While many policy makers and practitioners heavily rely on information from the scientific community for their decision making, research about activities at the science-policy interface shows that information use is often not straightforward. Despite the large amounts of scientific information available to policy-makers and practitioners, there are still calls for more “useful” information to be produced, an indication of problems in the uptake of this information (McNie, 2007; Soomai, 2017). Several authors (for example, Nutley, Walter, & Davies, 2007; McNie, 2007; Opgenoorth and Hotes, 2016; Soomai, 2017; Wilson and MacDonald, 2018) have undertaken different studies that enhance our understanding of the pathways through which “information flows between the scientific and decision-making communities” (Soomai, 2017, p. 53). These studies are significant as they contribute insights into solving the “problematic uptake” of information by examining information pathway models, identifying barriers and enablers to information flow, and recommending alternatives for strengthening the science-policy linkages.
Research information may enter policy and practice through direct and indirect routes in a variety of forms, including: written materials such as journal articles, research reports, summaries and briefings, books, professional organization literature, and newsletters; media reports in newspapers, popular magazines, and radio and television; forums such as conferences, seminars, and workshops; and the internet which is often used by policy makers and practitioners to “access the latest findings from research” (Nutley, Walter, & Davies, 2007, p. 63). Some research suggests that both practitioners and policy makers rarely use the “traditional, academic, peer-reviewed literature” (Nutley, Walter, & Davies, 2007, p. 62).
What influences the uptake of research information? Decision makers have various “value demands” that must be satisfied for information to be considered “useful” (McNie, 2007). These value demands fall into three broad categories of salience, credibility, and legitimacy (McNie, 2007; Nutley et al., 2007; Soomai, 2017). To maintain credibility, key statements must be based on “well-established” findings and the information must be perceived to be accurate, valid, and of good quality (Opgenoorth & Hotes, 2016). Salient information is “context-sensitive” and takes into consideration various contextual factors including: the political landscape; ecological, temporal, spatial, and administrative scales; regulatory and legal constraints, as well as the existing policy and decision-making processes (McNie, 2007). For information to be legitimate, mutual trust and respect must exist between the producers and users of information, with the producers ensuring that they are free from political bias, and that they put the interest of the user in mind and transmit the information in a transparent, open, and observable manner (McNie, 2007). Producers must ensure balance and take these value demands into equal consideration when producing information (McNie, 2007).
An important aspect in the flow of information is the role of facilitators. Knowledge brokers such as charitable foundations, research centres, government agencies, bridging organizations, individual researchers, and professional organizations play an important facilitation and mediation role by filtering and disseminating research findings (Nutley, Walter, & Davies, 2007). In their study of tidal power development in Nova Scotia, Wilson and MacDonald (2018) used a Social Network Analysis (SNA) approach to characterize bridger organizations, and they identified three important bridger roles, i.e., information mediators, coordinators, and connectors. While these roles are distinct, “bridger organizations often fulfill multiple roles” (Wilson & MacDonald, 2018, p. 67).
Information Pathways and Models
Duff defines an information pathway as “a conceptualization of the process whereby a valuable raw material, namely ideas, turns into a digestible consumer product, in the form of information and the higher form of information we call knowledge” (1997, p. 179). To better understand information flow pathways, different models have been developed to describe this activity. These include the path model developed by Cheol Oh in 1997, and the linear model analogized from Bush’s 1945 Science: The Endless Frontier essay (McNie, 2007; Nutley, Walter, & Davies, 2007). Duff’s 1997 “Some post-war models of the information chain” essay provides good background on how information flow models developed from 1948 to 1993 when the pathway to information flow model was developed.
Bush’s linear model advocated for the “flow of new scientific knowledge to those who can apply it to practical problems in Government, in industry, or elsewhere” (McNie, 2007, p. 22). In the linear model, “knowledge, resources and scientific information flow just one way: from basic research to applied research and eventually to society” (McNie, 2007, p. 22). Critics of this model consider it outdated and argue that the model falls short on informing decision-making as it oversimplifies and misrepresents the complex and interconnected science-society relationship which is more dynamic than linear (McNie, 2007). The shortcomings of the linear model have led several researchers to call for new science policy models that are more collaborative, socially robust, transparent, and participatory and that pay “greater attention to institutional learning, networks and adaptation” (McNie, 2007, p. 22).
