Teaching Scientists about Global Environmental Politics: The Mercury Game

Students playing the mercury game

Training future scientists is the key mission of those of us who are university faculty. But are we training science students effectively to address important global issues like climate change, biodiversity, toxic pollution, and other sustainability challenges? How can faculty help students develop skills to help them interact with policy and decision-makers – when many faculty haven’t even had that training themselves?

At the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, we’ve developed a teaching tool that faculty members can freely download and use to help educate future scientists about global environmental policy and the role of scientific expertise. It’s a negotiation simulation called The Mercury Game, which is focused on the global negotiations to address mercury pollution. Combatting mercury pollution is the goal of the newest global environmental treaty, the Minamata Convention. Though the game addresses this specific issue, it serves here as a case study to teach broader issues about science-policy interactions at a global level, which are relevant across many global environmental problems. For example, students learn how nations come together to address global sustainability challenges, and explore the roles of informed and active scientific participants.

The Mercury Game is a role-play simulation that students can play in a group of 9-11 participants, and it takes about 3-4 hours. Each student takes on the role of a country, non-governmental organization, industry representative, or scientific organization in discussions about how to address global mercury pollution. Students read a scientific assessment and short briefing materials, then discuss and agree to selected policy options. Playing the game helps participants explore 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. The game also requires players to grapple with politics – it explores the dynamic between the global “North” (the developed world) and the global “South” (the developing world) at the heart of most treaty-making difficulties.

We designed the Mercury Game to be as easy as possible for faculty to use in science courses – it includes a teaching note, powerpoint slides, suggested supplementary assignments, and reading materials. So far, the Mercury Game has been played by over 300 people. It has been used with undergraduates and graduate students at eight universities, and played at three conferences, including with actual negotiators of the mercury convention. Our initial research on the game shows that students gain both scientific and policy knowledge from the experience, which is a win-win for science classes. If you’re interested in playing the game in your courses or with your research groups, it’s free to download on our web site, http://mit.edu/mercurygame. We’d also appreciate your feedback about the game and whether it’s useful in your efforts to teach about science-policy interactions.

We created the Mercury Game because we believe there is a clear need for more curricular packages that assist science educators in training a larger number of scientists to address global sustainability challenges. We’d be very interested in hearing about similar efforts elsewhere. If you know of any further resources, please let us know in the comments. What has been your experience teaching science students about policy?