regulatory (including incentive economic instruments) and technical nature, addressing different aspects of marine litter prevention and management from land and sea-based sources. The Regional Plan’s measures impose clear obligations regarding the waste management hierarchy, closure of illegal dumping/dumpsites, shift to sustainable consumption and production patterns, removal of existing marine litter, using environmental sound practices such as fishing for litter, clean up campaigns, port reception facilities, and monitoring, assessment and reporting on implementation of measures, as well as enforcement of national legislation. The majority of the measures as provided for in the Regional Plan should be implemented by the Contracting Parties to the Barcelona Convention by 2020. To implement the Regional Plan, key actions have led to a better scientific understanding of the effects of marine litter in the Mediterranean, towards minimizing the impact of marine litter on the coastal and marine environment and its organisms.

2019 Report on the State of the Environment and Development in the Mediterranean 

As requested by the Contracting Parties to the Barcelona Convention, the UN Environment/MAP – Barcelona Convention Secretariat has undertaken the preparation of the 2019 Report on the State of the Environment and Development in the Mediterranean (SoED 2019). This report aims at delivering a comprehensive and updated assessment of the interactions between environment and development in the Mediterranean region. The SoED 2019 will assess the environmental, socio-economic and political changes that have occurred in the Mediterranean in the last decade. By applying an integrated, systemic and holistic approach, the SoED 2019 will increase awareness and understanding of the environmental and development status and trends in the region, their driving forces, impacts and responses, facilitating the measurement of progress towards sustainable development. It will provide an up-to-date foundation for improved and scientific-based decision-making at all levels and enhance the delivery of the 2030 Agenda, the achievement of SDGs, and the implementation of MAP instruments and policies. The SoED 2019 will result from collective effort of the Contracting Parties, Members of the MCSD, MAP Components (i.e. MED POL and MAP Regional Activities Centres/RACs), as well as a range of key partners and stakeholders including the scientific community. 


UN Environment/MAP is placing great importance in mobilizing science and research towards sound environmental evidence-based policies. A number of activities have taken place or are ongoing in this direction, as presented in the text above. Looking at the future, it is worth to refer to two innovative and further promising initiatives: 
  • At COP 20 in December 2017, the Contracting Parties to the Barcelona Convention and its Protocols welcomed the MED2050 Roadmap towards a Foresight Study on the Environment and Development in the Mediterranean. Planned to be carried out during two biennia (2018-2019 and 2020-2021), MED2050 is conceived as an original SPI that will involve both experts/scientists and decision-makers/stakeholders following a participatory approach to generate contrasted visions across the Mediterranean. MED2050 will provide valuable information on future developments based on science-based scenarios and on anticipating actions to promote sustainable development in the Mediterranean region. MED2050 will capitalize on previous and on-going studies, including the SoED 2019 and MED QSR, while reinforcing dissemination, communication and capacity building. 
  • As climate change is a preeminent driver of current and future trends in the region, UN Environment/MAP relies on a close partnership with the “Mediterranean Experts on Climate and environmental Change” (MedECC). MedECC ( is an important regional initiative that supports several aspects of the MAP work on assessment of human-made and natural pressures and impacts on the marine and coastal environment of the Mediterranean. This network of scientific experts aims at gathering, updating and consolidating the best scientific knowledge about climate change in the Mediterranean basin and rendering it accessible to policymakers, key stakeholders and citizens. To date, MedECC counts more than 400 scientific members from 35 countries, including 19 Contracting Parties to the Barcelona Convention. This Mediterranean initiative has an important role to play in the work of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), as it contributes to the Sixth Assessment Report (AR6) with a cross-chapter dedicated for the first time to the Mediterranean. MedECC also contributes to the implementation of the MSSD that identifies, under its Objective 4 “Addressing Climate Change as a Priority Issue for the Mediterranean”, the establishment, as a regional Flagship Initiative, of “a regional science-policy interface mechanism (…) with a view to preparing consolidated regional scientific assessments and guidance on climate change trends, impacts and adaptation and mitigation options”. MedECC voluntarily contributes to the preparation of the SoED 2019, by co-leading the chapter on Climate Change, and MedECC’s analyses of trends of climate change and associated risks and impacts will also support the drafting of the MED2050 foresight study. 

*With substantive inputs from Luisa Rodriguez-Lucas (UN Environment/MAP), Jelena Knezevic (UN Environment/MAP) and Elen Lemaitre-Curri (Plan Bleu/RAC – UN Environment/MAP)

  1. Since the adoption of the Reform of the MCSD in February 2016, the three Members of the MCSD under the Scientific Community Group are the following: the Forum Euro-Mediterraneen des Instituts de Sciences Economiques (FEMISE - Euro-Mediterranean Forum of Institutes of Economic Sciences), the Mediterranean Programme for International Environmental Law and Negotiation (MEPIELAN) and the Mediterranean Sustainable Development Solutions Network (Med-SDSN);

  • IDDRI – AFD, 2017. A Planet for Life – Basing public policy on science and knowledge. Paris, France.
  • MedECC, 2018. A preliminary assessment of risk associated to climate and environmental changes in the Mediterranean region. Marseille, France.
  • Plan Bleu, 2018. Science-Policy Interfaces for Environmental Governance in the Mediterranean. Notes No 35. Sophia-Antipolis, France.
  • United Nations Environment Programme, 2009. Gap analysis for the purpose of facilitating the discussions on how to improve and strengthen the science-policy interface on biodiversity and ecosystem services. UNEP/IPBES/2/INF/1. Nairobi, Kenya.
  • United Nations Environment Programme, 2017. Strengthening the Science-policy Interface: A Gap Analysis. Nairobi, Kenya.

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