Science and scientific knowledge are utilized in everyday operations of society and policy (van den Hove, 2007). Moreover, scientific knowledge provided by scientists and scientific organizations directly impacts our society through its relationships with decision-making at various government levels (van den Hove, 2007). However, the different needs, expectations, and even language used by those involved in research and decision-making can lead to gaps in communication that must be traversed for knowledge to be effectively incorporated into policy.
The Science-Policy Interface
The science-policy interface is described by van den Hove as “social processes which encompass relations between scientists and other actors in the policy process, and which allow for exchanges, co-evolution, and joint construction of knowledge with the aim of enriching decision-making” (van den Hove, 2007, p. 815). Co-production of knowledge and knowledge exchange require effective communication between scientists and decision-makers, which is an essential aspect of science-policy interfaces (van den Hove, 2007). Therefore, important aspects to consider regarding such an interface are the social process itself, the environment(s) in which it operates, as well as the communication between actors (van den Hove, 2007). What concerns or complexities negatively inhibit the effectiveness of a science-policy interface? What solutions or recommendations can be implemented to address these concerns? These questions are discussed in this post.
Challenges Faced in Science-Policy Interfaces
The complex social process of turning scientific knowledge into actionable policy can encounter a variety of barriers. Ojanen et al. (2021) show that the barriers can be examined under a framework of relevance, credibility, and legitimacy. Overcoming these challenges is vital to the functioning of interfaces between science and policy, but even then, whether the solutions are effective remains a question.
Relevance is the alignment between the knowledge that is exchanged and the original request and underlying policy needs it is meant to satisfy (Ojanen et al., 2021). A major barrier to achieving relevance is the difference in views on the role of science that may be held by the parties involved. As van den Hove (2007) notes, the results of scientific studies often involve uncertainty and complexity, but decision-makers seeking definitive, concrete answers may find such responses frustrating (Ojanen et al., 2021).
The timelines for scientific research and policy development can differ greatly. Some research projects may take many years to develop before results are obtained, which may not align with the requirements of decision-makers. Information relating to requests posed by policymakers may not exist at the moment it is required, and even if it does, synthesis and presentation of an appropriate response may still be time-intensive (Cvitanovic et al., 2021).
Questions may arise about credibility: How credible is the scientific knowledge provided or the organization providing the knowledge? How credible are the scientific and political actors engaged in the process of knowledge exchange? Credibility refers to the quality of information produced for the decision-making process; is it reliable, of high-quality, and created by knowledgeable actors?
The validity of knowledge used in response to policy requests may be challenged. Cvitanovic et al. note that “political barriers to knowledge acceptance and uptake” are a significant concern (2021, p. 6). Even the initial sources of information on which an investigation is based may face opposition. Improved tools or data sources may be opposed when they are not “official” (Ojanen et al., 2021). Further, decision makers may object to potential criticism or inclusion of sensitive topics and may request changes to the materials produced.
Legitimacy refers to scientists’ ability to ensure that equity, fairness, and ethics were considered regarding knowledge generation and exchange. To be perceived as legitimate, scientists must acknowledge and take the differing values, perspectives, and interests of decision-makers and stakeholders into account.
Jurisdictional boundaries can impede both data transfer and interactions among individuals (Cvitanovic et al., 2021), and even when researchers are able to work across these lines, they may face local opposition. Being rejected as “outsiders,” either at the organizational or personal level, may impede efforts to perform research, or to become involved in policy processes (Ojanen et al., 2021). Science-policy interfaces can span a multitude of jurisdictions and levels of authority, from the global to the hyper-local, with different sets of stakeholders. Thus, accounting for a diversity of perspectives becomes necessary.
Ultimately, trade-offs between these factors must be navigated at the interface. Working to restrictive timelines to provide relevant responses may limit the completeness of the available information. Involving all stakeholders, to maximize legitimacy, may require steering clear of particular hot-button issues.
How effective is the development and exchange of scientific knowledge in policy implementation? Relevance, credibility, and legitimacy all have a role to play in ensuring that the goals of both policy-makers and researchers can be met, though the goals of the various stakeholders may differ (Ojanen et al., 2021). Demonstrating effectiveness can be very important, as it is often a requirement of research funding, which Cvitanovic et al. (2021) noted is a frequent cause for concern of respondents in their study.
By using traditional measures of influence — checking whether a policy makes use of the provided information, and how it affects the policy outcomes — impact can be incredibly difficult to determine (Cvitanovic et al., 2021). How, then, can organizations and people involved with science-policy interfaces achieve not just relevance, credibility, and legitimacy, but overall effectiveness?
