Is Anyone Listening: Advancing the Science-Policy Interface in Global Change

Geoff Dabelko gives the keynote speech at the annual meeting of IHDP's Science Committee in Bonn, Germany1

Mar 22, 2005

It is a privilege to be asked to say a few words to this august group of people on World Water Day, on the topic of the science-practice interface, and to ask, "Is anyone listening?"2

It is also perhaps a little ironic for me to make the case for science taking the science-policy interface more seriously.

As an American based in Washington, I am coming from the town where, for example, if the current administration does not like the scientific findings on climate change, it just deletes the section from the report, as happened to an EPA assessment last year.

But I would say that the politicization or selective use of science reinforces my point, rather than undercuts it. We have been operating for too long on the premise, "Build it, and they will come."

Do good science, and good science, through the weight of its authority, will drive policy and practice. Policymakers will be convinced by the clarity of linkages, or the costs of inaction, and do the right thing.


This quaint view of the politics of science—if ever true—is certainly not true today.
The Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars is a nonpartisan, non-advocacy institution that tries, in a very practical way, to bridge the worlds of scholarship and policy through meetings, publications, and research.

Striving to bridge the science-policy gap has taught me that reaching policymakers means speaking their language. Doing so requires taking into account not only their vocabulary and their attention spans, but also pinpointing where they direct that attention. We in the research community cannot answer the question, "Is anyone listening?" until we make sure they can understand us in the first place.

The lessons I've learned from 10 years of hosting meetings and facilitating dialogue on global change and international environmental politics in Washington are just that—lessons for Washington. By no means are these suggestions suitable for all arenas. And what works in Washington may not work in the rest of the world. But I believe plenty of lessons are common to most settings, and I will propose some of them here.

So is anyone listening? I think the assumption, as illustrated by the fact that we usually refer to this topic as the science-to-policy interface, is that science is speaking, and policy is not listening. But we must also ask, "Is anyone in the scientific community listening to the practitioner community?"

This science-practice interface is, in fact, a two-way street, just like any good relationship. We need much more listening and much more speaking in the same language.

And as a number of us discussed in great detail at a recent International Human Dimensions of Global Environmental Change Programme (IHDP) workshop conducted by the International Institute for Sustainability at Arizona State University, communication is just part of the science-policy interface—an important part, but the science-policy interaction must be a much more comprehensive consultation with practice communities throughout the process of research design, conduction, review, and presentation. It starts with listening, not talking.

So, in this way, I believe we are talking about the science-practice interface in at least three related ways.

First, we should communicate science in the realm of practice, all along the research process, in the hopes that the results will be understood and put to use by practitioners in government, civil society stakeholder groups, international organizations, media, and the private sector.

And second, scientists should regularly consult with practitioners throughout the research process in order to improve the quality of their research, make learning a two-way street between these communities, and avoid missing key data points or key contextual points. Identifying our starting points, as well as stimulating and pressing questions, is something we must do together.

And third, as Kate Brown, Coleen Vogel, and John Ingram reminded us in our meetings this week, we should systematically study the science-policy interface process, which is a dynamic we must understand not only as scientists, but also as potential communicators and participants in that process.

I suggest lessons that I have learned—many times the hard way–in an attempt to "lower the transaction costs" for scientists. This phrase, "lower the transaction costs," was used by Oran Young (at the University of California, Santa Barbara) when IHDP examined its own record on the science-policy interface. I hope to offer a few ways we at IHDP and we in the scientific community can lower the costs for scientists who want to bring their work to the practitioner realm. I think IHDP can play a key role in facilitating these activities and building capacity among scientists.

An information glut is flooding everyone who can influence public policy. The competition for eyes and ears is stiffer than ever. And many academics who are reluctant to stray beyond the narrow bands of disciplinary journals take that competition as confirmation that we should let policymakers find us, not the other way around.

