Environmental Expertise: Connecting Science, Policy, and Society: A Book Review

How can environmental information be used to enhance understanding between science, policy, and society, while simultaneously avoiding the urge to reduce that information to its lowest common denominator? Furthermore, how can knowledge transfer be facilitated across institutional and personal boundaries, while still keeping the knowledge intact and usable? These questions, along with a host of others, form the basis of Environmental Expertise: Connecting Science, Policy and Society. Together with twelve other qualified contributors, the lead authors Esther Turnhout, Professor at Wageningen University, the Netherlands, Willemijn Tuinstra, Professor at Open Universiteit, the Netherlands, and Willem Halffman, Professor at Radboud University, the Netherlands, aim to help scientists effectively straddle the line between providing legitimate advice to policy makers, while also acknowledging and appreciating different societal points of view. The authors begin by situating current challenges facing the world’s environmental scientists, who are tasked with trying to solve problems of immense complexity, garner the trust of the public, provide salient information to those who require it, and maintain a sense of objectivity in the face of uncertainty. Clearly, with such an amalgam of sometimes competing factors, this book cannot hope to provide concrete solutions to all the issues facing environmental scientists (and, indeed, it does not). Instead, the book sets out the reasoning behind various sources of misunderstanding that scientists are sure to face in their line of work in order to equip them better to move forward as particular issues and circumstances emerge. Hence, the authors of Environmental Expertise state that “rather than rules of thumb, we want to explain the logic behind them” (p. 7). Over 11 chapters, punctuated by appropriately chosen case studies, this book provides insights about how environmental scientists can more effectively address wicked problems and gain a deeper understanding of the roots of the issues, rather than offer temporary solutions.

The first two chapters provide informative commentary and theoretical background on the historical struggles to fit “science” into a neat mold. Philosophical inquiries dominate these opening pages, and require the reader to evaluate science for what it truly is: necessary, diverse, and valuable, yes, but also ephemeral, contested, and sometimes contradictory. To move forward, the authors claim we must retire a traditional stance about science and appreciate its complexity.

Chapters 3 and 4 introduce and apply the concept of framing, a process in which situations are defined and relevant facts about each situation are identified. People can frame an identical situation quite differently, depending on their previous experiences, values, and morals, which is illustrated in some detail in Chapter 4, “Knowledge Controversies.”

Chapters 5 and 6 examine factors that influence knowledge usability, including perceptions of risk, trust, credibility, and legitimacy. These chapters carefully emphasize that while particular factors are often touted as being able to help increase the usability of knowledge, each situation is context dependent and, unfortunately, no specific set of universal usability criteria are available for scientists to consult.

Chapters 7 and 8 discuss the integration of alternative forms of expertise, including traditional, local, and lay (usually non-scientific). Historically, science has often been placed on a pedestal above other knowledge forms. However, these chapters focus on the importance of interdisciplinarity and knowledge integration, recognizing that science alone cannot address the complexity of the environmental issues we are facing today. Other factors must be considered in order to “create a comprehensive picture that covers all relevant aspects of the problem” (p. 153).

The final chapters address the importance of introducing humility and diversity into modern science. As the title suggests, environmental issues involve numerous aspects of science, policy, and society, and expertise is required from all three in order to find robust solutions.

The authors do a good job of outlining why equal consideration of science, policy, and society is important, yet there are minor areas where improvements could have been made. First, their advice on knowledge integration falls short. For example, in Chapter 7, “Interdisciplinarity and Knowledge Integration,” they stress the importance of maintaining the integrity of alternative forms of knowledge, without reducing any one to its lowest common denominator. Yet, their practical advice includes modelling, cost-benefit analyses, and conceptual frameworks (p. 156-159). Other approaches, such as participatory mapping, story maps, stakeholder workshops, focus groups, and interviews could all be just as useful, while keeping the essence of  each form of knowledge intact (Djenontin & Meadow, 2018). Additionally, it would have been beneficial to provide concrete ways in which environmental scientists could build trust with policymakers and the public on a daily basis, including two-way communication techniques or tips for effective social media use.

Selected Chapter Summaries

Chapter 2: Halffman, W. “What is Science? (And Why Does This Matter?)” (p. 11-35).