Solutions and Recommendations
In their research, Cvitanovic et al. (2021) and Ojanen et al. (2021) set out potential solutions and recommendations for the concerns and complexities noted above. In particular, they addressed the questions: How can relevance, credibility, and legitimacy be ensured? How can effectiveness be measured?
Cvitanovic et al. (2021) and Ojanen et al. (2021) emphasize the importance of consistent, productive communication between actors, including scientists, decision-makers, and stakeholders. This communication must be timely, clear, accessible, and inclusive to be productive in the long-term (Ojanen et al., 2021). Active, on-going communication allows for co-production of knowledge between scientists and decision-makers. Such knowledge results from recognition of the importance of understanding stakeholders’ perceptions of current issues and the concerns that need to be addressed (Cvitanovic et al., 2021; Ojanen et al., 2021). Therefore, active engagement and collaboration are required to ensure scientific research is relevant to current concerns (Cvitanovic et al., 2021; Ojanen et al., 2021).
As noted above, the perception of the role of science may be called into question regarding the relevance of research to particular issues (Ojanen et al., 2021). To mitigate this concern, it is important to ensure that the roles of the actors are clearly articulated. For instance, the scientist’s role is to inform, discuss, and provide recommendations and it is the role of the decision-maker to utilize this information in making the final decisions (Ojanen et al., 2021).
To be considered credible, scientists and organizations must provide high-quality research for examination by stakeholders and decision-makers (Cvitanovic et al., 2021; Ojanen et al., 2021). One way to obtain and maintain credibility is by brand recognition (Cvitanovic et al., 2021). Brand recognition is based on the positive reputation of an organization and stakeholders’ perceptions of its legitimacy and credibility for producing high-quality research (Cvitanovic et al., 2021). Methods for developing the perception of credibility include creation of strong relationships between the scientific community and organizations, stakeholders, and decision-makers, as well as establishing trust (Cvitanovic et al., 2021; Ojanen et al., 2021). Establishing long-term relationships and partnerships can ensure individuals and organizations are trusted and, therefore, perceived as credible. As well, the development of positive and trusted relationships supports co-production of knowledge within a science-policy interface (Cvitanovic et al., 2021; Ojanen et al., 2021).
To be considered legitimate, the scientific community and organizations must show they respect, acknowledge, and incorporate broad perspectives, opinions, and values in the development and presentation of their research (Ojanen et al., 2021). Legitimacy can be achieved by the researchers maintaining political neutrality and allowing all stakeholder groups to have a place at the discussion table (Ojanen et al., 2021). On-going, collaborative communication is required to support this perception of inclusivity (Ojanen et al., 2021). Scientists actively engaging with decision-makers enables positive relationships to develop and greater trust as well (Cvitanovic et al., 2021). This outcome aids in understanding and alleviating the uncertainties, concerns, and barriers to scientific knowledge transfer that occur at the science policy interface (van den Hove, 2007).
The effectiveness of the scientific knowledge utilized and the operation of the science-policy interface can be determined by its success (Cvitanovic et al., 2021). Success can be defined through positive impacts on: 1) policy, 2) ecosystems and society, 3) people, 4) organizations, and 5) science (Cvitanovic et al., 2021). Did the science-policy interface and co-production of knowledge result in positive impacts regarding policy development and implementation? Did positive changes occur in society due to the practical and positive utilization of research knowledge at the science-policy interface? Did strengthening relationships between scientists and decision-makers result in positive outcomes for scientific organizations and their staff, such as enhancing their ability to produce high-quality research? These are a few questions we can ask to measure the success of a science-policy interface (Cvitanovic et al., 2021; Ojanen et al., 2021).
At its core, a science-policy interface operates most successfully when active, on-going, long-term communication, engagement, and collaboration are occurring between scientists and decision-makers (Cvitanovic et al., 2021; Ojanen et al., 2021; van den Hove, 2007).
Cvitanovic, C., Mackay, M., Shellock, R. J., van Putten, E. I., Karcher, D. B., & Dickey-Collas, M. (2021). Understanding and evidencing a broader range of “successes” that can occur at the interface of marine science and policy. Marine Policy, 134, 104802. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.marpol.2021.104802
Ojanen, M., Brockhaus, M., Korhonen-Kurki, K., & Petrokofsky, G. (2021). Navigating the science-policy interface: Forest researcher perspectives. Environmental Science & Policy, 118, 10-17.
van den Hove, S. (2007). A rationale for science-policy interfaces. Futures, 38, 807-826. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.futures.2006.12.004
Authors: Emily Alward and Geoff Krause
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.