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Ogmius Newsletter

Research Highlight


SPARC logoScience Policy Assessment and Research on Climate -- or SPARC -- is an NSF-sponsored joint project of the University of Colorado's Center for Science and Policy Technology Research and Arizona State University's Consortium for Science, Policy, & Outcomes.  Now in its fifth and final year, SPARC has summarized its findings in a new handbook for decision makers that we discuss in our Research Highlight.

Science Policy for Decision Making

"SPARC HandbookIn 2010 the US federal government will have spent more than $150 billion on research and development.  What gets done with that enormous sum has important implications for the wide variety of problems facing our society today and in the years to come.  Important decisions on challenges like national defense, environmental change, rapid urbanization, and public health rely on scientific knowledge to inform them. Given the complexity and the significance of such challenges, how can science funders effectively orient a vast research enterprise to make real progress toward desired social goals?”

This is the challenge taken on by the SPARC project’s new handbook, Usable Science: A Handbook for Science Policy Decision Makers.  The handbook, which is based on the project’s 5 years of research, was unveiled at an April 12 Washington, DC briefing for decision makers.  Its intended audience is anyone involved in the process of designing, directing, or implementing research -- those who decide what research gets done and whose needs the research is intended to serve.  Examples include professionals in federal agencies, Congressional staffers, scientists managing a lab or sitting on a panel at the National Research Council, or managers at a foundation with a science focus.

The handbook addresses myths that stand in the way of progress such as that more knowledge is always useful:

We often assume that solving a difficult problem requires more research, but not all knowledge is equally useful, and technical information makes up just one part of a larger system in which problems occur. It is important to consider the role of evolving knowledge, and the extent to which more of it is necessarily better. Sometimes we have adequate knowledge to address a problem, and additional research may not be the best approach. And, if we do want better information, we can ask “better in what way?” before we decide what kind of research is most appropriate to the task.

The handbook suggests that managing science for decision making be thought of in terms of the relationship between the “supply” of science information, and the “demand” for usable information.  In order to reconcile supply and demand policy decision makers must:

  • relate the mission, goals, and results of research to specific, on-the-ground problems;
  • establish ongoing processes to engage with, and seek to understand, the needs of users;
  • incorporate the needs of users into the practice of science funding and science management; and
  • test and evaluate the results of research intended for use.

Fundamentally, “reconciling the supply and demand of scientific information requires more than a single workshop or focus group; it must be built into the institutions that make decisions about science priorities.”

The handbook’s conclusion is that “science best meets the needs of decision makers when those needs are considered throughout the institutions, policies, and processes that comprise the scientific enterprise.”  It recommends that “criteria for verifying the usability of scientific results, and specific accounts of the outcomes which R&D programs aim to fulfill, are crucial to managing science for decision making.”  SPARC’s research has focused largely on climate change and other environmental research programs, but its conclusions and recommendations apply to a much greater cross-section of federal R&D. Indeed, SPARC researchers feel that engagement across this landscape is crucial to improving the usefulness of science.

For more information and to obtain a copy of the handbook, please contact Lisa Dilling, ldilling@colorado.edu or Ami Nacu-Schmidt, ami@cires.colorado.edu.