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

collaboration, community, united states

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 discourse of the day; scientists have a hard time communicating their research to policymakers who need information to make important decisions.

This was certainly the prevailing idea when I was completing my master’s degree in Water Resources Policy and Management in 2010. We learned how to write policy briefs and white papers to convey scientific information to appointed representatives, and we were trained in multidisciplinary collaboration. These goals seemed natural as policymakers managed water resources, and water had no physical or disciplinary boundaries. But were we as budding water managers missing the point?

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Above Photo: United States Government Work on flickr

Recent scholarship from the field of Science, Technology, and Society (STS) might claim we were. STS scholars advanced a concept called co-production. Co-production generally refers to how science and technology knowledge are co-produced in society. Sheila Jasanoff from Harvard described co-production as “a dynamic process by which science and society continually shape, constitute, and validate one another.” Mike Hulme further said she would argue for “deliberation and participation across all relevant questions.” Charis Thompson from UC Berkeley said co-production occurs through “developments around representation, identity, discourse, and institutions.”

What does this mean for the average person trying to understand the creation of water science in society? It means there is always societal influence on science, and this influence can be varied. Lövbrand defined science under three categories:

  1. basic science subjected to peer review,
  2. applied science to meet the needs of industry or government, and
  3. regulatory science with the primary audience of the government.

Boundaries between these types of science are often blurred. Even basic science with peer review can be driven by funding from a governmental entity, or regulatory science requires scientists and politicians to rely on values. Yet the prominent discourse is still that science is conducted objectively with little societal influence, and objective scientists need to better communicate their results to policymakers.

Instead of pressuring scientists to better communicate their results to policymakers, STS scholars like Mike Hulme believe we should be focusing on other questions.

  • How is science knowledge created?
  • Whose knowledge is being represented?
  • Are we valuing science knowledge that society wants to value?
  • 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.” The challenge is, however, re-articulating the societal framework for decision-making. Jasanoff says “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.” She is talking about challenging or re-forming the roles of science, experts, and committees in formal democracies.

Water managers might ask how this insight be applied to water science and policy-making endeavors. There are already many collaborative management processes being used by governmental officials (for example, the Klamath Basin in Southern Oregon and Northern California), but these scenarios are focused more on decision-making and less on science. It could be time to step back from the discourse of calling for scientists to better inform policy-makers about their work, and realize that science already represents varying values in society. Perhaps we should ask whose values are represented?

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