Effective research communication between scientists and policy-makers is becoming an increasingly important subject to consider when tackling some of the world’s most wicked problems. On one hand, scientists must become comfortable with translating their work into information products that can be used beyond scientific circles and understood by laypeople. On the other, policy-makers should attempt to clearly voice their research needs in order to ensure that productive and meaningful scientific work can be conducted to inform policy.
The interests of these two groups often comes to a head at the science-policy interface, a term that describes the interactions between the two and can sometimes be seen as a divide between knowledge and action (Kettle, Trainor & Loring, 2017). Enter the term “science-policy interface” into Google Images and usually an image of a deep chasm between the two camps is presented in the top results, which implies a perilous crossing that one can imagine is filled with piles of scientific papers, misunderstanding, urgency and an underlying current of frustration. It is often stated that bridging this interface is a necessary step forward in promoting effective research communication and creating productive routes for information transmission.
Unfortunately, minimizing the distance between the two groups in the science-policy interface may be easier said than done. In reality, the interface is not merely a bridge or a canyon, but rather a web. Moreover, the barriers within it are not due to simply a lack of facts or understanding, but an array of complex influences, such as personal values, morals, interest, time, and education level. Current literature on this subject emphasizes that increasing and strengthening effective communication between scientists and policy makers is the primary solution for addressing barriers within the intricacies of the science-policy interface.
Not only would effective communication help to facilitate the flow of information between the two often-siloed groups, it would also help how to address the current deluge of research information by transitioning into a needs-based approach to research, i.e., creating more meaningful work from a policy perspective, not just more work. In the following sections, we outline some of the key findings from literature on this topic, the limitations of addressing issues encountered in the science-policy interface, and recommendations for the future.
Key Themes and Findings
Three significant themes have emerged from recent literature. First, the most prominent theme is the importance of increasing interconnections between scientists and policy-makers (McNie, 2007; Nutley, Walter & Davies, 2007; Wilson & McDonald, 2018). Increasing the connections is emphasized, in part, because scientists are expected to provide solutions to an array of major challenges (such as climate change) and policy-makers are expected to assess the vast collection of information in a sophisticated manner and design effective policies (McNie, 2007). As we know, the intersection between science and policy can present challenges. However, disconnects that occur between scientists and policy-makers seem to be the result of weak or limited communication pathways and partial understanding of how to overcome the weaknesses.
To that end, intersectoral communication has been found to be the best technique to achieve fluid communication between groups that may be antithetical to one another (Nutley, Walter & Davies, 2007), which can improve communication between scientists and government bodies, as well as improve communication pathways between society and science (McNie, 2007). To achieve this outcome, each group must gain insights about the perspectives of other groups.
The second key finding documented in the literature is the benefit of transitioning to problem-oriented research, i.e., conducting research based on the needs of policy-makers and the processes and/or models that can enhance this transition (McNie, 2007). In this context, organizations acting as bridgers may help. Bridgers were found to be vital in connecting organizations across sectoral boundaries in a renewable energy resource setting and in understanding how information flows between scientific and decision-making communities (Wilson & McDonald, 2018). This type of information pathway can be essential for the creation of successful strategies for communicating scientific information better.
Finally, acknowledging the human dimensions in the flow of information is important. For example, the various actors involved need to be receptive to research information. Policy-makers often use personal characteristics to determine information use, rather than apply a systematic approach in selecting information for consideration. Thus, time, personal values, and education level all play a pivotal role in whether research is read and used by policy-makers. This theme from the literature emphasizes the need for improved social capital between the parties, namely, trust, respect, and corporation between scientists, managers, and government bodies (Ouimet, Jette, Fonda, Jacob, & Bédard, 2017).
Although building trust between researchers and decision makers appears to be essential for creating and enhancing information pathways at the science-policy interface, significantly less emphasis was placed on this matter in the selected literature, and perhaps too much attention was given to the individual characteristics of the policy-makers themselves, such as their time constraints, personal values, education level, etc. Nonetheless, trust in scientific advice may play a fundamental role in the use of information.
The need to be better at communicating scientific research is evident, but as the literature suggests, communication is carried out primarily on an ad hoc basis (Soomai, 2017). Unfortunately, the literature selected for this post reported little about advocating for earlier integration of training in scientific communication in post-secondary education, despite the immense benefit that could result from this approach. This curricular limitation can be seen as a significant barrier due to the large volume of information being generated in universities and the meaningful impact that research results can have on policy-making if communicated succinctly. Therefore, integrating methods of scientific communication into university and college programs is a worthwhile topic for further attention.
Finally, context matters. Even if a communication pathway, model, or process that appears to be effective is selected, it is important to address potential cultural barriers and the ways in which information may be received by particular individuals (McNie, 2007; Soomai, 2017). Unfortunately, oversimplification can result in overlooking distinct groups and ineffectively managing boundaries at the interface of two cultures can cause conflict. Scientists and policy-makers are made to seem like homogenous groups when the composition of the two can be quite heterogeneous. Thus, it is important to recognize this additional boundary within policy and science contexts.
To address these and other limitations present in the publications cited in this post, Nutley, Walter and Davies (2007) suggest increasing effective relationships between scientists and policy-makers in order to facilitate information pathways. However, they did not provide an explanation of what constitutes “effectiveness.” Therefore, on the basis of the literature we considered, it is difficult to determine how much time or effort is needed to construct new relationships and the best methods to achieve stronger bonds between the two groups.
While all six publications approach the topic of research communication from different angles, a consensus on some major themes did emerge. Specifically, the role that human dimensions play in the flow of information, and the need to bridge barriers effectively between scientists and policy makers were noted. Despite the increase in the production of research literature, use of information still relies on individual attributes and personal preferences.
Commonalities about limitations are found among the six publications. For example, while broad recommendations for improvements in communication are made in each reading, how improvements could be achieved received less attention. For instance, best practices for communicating with individuals outside one’s area of expertise or what constitutes “effective” communication would have been useful inclusions, but are unfortunately absent.
Although these publications could not individually address every aspect of facilitating scientific information transfer, each one highlights a growing need for better communication and provides an informative starting point to begin this important task.
Kettle, N. P., Trainor, S. F., & Loring, P. A. (2017). Conceptualizing the science-practice interface: Lessons from a collaborative network on the front-line of climate change. Frontiers in Environmental Science, 5, [9 p.]. https://doi.org/10.3389/fenvs.2017.00033
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 Using evidence: How research can inform public services (pp. 61-90). Bristol: The Policy Press.
Ouimet, M., Jette, D., Fonda, M., Jacob, S., & Bédard, P.O. (2017). Use of systematic literature reviews in Canadian government departments: Where do we need to go?Canadian Public Administration, 60(3), 397–416. https://doi.org/10.1111/capa.12225
Soomai, 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. https://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 & Coastal Management, 153, 59–69. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.ocecoaman.2017.11.012
Authors:Brianna Cochrane, Hali Moreland, and Amirreza Shahisavandi
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.