Politicians, media and the public, especially in the EU, are increasingly demanding evidence-based information to inform policy making on complex issues such as bioeconomy, climate change, biodiversity and bioenergy. According to Gluckman and Wilsdon (2016) “Scientific advice to governments has never been in greater demand; nor has it been more contested.”
Some well-known examples of the science community providing policy support, or “informing policy”, are the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) and the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES), which both published major new assessments in 2018. EFI’s Policy Support Facility and its ThinkForest forum fit also in this arena.
However, what is sometimes puzzling for the decision makers and stakeholders, is that top-level scientists do not necessarily agree on their messages. Sometimes exactly the opposite implications are drawn, for example on forest-related issues. My article “The Role of Science in Forest Policy – Experiences by EFI” addresses the following questions:
- What should the role of science be in informing forest policy-making?
- Why do scientists seem to disagree on forest issues?
- What are the lessons learned from the European Forest Institute’s science-policy work since 2015?
Some of the factors that may be behind the different views amongst scientists, or tend to work towards enhancing them are:
Scientists’ values: Scientists can claim to discuss only based on science, without ever making explicit their personal values that actually influence the information they provide. However, even the language employed by scientists can be laden with values. For example, scientists have debated the merits of talking about “invasive,” “non-native,” “exotic” or “alien” species, given that these are metaphorical terms that can have great significance in social and political debates. Moreover, it is evident that ethical and social values, like the desire to promote economic development or environmental protection, can play integral roles in science-policy work. The fact that research is often plagued by uncertainties and there’s almost never one clear-cut “right” answer in complex issues such as climate change, gives room for scientists’ values to play a role.
Disciplinary perspectives: One challenge of science support is that there are alternative perspectives or discipline approaches, research questions and ways to define the scope of the research topic. This can be the case even if all seem to be researching the same topic, and be equally well-equipped to advise on it. The discussion if one advice is “better” than another, easily becomes an issue between different disciplines – such as ecologists vs. forest scientists – and a question of what type of criteria one uses to evaluate who has the best knowledge.
Cherry picking: Scientists can pick up only the evidence that supports their own beliefs or interests, and ignore the other evidence pointing to different implications.
Media: One factor that tends to heighten the “disagreements” between scientists is the media. The media likes conflicts and it may have a tendency to over-report or overstate the disagreements. Especially issues related to climate change are now high on the media agenda and in public interests, and it provides a good ground to dwell on this aspect. However, scientists may also have incentives to use the media attention for their own purposes, and express their views in more simplistic and extreme ways than they would do in a science forum. The increasing influence of social media may well have strengthened these tendencies.
How does EFI approach this problem? Given the above situation, the most helpful method has turned out to be to get the different approaches and disciplines together to work on a common synthesis study. This gives a holistic, evidence-based overview on an issue, rather than everyone providing advice from their own perspectives and with like-minded colleagues. Our study teams represent different disciplinary expertise, and consist of scientists from several different countries.
Read the full article here: https://authors.elsevier.com/sd/article/S1389-9341(19)30253-9