In many cases and for many issues of the moment, however, such withdrawal is a critical mistake. Communicating directly with policymakers is not for all academics. It is genuinely exasperating to be misquoted or to read nuanced and well-sourced scholarship that has been oversimplified and abused. It is a time-consuming process for scientists with few—if any—disciplinary incentives for engagement; more likely, there are professional penalties.

But if scientists don't engage in policy discussions and make our work more widely available, then we lose the ability to complain about policy decisions. And we miss genuine opportunities to share our insights.

And a range of so-called "experts," whether from industry or advocacy, will engage whether we do or not. So scientists such as those within the IHDP family need to be part of these policy debates. Otherwise we cede the ground, I think, needlessly.

Policymakers shop in a marketplace of ideas. Many of these ideas are bad ones, backed by skewed evidence, or perhaps no evidence at all. But we are not likely to supplant those bad ideas unless we bring our research to the same marketplace in a problem-solving, policy-friendly package.

Scholars must be ready when current events provide a window of opportunity to meet a time-sensitive policy need with the results of their research. This matchmaking requires having a well-prepared answer when a policymaker calls. More likely (because they don't often phone), scholars must take their ideas directly to the policymaker, via a newspaper op-ed or policy briefing that offers suggestions at an opportune moment.

It need not be a long treatise. For example, the policy world picked up on the idea of debt-for-nature swaps in biodiversity-rich countries from a New York Times editorial—only a few paragraphs long–written by biologist Tom Lovejoy.

Being part of agenda-setting is a longer-term strategy. Bringing attention to a neglected issue is an incremental process that requires convincing policymakers that a nasty surprise awaits them if they do not take action now. The positive approach—highlighting opportunities that are about to slip away—can also work.

However, some sort of crisis usually brings a long-term issue to the forefront; in this situation, scholars can combine strategies by helping policymakers respond to the immediate problem while locking in greater attention to the long-term issues. A rash of forest fires could lead to column inches on long-term forestry policy. Floods, droughts, and high temperatures have reminded European politicians to focus on the state of climate science. And spiking energy prices provide a platform for critiques of consumption and inefficiency.

As painful as it may be to all of us, form can at times be just as important as substance. Policymakers want presentations that focus on a single problem and are expressed in short, crisp forms absolutely free of jargon. And a description of our research—or of the problems or conditions it explores —is not enough: they want to know what the problem is, what has been tried, what has worked, and what they should do differently. We are not going to be able to provide all those answers all the time. Nor is that our role. However, I think more partnerships between the natural and social sciences could produce research that goes farther than much of our work today. But at the end of the day, it is important to remember that policymakers are fighting the tyranny of their inboxes, and we can help them clear them.

In order to do this, we must understand the priorities, processes, personalities, and interests of our targeted policy audiences. We must be students of these processes as well as students of our own global change topics.

And this must be more than just social scientists, more than just political scientists like me. It must be natural scientists as well. This engagement should serve as the antidote to the unrealistic thinking that if we do good science, the policymakers will understand it and act on it. Unless we know how the policy process works, we can't be surprised when science is not integrated into policy.

And government recognizes this. The sixth research framework program of the European Commission now recommends improving management capacities of scientific consortiums and networks of excellence. When the budget is 10 million euros, and tens of projects are carried out by many teams of researchers, we need to have external managers and communication specialists, not just scientists doing double duty as managers, to manage and communicate the results, and make them relevant to current policy issues.

I'm told there is a good example of this here in Germany, the German Advisory Council on Global Change (WBGU). This high-level scientific body hired a natural scientist who is also a skilled communicator to head a communications office and represent the council at international conferences, set up exhibitions, prepare briefing papers, and provide short versions of more scientific assessments, in both English and German.

The format and placement of our messages—through op-eds, policy journals, fact sheets, press releases, policy briefs, and collaborations with knowledge-broker or bridging institutions—are also part of speaking the policymakers' language. Writing in short, and, by definition, superficial formats is often viewed by academics as impossible, or at least disingenuous, in its lack of nuance.

