How can scientific research be more effectively integrated into public policy making?

By Rita P. Maguire

President and CEO, ThinkAZ,

Former Director, Arizona Department of Water Resources

INTRODUCTION

If we agree that the issues involving water management are becoming increasingly complex, then it makes sense that more information, particularly accurate, thorough and objective information, will result in better decision-making. A question frequently asked in the scientific community is how can scientific knowledge more effectively be used to inform public policy and private sector decisions in water management?


It is clear that many of the research tools developed in academia are not fully utilized by policy-makers and water managers alike. There are at least three reasons for this: 1) the scientists who have developed them do not fully appreciate the institutional, economic and cultural constraints within which policy-makers operate; 2) policy-makers frequently are not aware that relevant scientific research is available to them; and, 3) there is a disconnect between the timeframes within which scientists/researchers and policy-makers operate.


Recently, there has been a concerted effort by universities to foster stronger relationships between the academic and public policy arenas. In Arizona, several programs have been initiated by the three state universities to actively seek input from natural resources managers in the “real world” as they develop their academic research agendas.1

Understanding the institutional, economic and cultural circumstances within which policy-makers develop and implement solutions.

The professional environments of scientists and policy-makers are very different. Most scientific research takes place within an academic environment where success is measured by the novelty of the research, its validity and acceptance by fellow academics. In contrast, political success is measured by election or appointment to office which requires policy-makers to answer to a variety of interest groups including stakeholders, constituents, the media, elected officials and the general public. Consequently, scientists and policy-makers are guided by different types of information. Figure 1 illustrates some of the key differences.

1

ASU’s International Institute for Sustainability funded by a National Science Foundation grant; Governor Napolitano recently proposed a “Virtual Water University” supported by research efforts at ASU, U of A and NAU; the newly opened Decision Theatre at ASU which will provide three dimensional analysis of urban growth issues.



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Agricultural Water Management: Proceedings of a Workshop in Tunisia How can scientific research be more effectively integrated into public policy making? By Rita P. Maguire President and CEO, ThinkAZ, Former Director, Arizona Department of Water Resources INTRODUCTION If we agree that the issues involving water management are becoming increasingly complex, then it makes sense that more information, particularly accurate, thorough and objective information, will result in better decision-making. A question frequently asked in the scientific community is how can scientific knowledge more effectively be used to inform public policy and private sector decisions in water management? It is clear that many of the research tools developed in academia are not fully utilized by policy-makers and water managers alike. There are at least three reasons for this: 1) the scientists who have developed them do not fully appreciate the institutional, economic and cultural constraints within which policy-makers operate; 2) policy-makers frequently are not aware that relevant scientific research is available to them; and, 3) there is a disconnect between the timeframes within which scientists/researchers and policy-makers operate. Recently, there has been a concerted effort by universities to foster stronger relationships between the academic and public policy arenas. In Arizona, several programs have been initiated by the three state universities to actively seek input from natural resources managers in the “real world” as they develop their academic research agendas.1 Understanding the institutional, economic and cultural circumstances within which policy-makers develop and implement solutions. The professional environments of scientists and policy-makers are very different. Most scientific research takes place within an academic environment where success is measured by the novelty of the research, its validity and acceptance by fellow academics. In contrast, political success is measured by election or appointment to office which requires policy-makers to answer to a variety of interest groups including stakeholders, constituents, the media, elected officials and the general public. Consequently, scientists and policy-makers are guided by different types of information. Figure 1 illustrates some of the key differences. 1 ASU’s International Institute for Sustainability funded by a National Science Foundation grant; Governor Napolitano recently proposed a “Virtual Water University” supported by research efforts at ASU, U of A and NAU; the newly opened Decision Theatre at ASU which will provide three dimensional analysis of urban growth issues.

