Ogmius Newsletter

Research Highlight

This edition of Ogmius features a Research Highlight describing the work of Environmental Studies Ph.D. candidate Elizabeth McNie, who works with the Center on science policy issues.


Co-producing useful information for climate policy: Informing science policy research for improved decision-support

America’s de-facto science policy can be traced back to Vannevar Bush’s essay, Science: The Endless Frontier, describing Bush’s notion of an ideal ‘social contract’ between science and society. In order for science to serve society, Bush argued that it was necessary to “remove the rigid controls” that had been in place during World War II, “and recover freedom of inquiry and that healthy competitive scientific spirit so necessary for expansion of the frontiers of scientific knowledge.” Only through unfettered research would there be “a flow of new scientific knowledge to those who can apply it to practical problems in Government, in industry, or elsewhere.” The National Science Board’s Rising Above the Gathering Storm and President Bush’s American Competitiveness Initiative represent the persistence of this assumption.

The Endless Frontier’s “flow” of knowledge is often analogized as a ‘linear model’ because knowledge, resources and scientific information flow one way from basic research to applied research and eventually to society. Many researchers, however, now consider the model outdated because it oversimplifies what is essentially a more complex and dynamic relationship, fails to adequately link science to society, and falls short on informing decision making. Indeed, many researchers point to a ‘science-policy gap’ that artificially separates science from society, and vice versa, resulting in unnecessary obstacles to effectively linking science with society – a prerequisite for the production of useful information and thus improved decision support.

Major shortcomings of the linear model have led several researchers such as Stokes, Kitcher, and Gibbons to call for new models or relationships between science and society.  They offer important propositions about ways in which science can respond to the needs of society by producing more useful information for improved decision support. Taken together, their propositions reflect the values that science can be pragmatic, responding to the needs of society; participative and democratic in nature; and directed toward social needs without sacrificing the value of pure basic research. Bridging the gap between science and society, they suggest, will improve policy outcomes for society. Barring any real-life demonstration, however, these ideas remain engaging, yet untested, propositions that bear little impact on science policy in the United States. An obvious next step in research, therefore, is to test and evaluate these propositions in order to inform science policy research.

One way to explore their validity and effectiveness is to identify organizations premised on such propositions and evaluate their effectiveness. Hence, my dissertation research will explore these questions:

Does use-inspired research, produced transparently and with participation by users, lead to the production of useful scientific information and thus better policy outcomes? This question entails exploring what constitutes ‘useful information’, and mapping what information is needed, produced, and utilized. I will also explore how stakeholders value the information produced, understanding that information can be useful even if it is not used in the way it was intended.

How do scientists and users co-produce useful information? This question entails exploring how decisions are made regarding the production, dissemination, selection, evaluation and use of information; understanding the social process between producers of information and users; and in evaluating organizational dynamics.

The Regional Integrated Sciences and Assessments (RISA) program, supported by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Office of Global Programs, provides fertile ground for exploring these research questions, and thus will be the focus of my dissertation research. The RISA program was created with the aim of improving decision support for climate policy through the production of more useful short-term climatic information. Each of the eight regional RISA programs is premised on this goal, yet each addresses different research questions relevant to its regional policy concerns. Furthermore, each RISA operates using different approaches to management, research, and stakeholder engagement. I will utilize a case-study and cross-case comparative approach with three RISAS (the Climate Impacts Group in Washington, the Pacific RISA based in Hawaii, and the CLIMAS program in Arizona). These RISAs share enough in common to answer the first research question, yet offer enough difference to also identify best practices in order to construct a ‘co-production’ toolkit. I will conduct archival research, semi-structured interviews, and utilize Q-sort methodology.

Answering these research questions about information utility and the co-production of information serves two important purposes. First, findings will inform the broader science policy research community about the feasibility and value of use-inspired research, socially robust knowledge, and well-ordered science. Greater understanding of these issues could influence priorities in science policy funding, organizational design, and policy making. Second, exploring the organizations’ process of co-production and decision making – and comparing these data with existing literature – will lead to the production of a ‘best practices toolkit’ in order to aid other programs seeking to produce use-inspired research. If indeed the RISA approach succeeds in producing useful information for better policy outcomes, then we need to share their process of success with others.

For more information:

  • Gibbons, M., 1999. Science's new social contract with society. Nature 402 C81-C82.
  • Gibbons, M., 2000. Mode 2 society and the emergence of context-sensitive science. Science and Public Policy 27 (3), 159-163.
  • Gibbons, M., Limoges, C., Nowotny, H., Schwartzman, S., Scott, P., Trow, M., 1994. The New production of knowledge: The Dynamics of Science and Research in Contemporary Societies, Sage Publishers, London.
  • Kitcher, P., 2001. Science, Truth, and Democracy, Oxford University Press, Oxford.
  • Stokes, D.E., 1997. Pasteur's Quadrant: Basic Science and Technological Innovation. Brookings Institution Press, Washington D.C.

Elizabeth McNie