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Science in policy making

Those who use research should help shape it, finds Melanie Smallman

The relationship between scientists and policymakers is often seen as problematic, with the differences between the way research and policymaking operate leaving a gulf between the two communities. The past ten years have seen lots of activities trying to bridge that gap: helping the two groups to get to know one another and understand their respective norms, expectations and pressures, and improving communications through the use of ‘translators’ for instance. 

But is it as simple as improving the way we communicate or are there other, more complicated factors at play? This was the question that the UK’s Environment Agency asked Think-Lab, in partnership with LTS International and the Swedish Environment Institute, to explore

Case studies

Taking recent examples of interactions between scientists and policymakers from across Europe (including climate change and nanotechnology) we interviewed the key players and reviewed the published evidence. 

The series of case studies that we produced told the story of how the science was communicated to policy makers in each instance, documented the external factors at play and asked what those involved felt had been the most important aspects of the process. 

Translators’ roles

For instance, in keeping with previous research, the case studies supported the argument that translators or intermediaries are important.  But we found that their role wasn’t restricted to simply translating the science. They were often used to help the scientists and the policymakers make sense of the research findings for the given policy situation.  As a policymaker at the Department for Food, Environment and Rural Affairs put it: ‘We didn’t want the “science message”; we wanted policy messages derived from science.’

We also detected an additional intermediary role – that of advocate. These individuals or organisations who championed a particular perspective helped put an issue on the policy agenda and helped scientific evidence compete with other, less challenging evidence.  For instance, in the case of climate change, non-governmental organisations have helped bring scientific data to life, to demonstrate support for action based upon this data, and to create the political space for policy making. 

Structures needed

But getting the communications right is only part of the story. First and foremost, the structures to make policy in a particular area must be in place. For instance, although there was growing scientific evidence to support tuna fishing quotas in the Mediterranean, not all countries affected have policymakers with relevant remits so the research evidence has nowhere to go. 

Similarly, new and emerging areas of research, such as synthetic biology, might be on the policy radar but might not yet be the responsibility of any specific policymaker.

Early cooperation best

Perhaps most importantly, we found that the most successful case studies moved beyond the ‘end of pipe’ model, whereby the researchers produce findings that are then fed to the policymakers (with or without an intermediary).  Instead, the good-practice model is one of dialogue and co-production, with policymakers in contact with the researchers at an early stage to help shape the research commissioning process, maintaining contact throughout and developing a shared understanding over time. 

This can be driven by the enlightened motivation of certain policymakers, but we found that the most impressive examples were those where there were institutional structures in place to ensure this collaboration happened.  For instance, Sweden’s MISTRA programme, which supports environmental research, has an institutional structure that ensures research is conducted in partnership with the policymakers who might use the findings. This includes giving policymakers dominance in funding decision boards. 

As well as improving the relationship between scientists and policymakers, the case studies showed that by allowing policy to anticipate and be shaped by the latest and even nascent findings, this model enables better policymaking.

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Melanie Smallman
Melanie Smallman is Director of Think-Lab
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