“Environmental Research and Knowledge Production within Governmental Organizations”: a New Book Chapter by EIUI Authors

Research occupies centre-stage in evidence-based (or evidence-informed) decision-making. Depending on the issue, the agendas of decision makers, and other contextual factors, evidence may be drawn from a variety of sources to use in decisions. Because universities and colleges world-wide are major generators of research knowledge today, the output of academics can overshadow research conducted in numerous other settings, e.g., in government labs and departments, non-governmental organizations, think tanks, commercial enterprises, and by independent researchers and citizens. The research findings arising from these latter locations may be more instrumental for public policy than from universities due in a large measure to questions guiding the research, i.e., questions posed by managers and policy makers. Thus, in an effort to support evidence-based decision-making, it is important to develop an understanding of “knowledge production taking place outside academia, in extramural organizations” as much as research pursued within the academy (Börjesson & Huvila, 2019, p. 3).

Research Outside the Academy: Professional Knowledge-Making in the Digital Age, a new book edited by Swedish scholars, Lisa Börjesson and Isto Huvila, “has a dual goal to inquire into conditions for doing research in different situations, and to expand knowledge on the premises for doing research in a range of areas, providing insight for those wishing to evaluate and use knowledge made in these contexts” (Börjesson & Huvila, 2019, p. 7). This volume contains eight chapters on a diversity of subjects by European and North American authors.

EIUI team members, Bertrum MacDonald and Suzuette Soomai, contributed the first chapter, entitled “Environmental research and knowledge production within governmental organizations.” Taking a global perspective, this chapter highlights historical and present-day environmental research work. As we noted in the chapter:

“Governments have been driven to set up research units for a variety of reasons. Economic pressures, for example, were a prime motivator in establishing the geological and agricultural research bodies in the nineteenth century. Similar expectations that governments should undertake research are found throughout the twentieth century right up to the present. To fulfil their responsibilities and to obtain information to support decision-making, governments could either seek the advice arising from the results of environmental research conducted externally or they could maintain facilities and employ qualified staff to conduct the research internally. Governments create internal research units when the incentives for undertaking research on particular subjects are lacking in other contexts, e.g., in universities or industry. This perspective is particularly important when it is necessary to ensure that research results on specific subjects are not intermittent, as could be the case if the motivation to conduct the research relied on the personal interests of academics. Governments need to be ready to act when particular environmental or health issues become a priority, e.g., an oil spill, occurrence of a natural toxin, or outbreak of a disease, as seen in the case of the pandemic H1N1 virus in 2009. In such scenarios, being equipped with the results of ongoing testing of contaminants and understanding of mitigation strategies or regular monitoring of environmental conditions that trigger disease outbreaks is important for societal well-being. Governments are in a unique position to maintain research capacity to deal with such scenarios. Primarily, though, governments set up research facilities in response to legislative mandates.” (MacDonald & Soomai, 2019, p. 25-26).

In this chapter, we addressed several themes: who conducts research? what are the outputs/products of research? dissemination, awareness, and use of research; and, challenges with government-based research. To illustrate some of the key themes of the chapter we drew on recent case studies conducted by EIUI research team members. We concluded that: “Research conducted by government-based researchers … is an important contribution to the world-wide production of knowledge. The extent of this research activity, its uniqueness, and its implications for public policy and regulatory application are significant. The value of this knowledge production extends beyond governmental contexts to the larger research enterprise” (MacDonald & Soomai, 2018, p. 30). We also suggested that future studies that “focus on output, use, and impact of government-based environmental research would go a long way to establish the relevance and significance of this extensive research activity over the past half century. The results of such studies could be instrumental in providing direction for continued allocation of resources to deal with serious global environmental concerns that will affect generations to come” (MacDonald & Soomai, 2019, p. 41).

Details about the importance of government-based research evidence are provided in the full chapter. The abstract outlines the scope of the chapter.

Abstract: For decades, governmental organizations have produced large numbers of research publications designed to describe and overcome deteriorating environmental conditions. This activity has been notable since the 1972 United Nations Conference on the Human Environment highlighted the need for the best available scientific information for decision-making. As an example of environmental research, this chapter describes characteristics of knowledge produced by governments that facilitate its use in coastal and ocean management. For instance, in operational decision-making contexts, technical reports produced by governments may be favoured over academic research owing to the relevance, timeliness, and authority of the reports. The type of publication, e.g., state of the environment reports, can present current scientific understanding in a language understood by decision makers. Governmental publications can also serve to increase public awareness of environmental threats, and to engage diverse stakeholders in policy-making processes. Today, governmental organizations increasingly partner with external bodies, such as academic researchers, to produce research publications. Such partnerships are a response to expectations for greater transparency in decision-making, decreasing public resources for research, and limited expertise within governmental bodies, particularly in the social sciences. Whether produced solely by governmental organizations or in collaboration with academic researchers, the knowledge generated by and for governments can satisfy multiple purposes.


Börjesson, L, & Huvila. I. (2019). Introduction. In L. Börjesson & I. Huvila (Eds.). Research outside the academy: Professional knowledge-making in the digital age (pp. 1-19). Cham: Palgrave Macmillan. doi: 10.1007/978-3-319-94177-6_2

MacDonald, B. H., & Soomai. S. S. (2019). Environmental research and knowledge production within governmental organization. In L. Börjesson & I. Huvila (Eds.). Research outside the academy: Professional knowledge-making in the digital age (pp. 21-50). Cham: Palgrave Macmillan. doi: 10.1007/978-3-319-94177-6_2

Author: Bertrum H. MacDonald

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