But my argument is not to stop writing peer-reviewed articles and become a newspaper columnist. Well-researched and analytically rigorous work—published in refereed journals and books—must stand behind these short-form products.

Consulting with the potential consumers of your research early and often will improve its quality by offering the opportunity to "ground-test" theories, revealing new data, and placing specific research questions in larger social contexts. Such consultations, partly by establishing relationships of trust among competing information sources, will also increase the likelihood that our analysis will be taken seriously by a wider set of end users.

I'm talking about what we might call the Kasperson model, or the Stockholm Environment Institute (SEI) model, of research. Roger Kasperson, who is well known to us as part of the IHDP family, values stakeholder involvement in consultation and research design. Under his leadership, SEI involved local researchers in the projects and design, and made policy consultation part of those projects from the beginning. Often, governments funded this work and were closely consulted by those conducting the research, which was sometimes prepared for government end-users like the Swedish SIDA.

Just as these consultations can improve research, failure to consult can undercut it. We are in danger of missing critical variables in our investigation if we fail to consult with the wider practitioner community. At our recent IHDP meeting in Arizona, Coleen Vogel told us about numerous investigations of vulnerability in southern Africa, initiated outside the region, that prematurely narrowed their focus to climate vulnerability, while missing key vulnerability considerations such as poverty, globalization, and AIDS. I was pleased to learn today that IHDP's Southern Africa Vulnerability Initiative (SAVI, a project of the Global Environmental Change and Security Project) is, by design, not making this mistake.

A Word About Plugging Into Political Processes

I maintain that it is critical to link science to intergovernmental processes in order to expect science to be used by practice communities. Science, including IHDP, needs continually evolving strategies for linking their work to these processes. One can't link to them all, nor would one want to.

Unless the global environmental change under discussion is health or ozone, for which the links are very clear, science isn't going to play a prominent role in driving the process. Scientists must actively engage ongoing processes such as the Millennium Development Goals, the UNEP Governing Council meetings, the Commission on Sustainable Development, and the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.

Plugging into ongoing practitioner processes means scientists must talk to two groups with whom they don't talk enough. One such group consists of knowledge brokers and their mediating institutions, which serve as bridges between science and policy. In the United States, this could be any of the Washington think tanks, AAAS, National Academy of Sciences, Aspen Institute, or the Wilson Center, etc. Partnering with people at these institutions who have extensive experience in bridging science and practice can provide a very workable two-step process for scientists bringing their work into the policy realm.

Secondly, scientists must talk more often to policy practitioners who aren't direct counterparts. In addition to talking with colleagues in the ministries of education, technology, science, or environment, we must also network with officials in ministries of treasury and finance, foreign affairs and state, as well as trade. In the United States, for example, it is not enough to talk with the Environmental Protection Agency or the National Science Foundation about issues of global change. The State Department has the authority, and is often the only agency in the room during international negotiations on these issues.

Even within the State Department, there are multiple audiences. The Kyoto negotiating team under the Clinton administration, for example, was led by the Under Secretary of State, Stu Eizenstat, rather than Tim Wirth, the under secretary for global issues and environment.

To tie research to practice, we must better understand policy processes, and expand our target audiences in the practice community. We commonly focus on national governments or international organizations, but, of course, these are not always the dynamic actors on an issue. If, for example, you are interested in climate change in the United States, these are frustrating times in terms of federal policy.

Yet there are at least three critical audiences in the United States that are actively engaged in climate politics and want to know about the latest scientific developments in climate science. They are likely to be key players in improving understanding and pushing action at the national level.

The first audience, not surprisingly, is the private sector. There have been some signs of progress with the coalition assembled by the Pew Center on Global Climate Change. The second audience includes lower levels of government, such as the U.S. state level, where innovative climate policies have been proposed by policymakers like New York's Governor Pataki, Massachusetts' Governor Romney, and, of course, California's Governor Schwarzenegger. Many U.S. environmental laws have come to pass in such a way, often starting in California, which if it was a country would have the sixth largest economy in the world.

