Getting the information needed at the right place and at the right time: from scientists to policy makers and back again

As mentioned by Jones on a previous post, Dr. John Holmes came to McGill to give a lecture entitled “Making better use of science in environmental policy making: a European perspective”. The aim of the talk could be summarized briefly as being three-fold: 1) to describe the gap between scientific knowledge and policy making by referring to recent examples of environmental policy making in United Kingdom, 2) to identify the main factors contributing to the formation of this gap, and 3) to propose some remedies to diminish the influence of these factors.
One of the main factors he identified is the lack of institutional channels allowing, on the one hand, scientists to make themselves heard by policy makers and, on the other hand, policy makers to ask questions to scientists at an early stage of the policy making process. The key element for efficient institutional channels, according to Holmes, is competent interpreters who know well the functioning of both worlds. Accordingly, forming more and better interpreters (or middleman) is one of the propositions he made to bridge the gap between science and policy. For Holmes, their role would mainly consist in synthesizing the findings of scientists, vulgarizing the synthesis to make it accessible to non experts and presenting it to the policy makers in a way adapted to their short-term time scale, not in the often long-term time scale of the environmental processes studied by scientists. The other way around, their role would be to assist policy makers in asking questions to scientists, help them decide which research projects need to be funded to provide the answers they seek and help scientists understand the compromises they have to make while formulating their policies.
The general idea is quite good, I think, and has the merit of being very intuitive. Nevertheless, I think it leaves out of the picture an important aspect of the policy making process, especially in our democratic societies: the citizens. The role of the interpreters should not be restricted to the promotion of a dialogue between scientists and policy makers, but should also include the bringing of citizens into the discussion by helping them understand environmental issues from the perspective of both scientists and policy makers. In a democratic society, mobilizing the population for a cause is often crucial for getting a political response to issues identified by scientists. If this is right, then the circulation of information should include three poles, not two: scientists, policy makers and citizens.

6 Responses to “Getting the information needed at the right place and at the right time: from scientists to policy makers and back again”

  1. Culture Kid says:

    I wonder specifically how Dr. Holmes envisioned the role of moderator in bridging the gap between policy and science. What kind of background would they have? How exactly would they moderate? It seems to me that this idea runs parallel to the problems with “buzz words” – it sounds nice, but what does it really mean? Incorporating another person, another idea, another necessary line of communication into an arena which is already packed too full of policy-makers and scientists and others seems a poor solution to a problem that seems (at least in part) caused by over-crowding and over-complicating. I cannot propose a better solution, but I disagree with this proposed one. Science and bureaucracy may already be polar opposites, but adding another dimension, another variable, does not promise to bring them closer together; I venture it would only increase the distance between them.

  2. parasite kid says:

    I completely agree with the need for a third pole – citizens – especially given that these policies made by few will have an impact on the lives of many. Not only will the involvement of citizen stakeholders help put pressure on the bureaucratic process to create or implement needed policies, it will also create a sense of ownership over those policies that are put into action. I for one do not appreciate being told what to do without understanding why…

    However, this highlights the need for an informed citizenry and consequently what I see as another role for these interpreters: intelligent interpretation to the media. While this may be increasing the red tape, I believe that it is unrealistic to expect scientists to push aside the pressures of publishing in highly technical journals to synthesize and summarize their work (a rather weighty task). Perhaps this is a role for government scientists if emphasis is placed on publishing for policy instead of in research journals?

  3. ellis says:

    The idea of including citizens is an intriguing and important one. There is general acknowledgement that environmental policy requires robust dialogue and communication among scientists, policy-makers and citizens, but when it comes to the contribution of this last group, people seem uncertain how to proceed. What is the role for citizens? How should they be brought into the process? Is it simply a problem of levels of scientific literacy among citizens? Do scientists simply need to become better at communicating their ideas to a non-specialist audience? Or do we envisage citizen participation as significantly changing the nature of the dialogue? For example, what to do about radical differences between scientists and laypersons regarding perception of risk? One could argue that citizens simply need to become better educated and therefore better equipped to perceive, evaluate and compare risks – in other words, they need to be brought up to – or closer to – the level of scientists and well-informed policy-makers in this regard. But are we prepared to accept a different kind of contribution – for example, citizens proposing their own views on the issue of acceptable risks, their own frameworks for evaluating and comparing risks? In other words, what is the scope for citizen education of scientists and policy makers, on these and other issues?

  4. merle says:

    Well said. In addition to informing the public to get them to pressure policy makers, citizens can also be a great source of information for policy makers and scientists. The relation needs not be unidirectional as I (implicitly) presented it. Against the current presumption that academic experts have the monopoly when it comes to “real” knowledge, citizens can be very resourceful when it comes to precise knowledge of their environment, its complexity and history. Not recognizing this possibility, I think, is wrongly presuming that local knowledge, practical know-how and traditional knowledge cannot benefit academicians and policy makers.

  5. crocus says:

    I think this is a very important topic that we are exploring here – the revolving door through which scientists, policymakers, and citizens can inform each other. Although it is not always the case, there are times when action stemming from small organizations (community greening, implementing alternatives to car use) could be scaled up or inform policy for larger areas. Since the projects have been tested at a small scale (through grass roots initiatives), there has been time to figure out what works and what doesn’t.

    Again, this is not to say that it works in all situations but it provides another avenue for progress to be made and for citizens to inform policy makers of what is needed.

  6. Jones says:

    I am intrigued by the question of citizens’ involvement in the science-to-policy process. I too believe that it is a necessary requisite for the entire process to work effectively and democratically. And the question has been raised: how do citizens become educated? For the majority, I would argue, education comes in the form of mass, popular media. Find out what stations are the most watched, sit down and force yourself to watch as well. How many references to climate change do you see? And if you do see a reference, say during a Toyota Hybrid commercial, are you told about the number of SUVs Toyota sells for every Hybrid? Who’s agenda are we mentally absorbing whenever we ingest this media?
    The tools available to educate the majority of citizens are co-opted by parties uninterested, or unwilling to invest time and money into teaching the populous things that are (most often) not in the investor’s political or corporate interests. Those wishing to educate the populous should take a page from corporate advertising. If it’s true that pushing ads in one’s face at all possible moments (from billboards, to posters on bus stops, to metro ads, to newspaper ads etc. etc.) will entice one to purchase and buy into (metaphorically and literally) what is being promoted, then the same must be done with information we want the public to know. During election time, especially in the States, advertisements are posted everywhere for political parties. The process works. For better or worse, people will listen to what you tell them.