Enablers and Barriers in the Communication of Research Information for Policy Development

The development of meaningful policies is dependent on effective communication of research-based information and evidence from scientists and other researchers to policymakers. Poor communication of research-based information can have serious consequences for environmental management. This post explores factors that enable and prevent the communication of research-based information into public policy contexts, including language, accessibility of information, and varying perspectives about nature and information. We review six recent articles related to the topic of research communication. This post highlights the limitations and key “takeaway” points from the literature, which help us understand how to improve communication about resources.

The paper “Multiple Conceptualizations of Nature Are Key to Inclusivity and Legitimacy in Global Environmental Governance” published by Coscieme et al. (2020) explores how differing perspectives on the concept of nature itself influence policy development and decision-making regarding nature. The paper proposes engagement across the science-policy interface can be strengthened by mindfulness regarding the diverse human-nature relations found around the world. To this end, the authors examined conceptualizations of nature in over sixty languages, and assigned them to three broad clusters: inclusive conceptualizations in which humans are one with nature, non-inclusive conceptions in which humans are separate, and deifying conceptions in which nature is viewed through a spiritual lens. Acknowledging that these differing perspectives may exist in a population is key to representative governance.

“Communicating Climate Information: Traveling through the Decision-Making Process” by Dubois et al. (2018) studies the interplay of information and decision-making in climate policy by analyzing a sample of twenty-five documents pertaining to public policy and climate. The researchers distinguish five phases in the provisioning of climate information, relating to pre-existing knowledge, projection, assessment, the design of a strategy, and the implementation of a plan. The study identifies a gap in communication between scientists and policymakers, as well as the underrepresentation of information relating to an increased numbers of variables and uncertainty. The authors concluded their paper with recommendations for better engagement between scientists and policymakers and for more robust adaptation strategies to account for the factor of uncertainty inherent in climate projections.

Scientists and professionals working in practical conservation management often encounter a gap in the information between science and practice. The paper “How to Close the Science-Practice Gap in Nature Conservation? Information Sources Used by Practitioners,” by Fabian et al. (2019) explores this issue. Their paper focuses on a survey of conservation professionals in Switzerland with the purpose of identifying information sources used. The authors reach the conclusion that experience-based information sources are more important than evidence-based information sources. Experience-based sources are viewed as much more practical and accessible, leading to a gap in the communication of evidence-based information. The paper concludes with recommendations for increased engagement between scientists and professionals working in the field, and for the implementation of tools for improved knowledge transfer.

In the article “Communicating Science to Policymakers: Six Strategies for Success” Safford and Brown (2019) suggest six strategies for improving communication between scientists and policymakers in order to facilitate an impactful exchange of information. The strategies are as follows: 1) know who you want to reach, 2) have clear and actionable recommendations, 3) repackage your work to fit the audience, 4) write well, 5) strategically select when to engage, and 6) sustain and amplify your engagement. The authors advise scientists to make an effort to understand the processes and procedures that policymakers engage in during the decision-making process. For example, scientists should familiarize themselves with the electoral and legislative calendars, participate in stakeholder workshops, and learn how to write a policy brief. One of the limitations of this article is that the recommendations focus on how scientists can effectively inform politicians and decision-makers about their research; however, the authors do not include strategies for the decision-makers themselves. This absence overlooks two-way communication, as the policymakers have an important role in interpreting science advice appropriately.

In his 2019 article titled “When Assessing Novel Risks, Facts Are Not Enough” Baruch Fischoff investigates how people assess risks and make decisions when not all of the facts are available to support the said decisions. He pursued this approach by posing questions to the general public and to technical experts about how they assess risks. The findings revealed that members of the public assesses risks based on previous experiences, whereas the experts assess risks by examining the best available science. The article includes two lessons that scientists can follow in order to inform people better about accurate ways to consider choices when the subject matter is beyond their experience. Lesson 1, which echoes the strategies put forth by Safford and Brown, states that scientists need to communicate their research using terms and language that is accessible and relevant. Lesson 2 states that people who agree on the facts can still disagree on what to do about them. This outcome results because people may have different priorities. According to Fischoff, these lessons show why two-way communication is very important. However, he quickly contradicts this statement by explaining that it is the duty of the researcher to inform people about how to make choices when the facts are beyond their experience. This recommendation is a limiting concept as many other actors play into the decision-making process in order to create two-way communication.

Galland et al. outline seven guidelines for avoiding undesirable management outcomes in their 2018 paper titled “On the Importance of Clarity in Scientific Advice for Fisheries Management.” Prior to developing these guidelines, Galland et al. studied the histories of two Regional Fisheries Management Organizations (RFMOs), the International Commission for Conservation of Atlantic Tunas (ICCAT) and the Western and Central Pacific Fisheries Commission (WCPFC). By conducting a comparison of the science advice for these organizations with management measures, Galland et al. (2018) found that policymakers within ICCAT and WCPFC follow the advice of their scientists only 39% and 17% of the time, respectively. These shortfalls can be the result of scientists struggling to incorporate scientific uncertainty into their management advice, a misinterpretation of the advice by policymakers, or policymakers purposefully choosing not to follow the available scientific advice. Within the guidelines, Galland et al. emphasize the importance of accounting for uncertainty in stock assessments, avoiding giving ranges of potential catch limits, and pre-emptively asking and answering relevant management questions in order to increase implementation of a management plan.

The six articles briefly reviewed in this post collectively identify the existence of a communications gap between scientists and policymakers. This gap is the result of a deficiency in the accessibility and transfer of information, and the lack of consideration for varying perspectives and interpretations of the information. The key to addressing this gap is further engagement between the relevant parties of stakeholders. Both scientists and policymakers have a tendency to “talk to” each other, when their interests are best served if they “talk with” each other. Improved engagement leads to improved communication and potentially the development of mutually beneficial policies.

 

References

Coscieme, L., da Silva Hyldmo, H., Fernández-Llamazares, Á., Palomo, I., Mwampamba, T. H., Selomane, O., … Valle, M. (2020). Multiple conceptualizations of nature are key to inclusivity and legitimacy in global environmental governance. Environmental Science & Policy, 104, 36- 42. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.envsci.2019.10.018

Dubois, G., Stoverinck, F., & Amelung, B. (2018). Communication climate information: Travelling through the decision-making process. In S. M. Serrão-Neumann, A. Coudrain, & L. Coulter (Eds.). Communicating climate change information for decision-making (pp. 119-137). Cham: Springer. https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-319-74669-2_9

Fabian, Y., Bollmann, K., Brang, P., Heiri, C., Olschewski, R., Rigling, A., … & Holderegger, R. (2019). How to close the science-practice gap in nature conservation? Information sources used by practitioners. Biological Conservation, 235, 93-101. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.biocon.2019.04.011

Fischhoff, B. (2019, September). Tough calls. How we make decisions in the face of incomplete knowledge and uncertainty. Scientific American, 321(3), 74-79. https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/when-assessing-novel-risks-facts-are-notenough/

Galland, G. R., Nickson, A. E. M., Hopkins, R., & Miller, S. K. (2018). On the importance of clarity in scientific advice for fisheries management. Marine Policy, 87, 250-254. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.marpol.2017.10.029

Safford, H., & Brown, A. (2019). How to bring science into politics. Nature, 572(7771), 681- 682. https://doi.org/10.1038/d41586-019-02372-3

 

Authors: Matthew Cawood and Catherine Thompson

 

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.