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Agricultural Water Management: Proceedings of a Workshop in Tunisia Scientists Policy-Makers 1. Objective facts 1. Subjective Values 2. Proof 2. Beliefs 3. Rational 3. Emotional 4. Measurements 4. Perceptions 5. Incremental Progress 5. Deadlines and Crises FIGURE 1 Key Differences in Guidance between Policy Makers and Scientists. Bernabo, 1995. While scientists must judge the quality of their research by its technical strengths, policy-makers must also consider the social acceptability and financial feasibility of a proposed solution to a problem. As a result, scientists can be frustrated when what appears to be the “correct” answer based on scientific values is overlooked for a more politically acceptable solution. Furthermore, scientific development of useful products and services for water managers requires an understanding of the context in which the products and services will be used. A scientist, whose view is strongly influenced by the boundaries of his own experience, will fail to appreciate the practical needs of a water manager doing business in the “real” world. This disconnect results in a research product that is not useful, and therefore not used, by the water manager. Most policy-makers, water managers included, operate within a “decision space.” This is the range of realistic options available to a policy-maker or manager to resolve a particular problem. John Letey, Director of the Center for Water Resources at University of California – Riverside sums it up best, “Effective policies must be scientifically valid, economically viable, and socially acceptable” (Letey, 1999). Among their considerations is whether they have the legal authority to initiate a particular action and whether there is sufficient funding to finance the solution to the problem. In addition, water managers in the western United States must develop consensus among all the interested parties before taking any action or risk their actions being challenged in court. Most policy-makers and water managers operate within a highly complex environment constrained by numerous external factors. A successful scientific solution will need to take into consideration each of these external factors. In order for information to be accepted by a policy-maker and his constituents, it must be credible. Fortunately, good scientific information requires thorough research and documentation which is consistent with the need for credibility. They will want to know who developed the information, why was it developed, did the funder of the research have a particular outcome in mind, and does any contrary research information exist? It is also important for scientists to think about how accurate and credible the information being produced is compared to how accurate the policy-maker needs it to be in order to be useful. In the context of the type of information produced, how much risk and uncertainty is acceptable to practitioners? Do policy-makers in this area agree on the levels of risk that are acceptable? And finally, the information must be better than the information available from other sources. It is important for academic researchers to be aware that they are in competition for a decision-

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Agricultural Water Management: Proceedings of a Workshop in Tunisia maker’s attention. Advocates on either side of an issue will be vying for their attention and ultimately, support. Thus, the information must directly and concisely address the decision-maker’s questions. It must also be available to the decision-maker when he or she wants it; this may require a researcher to be flexible with his/her time and availability. Communication and collaboration are the keys to successful relationships “There are multiple facets to communication, some of which require common sense while others require concerted efforts to overcome barriers caused by different training and context”2. Often the biggest barrier to interaction between scientists and policy-makers is the lack of awareness of one another’s existence. For example, despite the fact that significant research programs devoted to natural resource management exist at nearby universities, members of the Arizona Legislature rarely call upon them for advice. Legislation is introduced, committee hearings are scheduled and votes are taken, all with little or no input from the local scientific community. Why does this happen? Many user groups, including legislators and government agency heads, either have no contact with universities or may not encourage researchers and academics to participate in or observe the decision-making process. In the international context there are numerous protocol and political considerations that affect the willingness to cooperate. However, universities can be excellent locations for developing new ideas and applications. Some successful examples of government and university collaborations include: Watershed councils and other local planning groups. Recently developed, watershed councils are focused on resolving environmental conflicts while improving land and water management. In California, for example, regional watershed councils have been established to address non-point source pollution from irrigated agricultural lands, identified as one of the nation’s top water pollution problems (The Water Education Foundation, 2005). These councils can provide an early opportunity for scientists to engage stakeholders and decision-makers as solutions are considered. Expanding the types of research conducted by scientists to address the needs of local and state governments should be considered. Including policy-makers and other practitioners early in the design phase of research assures that the research is relevant to their particular concerns. Partnerships between government agencies, non-government organizations, academia, and stakeholders can be extremely fruitful. Through collaborative efforts by these groups, new relationships are established which can then become the standard approach to future problem solving. An example in the Lower Colorado Basin was the creation and implementation of the Multi-Species Habitat Conservation Plan. The federal government and the three Lower Basin states (Arizona, California, and Nevada) actively 2 “Connecting Science, Policy, and Decision-making: A handbook for Researchers and Science Agencies” by Katharine Jacobs, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, 2001-2002 p 11.

