Integrating Science: The Work of A Boundary Organization

The California Ocean Science Trust connects science to ocean policy and management

The California Ocean Science Trust connects science to ocean policy and management

In our first post, we described a few key concepts and findings that have emerged from research on boundary organizations. What does this look like in practice? Here are a few examples from our work at the Ocean Science Trust.

Science Needs Assessment

Scientists and decision-makers operate in different worlds, at different paces, and with different priorities, which can often lead to missed opportunities. One way to remedy the disconnect is by developing a deeper understanding of how agencies interact with and use science. Through “Science Needs Assessment,” we map decision makers’ science needs using interviews, focus groups, and surveys. Conducting these interviews helps us capture the priority information needs of managers, and the processes by which new scientific information could be used. With this knowledge in hand, we can work more effectively with the scientific community to align its activities with decision making.

Expert Judgment

Expert judgment can be a valuable tool in helping to translate science for decision makers. We define expert judgment as a process that takes advantage of specialized knowledge and experience to inform a management or decision making need. Expert judgment can be helpful in cases where empirical evidence is lacking or insufficient. Or in deriving useful information from large amounts of data, or in assessing complex situations. Expert judgment is used in an extremely wide range of circumstances. In our own context, we see an increasing need for expert judgment processes that inform adaptive management of complex socio-ecological systems.

Scientific & Technical Review

Ocean Science Trust employs scientific review on behalf of ocean and coastal management agencies in California to help ensure that decisions are supported by the highest quality science. Unlike academic journal articles, agency products often have diverse review needs due to the fact that scientific and technical aspects are intertwined with regulatory components, and there is often significant public interest involved. While there is no “one size fits all” review process, review processes must be considered transparent, credible, and scientifically rigorous.

These are just a few examples of the work of one boundary organization. They do not represent everything Ocean Science Trust does to help link science with decision making. Moreover, the boundary space is diverse. One of the exciting aspects of this growing field is that different boundary organizations are using different models and approaches, and focus on different skill sets or areas of expertise (e.g., science communications, law, management processes, etc.). The producers and users of scientific knowledge will benefit most when all these institutions are functioning well and working together constructively.

So why should scientists care about boundary organizations? They can efficiently improve your relevance and impact by:

1) Taking care of process

These examples have one element in common, and that’s process, process, process! In having access to an organization with the expertise and capacity to design and implement strong processes, scientists and decision makers gain the support and guidance they need to constructively collaborate and learn from each other. Often the gap between science and decision making is bridged by the right process at the right time.

2) Finding the right audience for your work

Boundary organizations can serve as a valuable guide to the policy issues and decision making audiences where your research might be relevant. An effective boundary organization can relieve some of the pressure that gets heaped onto scientists through mechanisms such as the NSF’s “broader impacts” criterion by pointing out credible avenues through which your work can make a difference.

3) Identifying new collaborations

In the course of working with scientists and decision makers to align information with users’ needs, boundary organizations often generate new opportunities for collaboration and for expanding the utility of scientific research.

Do you engage with a boundary organization as part of your work? Leave a comment about your experiences!

Read more about the Ocean Science Trust’s approach to its boundary role here, and look here for a presentation on boundary organization theory and practice.

Senior Scientist Ryan Meyer and Program Manager Emily Knight work for the California Ocean Science Trust, a boundary organization that advances a constructive role for science in decision-making by promoting collaboration and mutual understanding among scientists, citizens, managers, and policy-makers.

What Is A “Boundary Organization” And Why Should You Care?

1024px-Fence,_cloture_Point_Michaud_Nova_ScotiaThis post is the first of a two-part series on the roles that boundary organizations play in linking science with decision making.

There’s so much that scientists can do to connect their work with users! Look no further than the pages of this blog for evidence of that. On the other hand, there’s only so much that scientists can do to connect their work with users!

A scientist working at a university needs to teach, get grants, publish papers, mentor students, and serve her department, among other things. Linking science with decision making requires working across the cultural and institutional boundaries that divide academia from potential users of academic knowledge. While it is critical for scientists to make time to engage, the reality is that making your science useful is a full-time job on its own. Also, why should we place this burden entirely on scientists?

This is where “boundary organizations” come in. These are organizations whose central purpose is to create and sustain meaningful and mutually beneficial links between knowledge producers and users. They are, we believe, an extremely important component of the complex picture of science and policy that swirls around any natural resource issue. (Full disclosure… we work at one!)

What exactly is a boundary organization, and what does it do? The term is thrown around more and more these days, and there’s no end-all definition. Researchers investigating the links between science and decision making have looked at boundary organizations in different ways, and are constantly tinkering with criteria, terminology, and theory about best practices.

Here are some robust and, we think, useful research findings about the roles boundary organizations play:

1) Translation

Boundary organizations speak multiple languages. They might be conversant in, for example, minutiae of water management bureaucracy and the cutting edge of dynamic and statistical approaches to modeling inter-annual climate variability. Knowing these languages allows for more than just effective communication. It can help to create and sustain relationships, or get the right people in the room at the right time, with the right agenda.

2) Participation and Co-production

When producers and users of knowledge collaborate, the product is often much more useful and valuable than when knowledge is produced in isolation. Boundary organizations excel at creating and sustaining the space–physical, temporal, institutional, political, etc.–where co-production can occur. At the Ocean Science Trust, we often describe this as “process expertise.” We work to understand what would be a good outcome from multiple perspectives, and then design a process than can get us to that co-produced outcome.