Finally, religious leaders comprise a critical audience for climate politics. Growing movements, even among the evangelicals, are taking the Bush administration to task for its current climate policy. We need to be sure that the science is available to stand behind the bumper sticker, "What Would Jesus Drive?"

So these are some "policy audiences" for climate change science that may be more effective engines for pushing policy forward. Though we don't traditionally focus on them, they may be a more receptive audience. So, in some ways, I am asking us to give equal time to other religions.

Scientific participation in policy institutions provides opportunities for scientists to learn how practice works from the inside. And such exchanges can have real impacts on policy.

The German government's leadership position in the area of environment, conflict, and cooperation stems in no small measure from a paper and research project by political scientist Gunther Baechler at the Swiss Peace Foundation . A young scientist working with Gunther took these research results with him when he joined the German Ministry of Environment , where he encouraged department head Kurt Lietzmann to focus on issues of environmental security, stimulating a range of programs for the last 10 years. And later, Gunther Baechler himself joined the Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation (SDC), as head of unit, where he helped fund these types of programs and shape the funding agenda.

In the United States, the AAAS Fellows Program places scientists in government. For example, the State Department's point person on international water issues, Aaron Salzberg, is a natural scientist who decided to stay in government and master international negotiation as well.

But short of joining a practice community for a time, scientists commonly neglect the power of visiting policy centers, such as Washington or New York, or Berlin or Bonn, to present research findings and collaborate with local institutions. Others come, but do not bother to engage the policy community. When asked whether she was meeting with policymakers during her stay in D.C., one scholar visiting a colleague of mine replied condescendingly, "No, they wouldn't understand my model anyway."

Meetings attended by a broad cross-section of bureaucrats, journalists, scholars, and NGO officials provide a perfect opportunity for academics to integrate the fruits of their research into policy discussions and to initiate relationships with policymakers. In this way, we must bring the mountain to Mohammed.

And we should feel challenged, not insulted, when we are allotted only a few minutes at the microphone, such as during a briefing for policy principals. I recently had a grand total of four minutes to brief a senior policymaker. But I found weighing every word a remarkably empowering and encouraging process—and I learned just how much I could actually say in four minutes. It encourages you to cut out the fat in the presentation and focus on the heart of the matter.

Speaking of dinner and cutting extra verbiage out of one's speech, I will end by saying that actively working in the science-policy interface is not for everyone. This is important, but just because communicating with policymakers isn't for everyone, it doesn't mean it shouldn't be for anyone.

We need to change the academy's penalties—written and unwritten—for participating in dialogue with the practice community. We must stop penalizing colleagues by assigning demerits in tenure processes and disparaging their reputations for diversifying their portfolios in this way.

We need to expand our funding sources for research on the human dimensions of global environmental change. We might make it much more difficult to expand the pool of funding sources, however, if we don't take steps to make research results accessible, tie them to current policy questions, or place them within larger social contexts. Fewer and fewer funding institutions, particularly within the social sciences, are willing to hand over money and say, "We trust you to do the right thing."

We can improve our work by consulting the practice communities early and often. We must better understand those policy processes, and those policymakers, to achieve a fair hearing for our work.

And to answer the original question, "Is anyone listening?": I think the answer is still yes, despite many setbacks. But we must make sure we are speaking the same language.

1Portions of this speech were drawn from the article "Speaking Their Language: How to Communicate Better with Policymakers and Opinion Shapers—And Why Academics Should Bother in the First Place," forthcoming in International Environmental Agreements: Politics, Law and Economics.

2The title of this speech is taken from the roundtable discussion "Is Anybody Listening?" chaired by Paul Steinberg at the 2004 International Studies Association meeting in Montreal.


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