Simulated UN Negotiations Teach the Role of Science in Policy-Making

January 26, 2015

Since 2011, Professor Svetoslava Todorova of the Department of Civil & Environmental Engineering has served as a science observer for the UN-Mandated Intergovernmental Negotiations Committee (INC) on Mercury. The group has been instrumental in the development of a global mercury treaty, known as the Minamata Convention, which addresses mercury contamination in the environment. To teach her students about the experience and the role that science plays in policy-making, she conducted simulated global mercury negotiations in the College of Engineering and Computer Science.

Mercury contamination is a global environmental and health problem. A neurotoxin, mercury causes long-term cognitive and developmental defects in humans. It accumulates in lakes and oceans, where it can persist in ecosystems for decades. When we eat fish that live in these contaminated ecosystems, we become exposed.

Mirroring the UNEP’s approach, students in Todorova’s Introduction to Environmental Engineering class were divided into key parties representing different regions, countries, and organizations. They researched the global consequences of mercury with a focus on the specific interests of the group they represented. Similar to real negotiations, the day started with the adoption of the agenda and opening statements, where each group presented their main interests and the expected outcome of the negotiations. After that the students split into three groups, each with the same goal of forging a balanced treaty through roundtable negotiations with the other parties.

“It has been really eye opening to learn about mercury’s global impact,” says Conor Driscoll ’16, civil engineering, “We’ve learned about all of the different anthropogenic sources of mercury and who the largest contributing countries and industries are. For example, we found that artisanal and small-scale gold mining is estimated to contribute around 35 percent of global mercury emissions. I didn’t know that was happening before this project.”

After more than eight hours of negotiations, all three groups were able to reach a resolution, producing a signed treaty. Todorova noted, “It was interesting to see how closely the groups’ dynamics resembled the actual negotiations. I am so proud that the students were able to overcome cultural differences and differences in positions to negotiate a balanced text.”

In reflection statements, which were submitted after the simulation, students found the negotiation skills that they needed to exercise were often more challenging than learning the science, proving that the unique nature of the project provided educational value beyond traditional lecture-style presentations.

Ethan Schafer ’15, civil engineering, describes, “Often times in the classroom students may only retain a certain amount of information, but in a simulation, where there is personal stake, students pay attention and actually retain a high amount of information […] Overall, I feel that this simulation taught us much more than five lectures on mercury could have ever taught.”

Todorova’s work on the Minamata Convention will continue in 2015. Now that the treaty has been drafted, it is her hope that more countries will ratify and implement it — better protecting the environment and living things from the dangers of mercury contamination today and in the future.