The importance of evidence-informed decision-making is being recognized more and more within the broader scientific and political landscape. For critical issues like climate change, well-informed and structured policies can bring substantial progress to current and future mitigation and adaptation strategies. This awareness has resulted in increased efforts to design science-policy engagement strategies and best practices to bridge the gap between researchers and policymakers. The literature selected for this post also echoed a similar perception. One of the overarching themes observed in this literature is the benefit of understanding the differing psychologies of policymakers and researchers in policy contexts, and closely examining the various stages in a policy decision-making process. The decision-making process is regarded as a rational process, but there are various complexities and nuances in the activities of both individual and group decision-making, which are essential to interpret before devising innovative and potential pathways for improved science-policy engagements.
Climate and environmental change today implore a shift in consultation and research methods due to the serious social impacts playing out around the world. Previously, scientific research could be indifferent to social and political impacts, although much research was conducted with social and political implications in mind. Schuck-Zöller, Brinkman, and Rödder (2018) argued that new paths that include involving the community at large in research on topics that affect people in a global manner, such as climate sciences, must be used in practice. The authors claim that “complex” issues need comprehensive research methods to accommodate multi-faceted relationships. Complexity in this context refers to the multiple interactions between humans and the subjects being studied (Schuck-Zöller et al., 2018). For example, approaches to transdisciplinary research vary depending on the disciplines involved and various methods have been used since the 1960s. Schuck-Zöller et al. (2018) explore six different approaches and the related fields of study. Community-Based Participatory Research (CBPR) and Participatory Action Research (PAR) use participation within phenomena as a form of research, which engages participants who become researchers in the process. The findings of climate and environmental science can affect communities everywhere; so, similar research approaches can enable holistic understanding beyond only statistical analysis.
Cvitanovic and Hobday (2018) argue that continued attention on the challenges and barriers to successful integration of the scientific and political domains in policy contexts has a deterring effect on scientists who wish to influence policy decisions. In their view, focussing on challenges and barriers has proven to be counterproductive to the actual goal of improving the relation between the two domains. Drawing from the insights of the fields of psychology and organizational behaviour, the authors stated that identifying and documenting “bright spots,” i.e., instances where science has positively influenced policy impact despite the barriers, will promote an optimistic atmosphere and influence the scientific and political sides to take advantage of working interdependently.
Insights from the field of psychology suggests that optimistic individuals are motivated and driven to find innovative ways to overcome challenges and work well in a group (Cvitanovic & Hobday, 2018). Recounting two case studies about such bright spots, they identified the key principles that made the science-policy practice integration successful and the policy impactful. These principles were founded on trusted relationships between key stakeholders, which later formed the basis of joint research activity and knowledge co-production and exchange strategies. Admittedly, Cvitanovic and Hobday (2018) point out that these principles could be subjected to interpretation, but they can also help bring out the factors that played a crucial part in a successful implementation and those factors can be applied to future science-policy-practice strategies.
On similar lines, the briefing paper released by the Environment Change Institute (ECI) in June 2019 highlights different methods (with practical examples) adopted by the researchers at the University of Oxford to design science-policy engagement strategies. This paper is directed towards researchers as a guiding resource to aid understanding of best practices and challenges in the environmental policy context while undertaking efforts for the science-policy engagement mechanisms. The paper proposes seven methods that can be applied to science-policy engagement, namely, 1) Formal dialogues, 2) Informal interactions, secondments, and exchanges, 3) Capturing information on socio-economic impact, 4) Partner involvement in research programs, 5) Involvement with partner advisory committees, 6) Provision of technical assistance, and 7) Responding to consultations projects. Analysis of the most used methods within ECI revealed that capturing the socioeconomic impact information and building interpersonal relationships were critical to successful science-policy engagement. However, it was interesting to note that the fourth and fifth methods are complementary to each other. Partner involvement in research programs means that policymakers and non-research partners should be involved in research programs, which will help the scientists to understand the requirements of the partners and ensure the research outcomes caters to their needs. The fifth method advised involving scientists in partner advisory boards to provide advice and to ensure scientific findings are being incorporated within policy development. This complimentary relation reflects the interdependent nature of the scientific and political domains.
Communication at the science-policy interface is increasingly important within the complex narrative of evidence-based decision making. The field of science communication has been developing over time and has not always given adequate attention to the diversity of audiences that can and should be involved in public policy development. Communication of science is aimed at the public at large as well as political stakeholders, which shifts the power of knowledge to the public from scientists alone (Fähnrich & Ruser, 2019). The essential objective of communication directed at lay audiences is to decrease misunderstanding and misconceptions of research results. Science continues to speak truth to power; however, it also translates the truth to power aspects so the public can be aware and able to engage in decisions that affect both individuals and communities. In this new simplified communication approach, science can be used to communicate evidence and truths. The truths are, however, situated in a culture and time, which means communication strategies need to accommodate differences over time and between cultures (Fähnrich & Ruser, 2019).
The communication pathway for scientific findings is important in what Fähnrich and Ruser (2019) call “sounding the alarm,” which is a notable perspective in the present time of a global pandemic. Science is a tool that can be used to communicate urgency to the public, and the communication must reach the widest audience possible in this worrying period. Though the authors mention previous eras where scientific truths, which were widely believed, are viewed differently in the mind of today’s audiences, dissemination of scientific information in times of necessity displays how dialogue and discourse should aim at educating the public and politicians, not only other scientists.
In public and political discourse, science has played an important role in how individuals and communities around the world collaborate in decision-making. As the methods of scientific inquiry have changed and adapted to complex situations, so has the communication of scientific findings. Language, dialogue, and discourse have evolved through cultural shifts, and science has adapted to these changes by advancing knowledge and understanding through the results of research. As science and politics have intersected, communication has been both a challenge and a way of moving forward to deal with competing ideologies and in presenting evidence that can be incorporated into policies as solutions to pressing problems at local and global scales.
Cvitanovic, C., & Hobday, A. J. (2018). Building optimism at the environmental science-policy-practice interface through the study of bright spots. Nature Communications, 9(1). doi: 10.1038/s41467-018-05977-w
Dinesh, D., & Downling, C. (2019, June). Stepping up science-policy engagement to tackle environmental change: Methods & examples for achieving policy impact. Oxford: Environmental Change Institute, Oxford University. Retrieved from https://www.eci.ox.ac.uk/publications/downloads/briefing-paper-science-policy-engagement-methods.pdf
Faehnrich, B., & Ruser, A. (2019). “Operator, please” — Connecting truth and power at the science-policy interface. Journal of Science Communication, 18(3). doi: 10.22323/2.18030501
Schuck-Zöller, S., Brinkmann, C., & Rödder, S. (2018). Integrating research and practice in emerging climate services—Lessons from other transdisciplinary dialogues. In S. M. Serrão-Neumann, A. Coudrain, & L. Coulter (Eds.). Communicating climate change information for decision-making (pp. 105-118). Cham: Springer. doi: 10.1007/978-3-319-74669-2_8
Authors: Sara Lawlor & Tamanna Moharana
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.