Communicating water science to policymakers: are we missing the point?

A recent article from The Guardian Higher Education Network blog entitled “How academics can engage with policy: 10 tips for a better conversation” provided ideas to help scholars better convey research to policymakers. It explained appropriate times for sharing academic information, how to communicate with policy officials, and how to create relationships with policymakers. This article exemplifies the dominant science and policy discourse of the day – scientists have a hard time communicating their research to policymakers who need this information to make important decisions. At least this was the prevailing conversation while I was completing my master’s degree in Water Resources Policy and Management in 2010. During that time, we learned how to write policy briefs and white papers to convey scientific information to appointed representatives, and we were trained in multidisciplinary collaboration. Being graduate students interested in water, these goals seemed natural as policymakers managed water resources and water had no physical or disciplinary boundaries. But were we as budding water managers and scientists missing the point?

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Above Photo: United States Government Work on flickr

Recent scholarship from a new field of studies called Science, Technology, and Society (sometimes called Science and Technology Studies or STS for short) might claim we were. STS scholars advanced a concept called co-production with various definitions revolving around how science and technology knowledge are co-produced in a societal setting. Sheila Jasanoff from Harvard described, as stated by Eva Lövbrand in “Pure Science or Policy Involvement“, co-production as “a dynamic process by which science and society continually shape, constitute, and validate one another”. Mike Hulme further delineated Jasanoff’s perspective in “What Sorts of Knowledge for what sort of politics?” saying she would argue for “deliberation and participation across all relevant questions”. Charis Thompson from UC Berkeley said co-production processes for science and technology knowledge creation in society occur through “developments around representation, identity, discourse, and institutions”.

So what does this mean for the lay person trying to understand the creation of water science knowledge in society? It means there is always societal influence on knowledge rooted in science and policy. Or in simpler terms, science is never fully insulated from policy. And societal influence can be varied depending on the type of science conducted. Lövbrand defined science as falling under three categories: basic science subjected to peer review, applied science to meet the needs of industry or government, and regulatory science with the primary audience of the government. Of course, boundaries between these science types are often blurred. But even the most pure form of basic science challenged to rigorous peer review processes can be driven by funding from a governmental entity or by prominent ideas of a certain time, and regulatory science – becoming more common in the 21st century as states are required to engage in risk analysis – requires scientists and politicians to rely on values and high levels of uncertainty.

And while these truths about science and policy seem self-evident, the prominent discourse of the day is still that science is conducted objectively with little societal influence, and it is the responsibility of objective scientists to better communicate their results to policymakers. As stated by some STS scholars like Mike Hulme, it seems the right questions for scientists, policymakers, and society should be the following. How is science knowledge created and whose knowledge is being represented? Are we valuing science knowledge that society wants to value or are we valuing information that a small subset thinks is valuable? Lövbrand tells us co-production gives us tools to answer these questions by creating a space to review “science and policy, facts and values, knowledge and power”. But the challenge, as Jasanoff might say, is re-articulating the societal framework for decision-making. She states: “With science more and more being produced in the service of social ends, the possibility of bias is far more evident, and the grounds of expert authority in greater need of re-articulation”. Here she is talking about challenging or re-forming the roles of science, experts, and committees in formal democracies. Water managers and scientists might question how this insight be applied to water science and policy-making endeavors. For many decision-making processes already use multiple-stakeholder input to come up with management plans (e.g. the Klamath Basin in Southern Oregon and Northern California.) But even these collaborative scenarios are focused more on decision-making and less on collaborative creation of science. Perhaps it is time to step back from the discourse calling for scientists to better inform policy-makers about their work, realize that science already represents varying values in society, and ask whose values are represented.

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