Communication across Science-Policy Interfaces

INFO-6100-W2015Using research-based information to make informed decisions in policy-making is important in the creation of governmental policies. The use of evidence-based knowledge verifies and validates that appropriate decisions are made by policy makers. Within the science community, the use of scientific research in public policy is termed the science-policy interface. Van den Hove (2007) defines the science-policy interface as “social processes which encompass relations between scientists and other actors in the policy process, and which allow for exchanges, co-evolution, and joint construction of knowledge with the aim of enriching decision-making” (p. 815). This definition emphasizes the innately complex interconnecting relationships between science and policy, highlighting the inherent need for extensive and effective communication between the key sectors.


Due to the complex nature of science-policy interfaces, communication is a key component to ensure successful relationships between stakeholders on both sides of the interface. Van den Hove outlines Habermas’s three models to describe this relationship:

  1. Decisionistic – Where political decisions are predominantly based on values and beliefs;
  2. Technocratic – Where decisions practically come from the scientific community; and
  3. Pragmatic – The more common model for the science-policy interface, which is based on a relationship of exchanges in which facts and values are interdependent (Van den Hove, 2007, p. 811).

To establish a pragmatic relationship, both sides must communicate openly and honestly, which is complicated by their sometimes contradictory intentions for the role of scientific knowledge and explanations in policy. Briggs and Knight (2011) point out that policy-makers’ needs for scientific evidence derive from practical, political, and policy-related processes – not from an objectively scientific curiosity perspective. Scientific research can be conducted with the intention of generating actionable results, an approach favoured by governments and politicians, or strictly for the sake of science and curiosity, regardless of governmental or societal pressures. These sometimes dueling intentions necessitate constant, efficient, and effective communication to ensure that scientific knowledge and policy decisions are working in tandem rather than in competition (Van den Hove, 2007).

The Joint Group of Experts on the Scientific Aspects of Marine Environmental Protection argues that “more science and/or research” is rarely the solution to complex and uncertain problems (GESAMP, 1996). This view is supported by Briggs and Knight (2011) who note that scientific input plays only a small role in bridging the science-policy interface. They believe that to increase communication between the two communities, scientists require greater understanding of policy processes (rather than policy-makers requiring greater understanding of science). This knowledge will allow scientists to work with policy-makers to reduce potential risks or fallout from policies based on science.


Lalor and Kickey (2013) found that there was a “need for concomitant institutional changes to improve accountability to use science in decision-making including greater use of participatory approaches and more networked, transdisciplinary approaches to science creation and dissemination” (p. 776). Scientists need to not just publish their research in academic journals, they should also explain their research to the public and today they can utilize social media outlets. “Whether publications are used in policy and decision-making may depend on the publication practices of organizations” (Cossarini, MacDonald & Wells, 2014, p. 164). Decision makers in governmental bodies often expect information that is interdisciplinary, readily available, easily understood, and unbiased. Schenkel (2010) found “robust scientific advice has to be multidimensional and inclusive. It must consider economic, social, environmental, ethical, and scientific aspects” (p. 1749). In order for collaboration to be successful, good communication skills are needed and a common language needs to be established.

Funtowicz (2006) cites the need to demarcate the barriers between practitioners and policy as a means to protect science from political interference. However, all stakeholders in the science-policy interface (including the public) possess filters that colour their perspective on issues; usually without intention or conscious thought. Bremer and Glavovic (2013) posit framing the science-policy interface to consider it as a governance setting. This understanding implies that all forms of knowledge have value and seeks to integrate them as they form and shape institutions. A governance setting model also recognizes the role of political interactions and the diverse values and priorities of stakeholders. Four principles for effective communication at the science-policy interface include:

  1. Deliberative, high-quality dialogue for mobilizing knowledge;
  2. Participatory settings that accommodate all stakeholders;
  3. Integration of disparate knowledge systems through reciprocal dialogue; and
  4. Explicit recognition of the importance of “quality” for both process and products (Bremer & Glavovic, 2013, pp 50-51).

Key “take-away” points

The literature considered in this blog post emphasizes that:

  • Good communication skills at the science-policy interface are essential;
  • Biased information must be avoided;
  • Public engagement plays an important role in the science-policy interface;
  • Interdisciplinary studies/collaboration across fields of study are needed; and
  • The “squeaky wheel” gets oiled.


Communication plays a key role in the exchange of information between scientists and policy makers and, eventually, between scientists and the public. Without effective and suitable communication skills, research-based information will likely not reach the appropriate people within decision-making settings to create change. As well as communication sometimes causing a barrier at the science-policy interface, other factors that affect the transmission of information are: biased research, missing information/limited interdisciplinary collaboration, and a lack of engagement of the public. Although all of these factors can affect the science-policy interface, how information is presented may be the greatest challenge to communication. It is through improved communication that boundary-spanning collaboration can occur and that research-based information can be utilized to help make informed decisions within policy contexts.


Bremer, S., & Glavovic, B. (2013). Mobilizing knowledge for coastal governance: Re-framing the science–policy interface for Integrated Coastal Management. Coastal Management, 41(1), 39-56. doi: 10.1080/08920753.2012.749751

Briggs, S. V., & Knight, A. T. (2011). Science-policy interface: Scientific input limited. Science, 333(6043), 696-697. doi: 10.1126/science.333.6043.696-b

Cossarini, D. M., MacDonald, B. H., & Wells, P. G. (2014). Communicating marine environmental information to decision makers: Enablers and barriers to use of publications (grey literature) of the Gulf of Maine Council on the Marine Environment. Ocean & Coastal Management, 96, 163-172. doi: 10.1016/j.ocecoaman.2014.05.015

Funtowicz, S. O. (2006). Why knowledge assessment? In A. Guimaraes Pereira, S. Guedes Vaz, & S. Tognetti. (Eds.), Interfaces between science and society (pp 138–145). Sheffield: Greenleaf Publishing Ltd.

GESAMP (IMO/FAO/UNESCO-IOC/WMO/WHO/IAEA/UN/UNEP Joint Group of Experts on the Scientific Aspects of Marine Environmental Protection). (1996). The contributions of science to integrated coastal management. Vol. 61: GESAMP Reports and Studies.

Lalor, B., & Hickey, G. (2013). Environmental science and public policy in executive government: Insights from Australia and Canada. Science and Public Policy, 40(6), 767-778. doi: 10.1093/scipol/sct022

Schenkel, R. (2010). The challenge of feeding scientific advice into policy making. Science, 330(6012), 1749-1751. doi: 10.1126/science.1197503

Van den Hove, S. (2007). A rationale for science–policy interfaces. Futures, 39(7), 807- 826. doi: 10.1016/j.futures.2006.12.004


Authors: Jessica Brown, Gabrielle Brydges, and Kirk Furlotte


This blog post is part of a series of posts authored by students in the graduate course “The Role of Information in Public Policy and Decision Making,” offered at Dalhousie University.

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