Navigating the science-law interface: opportunities and challenges

Moore JW, Nowlan L, Olszynski M, Jacob AL, Favaro B, Collins L, Williams-Davidson GLT-L, and Weitz J. 2018. Towards linking environmental law and science. FACETS 3: 375–391. doi:10.1139/facets-2017-0106

 

Lately, there has been a renewed focus on the need to consider the real-world applications of scientific research and how best to transfer this knowledge to decision makers. A leading journal in the environmental science field even dedicated an entire special issue on translational ecology recently (https://esajournals.onlinelibrary.wiley.com/toc/15409309/15/10). However, incorporating research knowledge into decision making processes remains a challenge. In this paper, Moore et al. (2018) discuss the opportunities and challenges associated with addressing the science-law interface and offer helpful insights to those attempting this endeavor, especially external scientists not directly involved in government.

Figure 1. Simplified conceptual diagram of the policy cycle (image credit: Government of Canada)

Opportunities

Scientists can utilize several opportunities available to them to increase the relevance and applicability of their research in environmental decision making. Co-developing research programs with interdisciplinary, diverse collaborators (e.g., government agencies, Indigenous peoples) will help identify data gaps that need to be filled, ensure the usability of results, and present effective ways of engaging at opportune moments in the policy cycle (Figure 1). Another very effective method is carefully crafted opinion editorials (op-eds) in leading newspapers, which can help draw attention to research that is relevant to decision makers, and facilitate greater coverage of the issue by reaching a broader audience. Additionally, open letters with signatures from a large number of experts can be used to demonstrate scientific consensus on a particular issue. Independent monitoring programs conducted by non-governmental scientists can help shed light on what management objectives have been realized, and differences between desired management outcomes and realized outcomes. However, effective communication of monitoring program results is needed to raise awareness of the availability of this empirical evidence, how it can be used to assess the effectiveness of management interventions, and conduct more outreach to the community. While scientists are typically more engaged during the policy ‘windows’ created in for example, the analysis and assessment stages of the policy cycle (Stage 2 and 6 in Figure 1), it is possible to engage across the cycle. But scientists should be aware that this requires long-term efforts to develop effective (interdisciplinary) collaborations, continued communication, and follow-ups even when initial engagement efforts are unsuccessful.

Challenges

Unfortunately, scientists attempting to engage across the policy cycle are likely to face several challenges. Typically, environmental decision making and scientific research occur on dramatically different time frames. In research, the process from question formulation to data collection to data analysis to peer-review can often take several years, while legislated time limits in the regulatory process can occur much faster, especially in the event of a crisis. While scientific training focuses on the need to communicate uncertainty, the regulatory process requires a clear understanding of certainty. Therefore, when communicating with decision makers scientists should be cognizant of the need to focus on what is known rather than what is not. Multijurisdictional environments such as Canada and the United States further complicate matters for scientists. In Canada, both Federal and Provincial (includes Municipal) governments have jurisdiction over aquatic resources, potentially creating conflicts between the different levels of government based on regulatory priorities. In the United States, recent efforts by the EPA to roll back Obama-era emissions standards have created conflicts between the Federal and State (e.g., California) governments. Additionally, some scientists may be concerned about being perceived as advocates of particular solutions when attempting to engage with decision makers, risking their professional reputation and objectivity may be too much of an ask.

Overall, many of these challenges can be successfully addressed by having an interdisciplinary collaborative environment, where at least one team-member is able to anticipate engagement opportunities, understand what level of government has jurisdiction over the issue in question, and can translate/transfer knowledge on behalf of the researcher (if the scientist is concerned about objectivity).

Takeaways

The authors offer several solutions for successfully overcoming the challenges associated with linking science and environmental law, and highlight the need for impactful communication and interdisciplinary training. Anticipating engagement opportunities with the policy cycle will help scientists prepare their data and narratives in a timely manner. This will require collaborators with experience in ‘horizon scanning’ exercises that help identify impending opportunities. Promoting alternate career pathways and diverting from training focused solely on academia will help early-career scientists form linkages between their research and the needs of decision makers. Ultimately, successfully communicating critical scientific results, relevant to environmental regulations will help move research knowledge from the ‘ivory tower’ to the decision making table, benefiting the environment and humans alike.

Additional resources:

AAAS Science and Technology Policy Fellowships (https://www.aaas.org/program/science-technology-policy-fellowships)

Mitacs Science Policy Fellowship (https://www.mitacs.ca/en/programs/canadian-science-policy-fellowship)

Science Policy Exchange (https://science-policy-exchange.org/)

Science and Policy Exchange (http://sp-exchange.ca/)

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Lushani Nanayakkara

Lushani Nanayakkara

I completed my PhD at the University of Regina in Saskatchewan, Canada. I study both the human dimensions (via stakeholder surveys) and ecological dynamics (via ecosystem surveys and stable isotopes) of aquatic ecosystems. Prior to this I completed my MSc in Environmental Sciences and Policy at Johns Hopkins University. I currently live in Ottawa, and in my spare time I love hanging out with my dog Piper, travelling, cooking and listening to podcasts. Find me on Twitter @SciPoliBoundary

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