Understanding Science-Policy Interfaces

While at first glance, the relationship between science and policy may seem simple, it is multi-directional and complex. This complex set of relationships between science and policy is known as the science-policy interface (SPI). Sybille van den Hove defined an SPI 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). In this blog post, we discuss the theoretical background of SPIs, and the barriers and enablers experienced by policymakers and researchers at these intersections. 

Explaining Science-Policy Interface(s) 

Attention to the SPI has increased over the past several decades at all levels of government, from local to international, as well as in the growing body of scientific literature (van den Hove, 2007). Researchers and policy makers alike have long understood that science and policy have a reciprocal relationship; science and scientific discoveries can have consequences on policy and political agenda and vice versa. There are numerous “intersections” where science and policy connect and overlap, including funding, scientific quality control, education, and interpersonal networks (van den Hove, 2007). For example, the scientific discovery of the Antarctic hole in the ozone layer in 1985 led to the signing of the Montreal Protocol in 1987 (van den Hove, 2007; Patel, 2014). Conversely, governments can influence the trajectory of research by funding work that aligns with their priorities (van den Hove, 2007). Interactions at the SPI are not only formal in nature; they are also influenced by social relationships. Scientists and policy makers are human, and their work can be influenced by their own politics, values, and beliefs, as well as by their personal connections with others (van den Hove, 2007). 

Barriers in the Science-Policy Interface 

One of the core SPI challenges for policymakers includes navigating the complexities of contemporary understandings of science and knowledge. Whereas the traditional scientific approach relies upon a more rigid view of what defines sound evidence, this perspective can be incompatible with the more subjective and unpredictable nature of the human experience. For those who study those human experiences in the social sciences there is a great benefit in more holistic approaches that validate that which a strictly traditional positivist approach often doesn’t capture, including lived experiences, Indigenous and local knowledges, and other phenomenological evidence. For example, Mäkinen-Rostedt et al. (2023) note numerous competing epistemic worldviews among scientists and experts, each of which contribute to a more pluralistic understanding of the nature of knowledge than orthodox scientific understanding. They point out that this epistemic pluralism allows for more flexibility and adaptability in research, which can be beneficial, especially in domains where the subjectivity of the human experience warrants a more flexible approach to knowledge.  

Accounting for this diversity, however, results in additional challenges for policy makers. No matter how heavily empirical and nonpartisan policymaker’s research strategies may be, the policy outcomes will ultimately be inspired in part by their worldview. Policymaking is inherently political, and by necessity, there are no universal standards for guiding policymakers in their research and policy development. While these conditions are likewise true in the natural sciences, it is easier to minimize biases as scientists work with typically far more predictable and replicable variables that assist in keeping this mode of inquiry relatively objective. Given existing research that suggests the impossibility of true objectivity (Rosen, 2020), and given that public policy always creates winners and losers, that is, those who will benefit and those who will be hindered by a policy, it is ultimately impossible to remain fully impartial.  

Furthermore, the context in which policymaking occurs influences the relative success of policy work. There is a notable lack of context-specific evidence in policy decisions. In the Canadian context, MacDonald et al. (2016) found that policy often lacks evidence to substantiate efforts at policymaking, especially at the provincial level where policies appear to lack appropriate references and are often one-sided in their analysis. This situation can embolden unethical practices such as cherry picking to fit predetermined or politically expedient ends, which risks delegitimizing the authority of policymakers as public servants and subject matter experts. 

Enablers at the Science-Policy Interface 

Given the significance of SPIs and common barriers, stakeholders must devise methods to assess their effectiveness. “Stakeholders” refers to people or organizations outside the governing body developing policies, who have vested interest in the issue at hand. Policymaking at the SPI can be supported by strong relationships and trust between policy makers and stakeholders. But “trust” can be a challenge to build and maintain, and all parties may struggle to foster strong relationships, pointing to a need for third parties who can support better open communication and responsive evaluation (Tellman & Gulbrandsen, 2022).  

Policies and procedures often need to be tested before they are implemented and evaluated after implementation to test their effectiveness (Wellstead et al., 2023). One solution for testing the effectiveness of policies and the strength of the SPI within an organization is known as policy innovation labs [PILs] or science-policy innovation labs [SPILs] (hereafter, “SPILS”). SPILS bring together research scientists, policymakers, and stakeholders to evaluate policy processes and outcomes. Science-policy innovation labs bring together stakeholders at all levels of the policy process, including from government, private sector, and the public, to review and evaluate an issue or policy in terms of effectiveness from all possible perspectives involved (Wellstead et al., 2023).  

SPILS are known for their creative and collaborative approaches to test and measure the effectiveness of policies, pilot projects, and more (Wellstead et al., 2023). These evaluations can be used to justify further funding or research into a specific policy or program (Wellstead et al., 2023). SPILS increase transparency and build trust between an organization, such as a company, school, or the federal, provincial, or municipal governments, and its stakeholders as they allow multiple perspectives, including the public’s, to be heard and considered at early stages in the drafting process (Wang et al., 2022; Wellstead et al., 2023). SPILS build trust throughout policy design and implementation processes by fostering better communication between all parties (Wang et al., 2022). While SPILS stress the importance of not ignoring the complexities of the issues under examination, they encourage developing better communication strategies so that policymakers and other stakeholders outside of the research sector can fully understand the concepts and participate with little room for misunderstanding or miscommunication (Wang et al., 2022; Wellstead et al., 2023).  


Effective policymaking hinges on strong collaboration and communication between policymakers, researchers, and the public at the SPI. Despite barriers like information cherry-picking and personal bias, solutions like SPILS, coupled with an increasing recognition of the importance on SPI work, can foster stronger collaboration among stakeholders. 



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Mäkinen-Rostedt, K., Hakkarainen, V., Eriksson, M., Andrade, R., Horcea-Milcu, A., Anderson, C. B., Van Riper, C. J., & Raymond, C. M. (2023). Engaging diverse experts in the global science-policy interface: Learning experiences from the process of the IPBES values assessment. Environmental Science & Policy, 147, 215-227. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.envsci.2023.06.010 

Patel, K. (2014). A brief history of ozone. NASA. https://svs.gsfc.nasa.gov/11644#  

Rosen, J. (2020). Testing the objectivity of vision. Hub. Johns Hopkins University. https://hub.jhu.edu/2020/06/08/objectivity-vision/  

Tellmann, S. M., & Gulbrandsen, M. (2022). The other side of the boundary: Productive
interactions seen from the policy side. Science and Public Policy, 49(4), 621-631.

van den Hove, S. (2007). A rationale for science-policy interfaces. Futures, 38, 807-826.

Wang, M., Green, C., & Wang, Z. (2022). Six recommendations for early career professionals to
join work at the science-policy interface: Collective experience from academic, governmental, and NGO scientists. Environmental Science & Technology, 56(24), 17506-17509. https://doi.org/10.1021/acs.est.2c08290 

Wellstead, A. M., Schmidt, K., & Gofen, A. (2023). The science-policy interface and evidence-
based policymaking in environmental policy. In H. Jörgens, C. Knill, & Y. Steinebach (Eds.), Routledge handbook of environmental policy (pp. 207-220). Routledge.


Authors: Samantha Chu, Liam Meade, and Robyn Smith 

This blog post is part of a series of posts authored by students in the graduate course “Information in Public Policy and Decision Making” offered at Dalhousie University. 

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