What counts as evidence? Local vs. research knowledge in the evidence-based policymaking movement

Source Article: Persson, J., E. L. Johansson, and L. Olsson. 2018. Harnessing local knowledge for scientific knowledge production: challenges and pitfalls within evidence-based sustainability studies. Ecology and Society 23(4):38. https://doi.org/10.5751/ES-10608-230438

The hierarchy of evidence

Solutions to challenges faced in sustainability require both scientific and local knowledge. Because in sustainability studies, it is not enough to just understand human impacts on the environment, it is equally important to understand the environment’s impacts on humans, and social relations. In Sub-Saharan Africa, for example, small-scale agriculture is still heavily dependent on local knowledge acquired through practical experience (Figure 1). However, at this point in time, initiatives such as the Evidence-Based Policymaking Collaborative have centered their principle-based advice to policy makers on the need to consider only rigorously conducted research evidence. Within such strict boundaries on what is considered evidence, local knowledge and practical evidence fall by the wayside. In addition to promoting generalized solutions that often ignore the local context, this approach is also marred with issues on the external validity of the solution at the local level. It is also worth noting that matters of practical importance to policy makers may not be front and center scientifically. Therefore, research-based evidence may ultimately be answering the wrong questions, further exacerbating the poor fit of the proposed solution in the local context. Even well-designed research studies are not able to provide information on the suitability of the proposed solution in different kinds of environments. This can lead to an evidence base that is often too narrow for the policy maker.

Given the limitations of solely focusing on research evidence, the authors of a recent study suggest drawing attention away from ‘what’ works as a solution to ‘how’ does the solution work. Doing so will help identify information needs and the particular limitations of the ‘what’ works evidence-base. ‘How’ questions are more complicated and less straightforward to answer, but will yield information that integrates local knowledge with research evidence.


Figure 1. Women farmers near a cashew farm in Mozambique (Wikimedia Commons)
Problem-feeding as an alternative

To ensure that the evidence-base is not answering the wrong questions, the authors suggest an alternative model for harnessing both local and scientific knowledge. To do so successfully, they highlight the need to move away from attempts to integrate various knowledge systems, and rather shift towards developing reliable methods for problem-feeding. So what is problem-feeding? Problem-feeding is a form of interdisciplinary exchange, where the focus of the exchange is a problem, as opposed to evidence, theory, etc. The original problem is one that cannot be addressed easily through one discipline. In its simplest form problem-feeding comprises the following steps:

  1. Construct the problem and its context
  2. Influx of information and re-construction of the problem
  3. Solutions to the problem within that context
  4. Re-construction and acceptance of the solution within that context

What does problem-feeding look like in practice? The authors illustrate this through an example centered on changes in land use and land cover, and its impacts on people and the environment in Tanzania. In this study, researchers used participatory art (i.e. focus group discussions and narrative walks followed by painting workshops) to understand challenges and opportunities facing people (Figure 2). Participants perceptions of change helped identify the most pressing challenges in this context and helped narrow down the research focus and questions. Additionally, this method helped identify inaccurate inferences made by locals. For example, farmers perceptions of decreasing crop yields due to changing pollinators were inaccurate. Because in this context, crop yields were not reliant on pollinators. Therefore, these types of interactions between the researchers and locals helped identify new questions (e.g., why is the crop yield decreasing?). Additional research then aims at solutions applicable to the local context and acceptability of those solutions to the community. This leads to important and practical contributions to policy making.

Figure 2. An example of a painting from a participatory art workshop (Lund University Centre for Sustainability Studies)

This article was focused on the importance of harnessing both scientific (research) knowledge and other types of knowledge (e.g. local knowledge) in the context of sustainability studies. However, the problems and principles identified by the authors are applicable to many other conservation and natural resource management settings. Therefore the key messages of this article are worth the consideration of both researchers looking to enhance the usability of their research, and policymakers who are using evidence to make decisions on the best course of action. Ultimately, ignoring local knowledge and contexts often leads to incomplete evidence bases and can result in decision-making that is not tailored to the local environment.

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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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