Environmental Law requires collaboration between scientists and lawyers

Hi, Yaffa Epstein, researcher at Department of Law. You are researching how scientific terms are used in environmental law, together with ecologists from SLU. What will you do in the project?

researcher in environmental law at Department

of Law. Photo: Tobias Björkgren

– Initially we´re trying to look at how to combine legal and ecological expertise to interpret some terms, all of which have natural-scientific aspects, that are used in several EU directives related to environmental protection. Then we hope to construct a general theory on how legal and natural scientists can work together to interpret these types of terms in the law or even more broadly how to communicate across scientific disciplines.

Why is this a particular problem in environmental law?

– Because environmental law is about managing the human relationship with nature, so pretty much every environmental law is going to involve the non-human, which has to be understood through scientific intermediaries. One example is that species populations should be viable according to the EU Habitats Directive, but viable isn´t further defined in that law. So you have to talk to an ecologist about what makes a species population viable, which isn´t a clear cut question for a scientist either, as it involves the question of how high an extinction risk we want to accept. Nobody really has monopoly on defining viability.

How, then, can lawyers better communicate with natural scientists and experts?

– Talking past each other is a common difficulty in interdisciplinary collaboration. What I´m working on is a method to argue with each other constructively rather than to ignore communication problems. Lawyers get to define terms, even scientific terms, as they’re used in the law, but at the same time legal requirements need to make senseto those in other scientific disciplines so the law can be effectively applied. There is always going to be some interaction, necessarily.

Do the laws need to be rewritten to be clear and specific enough?

– No, a law can´t cover every situation or define everything. But it´s important to be conscientious about when interpreting the law requires scientific input or value judgements.

Researcher in environmental law

Yaffa Epstein is a researcher in environmental law at Uppsala University’s Department of Law. Her special focus has been on protection of Sweden and other countries’ wolf populations in relation to regulation under EU law and its influence on wildlife conservation. She obtained her PhD in 2017 and since then her research has attracted keen interest in both scientific contexts and among the informed public. In 2019 she received Uppsala University’s Oscar Prize for young researchers.

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