3) Dual Accountability

In cultivating and sustaining relationships with both producers and users of knowledge, boundary organizations become accountable to these different worlds. Both rely on the boundary organization in different ways. For example, scientists might be looking to see that their work is represented effectively and accurately. Users might be watching to see that their needs are being met, and trusting that the information presented to them is credible, legitimate and salient. This dual–or multiple–accountability circumstance is both precarious and a source of power. It can also be very hard to establish and maintain (see the case study by Parker and Crona, listed below).

In our next post we’ll discuss some of these activities in practice using examples from Ocean Science Trust. That said, there are a variety of boundary organizations out there–independent institutions, affiliated with universities, and more. If you work with a boundary organization, or have questions about them, tell us about it in the comments!

Senior Scientist Ryan Meyer and Program Manager Emily Knight work for the California Ocean Science Trust, a boundary organization that advances a constructive role for science in decision-making by promoting collaboration and mutual understanding among scientists, citizens, managers, and policy-makers.

Further Reading

Dilling, L., & Lemos, M. C. (2011). Creating usable science: Opportunities and constraints for climate knowledge use and their implications for science policy. Global Environmental Change, 21(2). doi:10.1016/j.gloenvcha.2010.11.006

Guston, D. H. (2001). Boundary Organizations in Environmental Policy and Science: An Introduction. Science, Technology, & Human Values, 26(4), 399–408. Retrieved from<399:BOIEPA>2.0.CO;2-D

Parker, J. N., & Crona, B. I. (2012). On Being All Things to All People: Boundary Organizations and the Contemporary Research University. Social Studies Of Science, 42(2).

SPARC. (2005). Climate Science Policy: Lessons from the RISAs. (E. C. McNie, R. A. Pielke Jr, & D. Sarewitz, Eds.). Honolulu, HI: Workshop Report from the Science Policy Assessment and Research on Climate Project. Retrieved from

Getting the questions right: Developing interview techniques to understand science needs


Note from PamKathleen Galvin and Margaret Krebs recently wrote about best practices for interviewing for information. This skill, a focus of our Leopold core and advanced trainings, is critical for integrating science into policy. Senior Scientist Ryan Meyer and Program Manager Emily Knight work for the California Ocean Science Trust, a boundary organization that advances a constructive role for science in decision-making by promoting collaboration and mutual understanding among scientists, citizens, managers, and policy-makers. We asked Ryan and Emily to share their top “lessons learned” from their many interviews with resource managers and policy-makers about what they need to incorporate science into their work.

One of the more encouraging aspects of working in the boundary between science and decision-making is hearing scientists increasingly express the desire for their research to more effectively inform policy and management. However, for many, the boundary appears difficult to navigate.

We regularly conduct interviews with managers and policymakers to explore their science needs and identify ways that we can more effectively deliver relevant and useful science. By asking questions about how decision-makers access and use science in their work, we gather knowledge about the process of science integration from beginning to end. We also build stronger relationships across communities in the science-policy landscape.

Here are a few lessons we’ve learned about interviewing for science needs.

Lesson #1: Process, not product

Science is not just a piece of information; it’s a process. The same can be said of science needs. When we interview a manager in the California Department of Fish and Wildlife, we’re not just looking for a list of pieces of information that she thinks would be helpful. We’re interested in how science gets taken up and used as part of her job. What are her approaches to accessing science, and how much, if at all, does that represent a standard approach adopted by the agency as a whole? What capacity does she have to commission new research, or vet existing research? What kinds of constraints are shaping the ways she interacts with science? What makes science credible in her eyes, and why?

Lesson #2: Focus on concrete, tangible examples

We have found that specific examples can help to cut through jargon and vagueness that often pervade more general discussions about programs. We often ask, “Can you describe an example in which science played a particularly constructive or positive role in something you were doing?” Then we pepper our interviewee with follow-up questions about the details of their answer. What was typical about this example, and what was out of the ordinary?

It’s hard to get managers to talk about “failures” as a counterpoint to the success stories. But people are often willing to respond when we ask, “What’s an example of a process where the role of science could have been better?” This can lead to valuable lessons for scientists on ways they can be more effective. By reflecting on these situations, the managers often acknowledge things they could have done better.

Lesson #3: Check your ego at the door

There are a few ways that your ego or existing knowledge can get in the way of a good interview. It’s hard to listen to someone tell you things that you already know, but of course this will inevitably happen, especially as you conduct more and more interviews. But proving to your interviewee that you know things is a distraction.

Avoid the impulse to ask leading questions. These can push your interviewee toward answers that are more in line with your own thinking and thus less informative to you on the whole. For example, instead of asking:

“Would you say that your ideas about which science is credible are driven by advice from scientists, or the views of your constituents?”

try something like:

“What do you look for in order to feel that science is credible?”

You also need to remember that your interviewee is doing you a favor, even if your intention is ultimately to help him. In this setting, he is the expert, and you are there to learn from him.

This points to a fundamental aspect of working across the boundary between science and decision making. We are not here to bring expertise to non-experts; we are finding ways to connect different domains of expertise such as management, science, and local knowledge.

Ryan Meyer‘s email is Follow him on Twitter: @RyanMeyerSF. Emily Knight‘s email is Follow her on Twitter: @EKnight_OST