This chapter examines the history of science and how we, as humans, view science. In the past, Halffman states, scientists and philosophers tried to assign certain universal traits to science as a discipline, such as objective, experimental, or communal. Yet, science is not easily categorized and other forms of knowledge exist outside of “scientific.” Rather than trying to define them rigidly, we should simply pursue each type of knowledge and work to benefit from the differences and similarities.

Chapter 3: Halffman, W. “Framing: Beyond Facts versus Values” (p. 36-57).

In this integral chapter, Halffman outlines the concept of framing, which describes the way in which people view a situation or an issue. Framing is heavily dependent on personal characteristics, such as previous experience, values, and ideals. Thus, particular facts can be filtered in or out, based on the knowledge or intent of the person who is framing the issue. Halffman encourages environmental scientists to approach these inclusions or exclusions with a skeptical eye, and to question why an issue may be framed the way that is has been.

Chapter 6: Tuinstra, W., Turnhout, E., & Halffman, W. “Usable Knowledge” (p. 126-140).

The topic of usable knowledge is one of growing importance, particularly today when scientific certainty is questioned (Muggah & Goldin, 2019). In this chapter, the authors point out that defining “usable” is not a simple task. Knowledge usability is context-dependent and cannot easily be evaluated with static, universal criteria. Instead, the authors stress we should evaluate the process of knowledge production, rather than the end result. To that point, Tuinstra, Turnhout, and Halffman recommend judging the information or knowledge production process based on its credibility, saliency, and legitimacy for the intended knowledge receivers.

Chapter 7: Turnhout, E. “Interdisciplinarity and the Challenge of Knowledge Integration” (p. 152-164)

Chapter 7 outlines the difficulties that accompany knowledge integration, including institutional barriers, incompatible methodologies, and reductionist tendencies. Qualitative research can often lose out in efforts to integrate understanding. Occasionally, qualitative findings are overly simplified in an attempt to assimilate these results with quantitative approaches to knowledge generation. Despite these challenges, Turnhout advocates for the fusion of diverse knowledge systems, stating that the problems facing the world today cannot be solved by science alone. Strategies for appropriate integration include decision support systems, scenario modelling, and conceptual frameworks.

Chapter 8: Turnhout, E. & Neves, K. “Lay Expertise” (p. 184-199)

Turnhout and Neves discuss the value of lay expertise in Chapter 8. Lay, or non-scientific, knowledge has contributed to a staggering wealth of data and can often identify alternative solutions or ways of framing an issue. At times, the alternative solutions are apparent to the lay expert, while scientists have overlooked them. Thus, despite how it is often portrayed, science is not always superior to lay expertise. The chapter concludes by suggesting that all knowledge is “situated practice,” i.e., different situations call for different forms of knowledge. One should not automatically be assumed to be better than another. It simply may be more applicable in the moment.

Conclusion

While the authors of Environmental Expertise approach the subject of connecting science, policy, and society from a scientific perspective, they do so with a sense of humility and openness. They acknowledge the strengths and limitations of science, and at the same time advocate for a more diverse, holistic view of what knowledge actually means. Although they limit their audience to environmental scientists, some chapters and case studies are relevant to other groups, such as policymakers, practitioners, students, or the interested public. Furthermore, their advice to environmental scientists has the potential to benefit a wide range of actors in the field, as many recommendations take a variety of perspectives into account. Moreover, the authors’ recommendations in this book are relatively broad, which allows their advice to remain relevant over a longer period. Much of their advice is applicable to many situations, and can, therefore, be tailored to suit specific contexts. The dynamic character of their proposed solutions matches the complexity of the environmental problems the world is currently facing.

References

Djenontin, I. N. S., & Meadow, A. M. (2018). The art of co-production of knowledge in environmental sciences and management: Lessons from international practice. Environmental Management, 61(6), 885-903. doi: 10.1007/s00267-018-1028-3

Muggah, R., & Goldin, I. (2019, January 1). How to survive and thrive in our age of uncertainty. World Economic Forum. Retrieved from https://www.weforum.org/agenda/2019/01/how-to-survive-our-age-of-uncertainty-muggah-goldin/

Turnhout, E., Tuinstra, W., & Halffman, W. (2019). Environmental expertise: Connecting science, policy, and society. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press. ISBN 978-1-107-49167-0.

 

Author: Hali Moreland