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Agricultural Water Management: Proceedings of a Workshop in Tunisia engaged a broad range of scientists for nearly a decade to assist in the development of restoration projects in riparian, marsh and backwater habitats for 26 species of fish, birds, mammals and plants along the Colorado River from Hoover Dam to the Mexican border. The Internet is playing an increasingly important role in the dissemination of information. Designing scientific websites in consultation with potential users of the information can improve its utilization. Focusing on the kinds of information a policy-maker is interested in and describing how the data were developed, how it was intended to be used, and the current state of the science also improves its chances of utilization. Arizona State University, the second largest university in the U.S., based on student enrollment, has recently established the International Institute for Sustainability (IIS). It is a collaborative enterprise between scientists and users of scientific information specifically intended to bridge the gap between university-based research and public policy. The IIS brings together life, earth, and social scientists, engineers, and government and industry leaders to share knowledge and develop practical solutions to the environmental, economic, and social challenges of sustainable development in urban areas. Unfortunately, policy-makers and water managers are not just looking for technical information; they are often looking for advice, which is inconsistent with the role of scientists. A scientist’s desire to be precise about what they know and more importantly, what they do not know, conflicts with the need for a policy-maker or water manager to make a decision. Policy-makers are interested in developing the best solution under the circumstances. They need to reach conclusions even when inadequate information is available, or there is conflicting information. This may mean that the loudest voice or the person with the greatest access may influence the outcome even though it is not the technically correct choice. It is incumbent upon the scientist to find ways to meet the needs of the policy-maker and water manager, not the other way around. Longer-term forums like those listed above that provide opportunities for scientists and practitioners to interact can provide opportunities for the facts to be heard and fairly considered. Appreciating the time constraints on policy-makers will improve the utility of scientific research. The utility of information for policy-makers and water managers is directly related to the relevancy of the information and its timeliness. A frequently cited problem concerning the use of scientific research is that the information is not available when needed. Failure to provide information when it is needed may result in the information losing virtually all of its value to the decision-maker. Policy-makers often operate in a world of crisis management. The crisis of the day, that is, the problem that demands an immediate response, gets their attention. When this occurs, a policy-maker will reach out to persons that are both knowledgeable about the crisis and are immediately

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Agricultural Water Management: Proceedings of a Workshop in Tunisia available. Rarely does a scientist meet both criteria. He or she has other demands on their time and cannot afford to be “waiting in the wings” for the next crisis that demands their skill set. It may be more practical for a scientist to establish an on-going relationship with the committee staff or assistants of a decision-maker. There are a couple of reasons for this. First, the staff person will likely be made aware of the policy-maker’s need for information to address a particular issue relevant to the scientist’s expertise. Second, the staff person is more likely to have the time to meet with the scientist when the issue isn’t acute but may become an issue in the future. CONCLUSION There are many opportunities to improve the utility of scientific research through developing new kinds of relationships with decision-makers. The key is developing an appreciation of the constraints and opportunities associated with working in the context of the “real” world, and establishing two-way flows of information with true engagement of decision-makers at one end of the flow, and the researchers at the other end. Expanded use of intermediaries and translators can enhance the flow of information where scientists and/or agencies do not engage directly with decision-makers. Additional suggestions for increased integration of science and decision-making include: developing and documenting cooperative demonstration projects facilitating long-term relationships and trust between scientists and decision-makers and their staff having people representing different backgrounds and perspectives in the same room when developing short and long-term research agendas These efforts are important and necessary, and require both financial and institutional support. Evaluation of ways to improve the utility and communication of scientific research is itself a legitimate research objective that will significantly enhance the societal benefits of investments in science. An expanded focus on applied and adaptive scientific research is likely to result in increased interaction with policy-makers and water managers.

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Agricultural Water Management: Proceedings of a Workshop in Tunisia References Bernabo, J. Christopher. 1995. Communication Among Scientists, Decision Makers and Society: Developing Policy-Relevant Global Climate Change Research. In Climate Change Research: Evaluation and Policy Implications, S. Awerver, R.S.A. van Rompaey, N.T. J. Kok, and M. M. Berk, eds. Elsevier Science B.V., pp. 103-117. Jacobs, Katharine. 2001-2002. “Connecting Science, Policy, and Decision-making: A handbook for Researchers and Science Agencies” National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Letey, Dr. John., Director, University of California – Riverside, Center for Water Resources, “Science and Policy in Integrated Watershed Management: A Case Study,” Vol. 35, No. 3, p. 603, June, 1999. The Water Education Foundation, “The Runoff Rundown” Spring 2005.