The seven models reviewed by Duff (1997) depict a unidirectional flow of information similar to Bush’s linear model where information flows in just one direction from producers to users. Developed by the UK Royal Society in 1993, the eighth model—pathway to information flow— depicts a shift to a more robust, bidirectional flow of information. As described by Duff, the “pathways of information flow supercedes [the distribution of scientific information model] in virtually every way. It is curvilinear rather than rectilinear, egalitarian as opposed to hierarchical” (1997, p. 185). The model addressed some of the challenges identified in the earlier models, and conveyed an overall impression of “interactivity, pluralism, flux, freedom, and futurity” (Duff, 1997, p.185).
Oh’s path model is among a set of integrated causal models that address issues such as political barriers—which hinder the uptake of information—by combining different variables that are important in research use and “begin to assess the role each [variable] plays in supporting—or inhibiting—the use of research” (Nutley, Walter, & Davies, 2007, p. 83). The path model “examines when and how policy makers use research to make decisions, integrates variables concerned with” the characteristics of research information, policy makers’ characteristics, perceptions and attitudes, as well as organizational characteristics (Nutley, Walter, & Davies, 2007, p. 83).
Overcoming Barriers: Enhancing Science-policy Linkages
Despite the evolution of understanding of information pathways from linear structures to more robust egalitarian structures, barriers still exist (Duff, 1997; McNie, 2007; Nutley, Walter, & Davies, 2007). These barriers include information overload, difference in time scales of operations of the science-policy community, and the language and presentation style of scientific information, among others (McNie, 2007; Nutley, Walter, & Davies, 2007).
To enhance the production and uptake of “useful” information, various concepts have been developed and propose useful techniques that can be utilized to strengthen science-policy linkages. The RSD concept involves “reconciling supply of scientific information with user’s demands” (McNie, 2007, p.18). To effectively link science to decision making, RSD identifies alternative techniques and processes such as: the use of participatory processes, boundary organizations, adaptive management, science shops, and consensus conferences (McNie, 2007). Social Network Analysis (SNA) is another approach which can help organizations, operating in complex networks involving multiple stakeholders, to better understand and improve knowledge systems operations (Wilson & MacDonald, 2018). SNA helps to illustrate communication networks and influence within organizations and uncovers the effect of informal processes and interplay across organizational boundaries and intervening strategies (Wilson & MacDonald, 2018).
All the authors cited in this post emphasize the crucial role communication plays in overcoming barriers to information flow. While it is often argued that organizations with dissimilar organizational structures—such as the public and private sectors—experience challenges in integrating values while working together, it is interesting to note that despite the relatively similar hierarchical organizational structures of the policy and science communities, they still face similar challenges. It would be interesting to further study whether bridger organizations hinder the building of “social capital” (trust and respect) between science and policy communities hence contributing to the persistent communication challenge.
Duff, A. S. (1997). Some post-war models of the information chain. Journal of Librarianship and Information Science, 29(4), 179-187. doi:10.1177/096100069702900402
McNie, E. (2007). Reconciling the supply of scientific information with user demands: An analysis of the problem and review of the literature. Environmental Science & Policy, 10, 17-38. doi:10.1016/j.envsci.2006.10.004
Nutley, S. M., Walter, I., & Davies, H. T. O, (2007). What shapes the use of research? In S. M. Nutley, I. Walter, & H. T. O. Davies. Using evidence: How research can inform public services (pp. 61-90). Bristol: The Policy Press.
Opgenoorth, L., & Hotes, S. (2016). IPBES is in the books: Pollination and scenario assessments are the first two steps to guiding policy makers in the global biodiversity crisis. Frontiers of Biogeography, 8(1), 1-5. https://escholarship.org/uc/item/30t9d401
Soomai, S. S. (2017). The science-policy interface in fisheries management: Insights about the influence of organizational structure and culture on information pathways. Marine Policy, 81, 53-63. http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.marpol.2017.03.016
Wilson, L., & MacDonald, B. H. (2018). Characterizing bridger organizations and their roles in a coastal resource management network. Ocean and Coastal Management, 153, 59-69. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.ocecoaman.2017.11.012
Authors: Emma Carmichael & Irina K. Wandera
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.