The Mercury Game: Teaching about the role of scientific information in international environmental negotiations

By on / Pedagogy at PON

Incorporating scientific and technical information into negotiations is an ongoing and difficult problem. Scientific uncertainty remains a key challenge, particularly in the context of environmental decision-making. Despite decades of scientific research on problems including biodiversity loss, ozone depletion, climate change, and hazardous chemicals, effectively communicating uncertainty remains a major challenge in environmental treaty negotiations and policy-making. Strategies for incorporating scientific information into policy include developing scientific assessments, setting up subsidiary technical bodies to conventions, and appropriately framing the information. Yet, how can we teach about this science-policy interface, enabling students and negotiators to build skills to cope with scientific uncertainty and risk?

 

Robert C. Bordone

The Mercury Game is a role-play simulation written by Leah Stokes, a doctoral student at MIT, under the direction of MIT Professors Noelle Selin and Lawrence Susskind. It is designed for scientists, students and decision makers, and is based on the current United Nations Environment Programme mercury negotiations. It was written to be accessible to both graduate students in scientific disciplines and public policy and international relations. A glossary that facilitates policy students’ understanding of the technical science and science students’ understanding of the policy jargon is included with the game.

 

The central component of the Mercury Game is the “International Mercury Assessment,” a summary of scientific information on global mercury modeled after United Nations Environment Programme assessments. This 15-page summary document digests and packages the science in a way that allows players to use and question it during the game. As a result, scientific uncertainty, risk and information gaps become the principal issues. Over the course of three to four hours, players attempt to assess whether there is sufficient scientific evidence on mercury’s risks to warrant international action. Not only do players walk away with a much richer understanding of the current state of mercury science, they also develop an understanding of the consequences of representing scientific uncertainty in various ways in a policy context.

The game focuses on the credibility of various sources of technical information, strategies for representing risk and uncertainty, and the balance between scientific and political considerations. For example, the game portrays scientists in a number of different roles. Some of the country representatives are themselves scientists, each viewing the common scientific assessment from a different perspective based on their national circumstances. In addition, one role represents an industry scientist, who casts doubt on the assessment, while another represents a non-governmental advocacy group. Finally, one role represents a neutral intergovernmental scientific body, which attempts to present information to the group without taking a position on any of the issues. Other players need to consider these contrasting perspectives, and, as a result, players must grapple with how and why science can become politicized.

In addition, the game requires players to think about environmental policy, economics and politics. Like other international environmental role-plays, such as the Chlorine Game (Managing the Global Use of Organochlorines, available through the PON Clearinghouse), this exercise explores the dynamic between the developed and developing worlds, introducing these challenges, which are at the heart of many treaty-making efforts, to science students. The game is based on actual events at the international level, particularly between 2003 and 2009. In this period, the question of whether there was adequate scientific information about mercury’s risks to humans and the environment was central to many United Nations meetings. This question forms the basis of the Mercury Game.

The game is available for free at http://mit.edu/mercurygame. If you play the game, we would greatly appreciate receiving the pre- and post-game one-page surveys. For a quick overview and introduction to the game, you can watch this video: http://eaps-www.mit.edu/paoc/about/news/mercury-game

Written for NP@PON by Leah Stokes. 

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