How Can Research Better Inform Decision-making? Let’s Discuss….

As a Leopold Leadership fellow, one of my primary practice year goals is to do research that has impact on major sustainability challenges. Many of the resources available to help scientists inform decision-makers focus on communication – how to engage with non-scientists, speak in clear language, and distill your main messages. I’ve learned a lot about these techniques through the Leopold program, which has encouraged me to make a “message box,” engage on twitter, and interview for information.

But if what we do as scientists is truly going to help solve complex global problems involving humans and the environment, we need to embed this kind of thinking not just into our outreach and engagement, but into how we do our science itself.  That is, the goal of having impact should inform the design, methods, and process of our research as well as its communication. At MIT, I’ve been working with a group of other faculty and researchers who are interested in how we can do better research when our goal is to inform policy-making.  The MIT Leading Technology and Policy (LTP) Initiative, made possible by a generous donation, has sponsored a variety of events around science and technology policy, and supports ongoing research in this area by awarding postdoctoral fellowships.

In September, we organized a small workshop at MIT to kickstart a conversation on this topic. To focus our discussions, we chose the topic of energy, environment and sustainability, but invited selected colleagues from across the U.S. and Europe whose focus was both within and outside this domain. We discussed specifically how methods of analysis can better capture the role of technical and natural constraints in research to inform policy. Participants discussed their latest work in watershed science, carbon management, climate variability, and globalization of clean energy technologies, among others. In focused, small-group discussions, we addressed selected broad issues faced by the technology and policy community.

One of these focused discussions addressed how educational programs can better train future scientists and engineers to address policy-relevant issues, which often involve social, natural and technological dimensions. MIT’s Technology and Policy Program has, through its nearly 40-year history, trained both academics and practitioners in this area. Much research has also been done, largely in the social sciences, to better understand why and how scientific information is influential in decision-making contexts. However, we found during the workshop that while many of us were broadly familiar with relevant literature, we did not have a shared body of knowledge to ground our discussions. To follow up on this issue, I’ll be working with interested faculty from other institutions to collect relevant syllabi, resources and case studies to help inform future education, including full-length courses, modules, and short courses.

Ultimately, we hope to catalyze a larger community of research and practice interested in technology, policy and related issues. If you are interested in participating, we have started a collaborative web site to share materials and coordinate future activities. We also anticipate having further discussions at the next CESUN conference in June 2014. We look forward to intellectual exchange and input from colleagues around the world in this endeavor.

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About Noelle Selin

I am Assistant Professor of Engineering Systems at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, with a joint appointment as Assistant Professor of Atmospheric Chemistry in the Department of Earth, Atmospheric and Planetary Sciences. I am also affiliated with the Joint Program on the Science and Policy of Global Change. My research focuses on using atmospheric chemistry modeling to inform decision-making strategies on air pollution, climate change and mercury pollution. I received my PhD in 2007 from Harvard University in Earth and Planetary Sciences, in Prof. Daniel Jacob's Atmospheric Chemistry Modeling Group. As my PhD research, I developed and evaluated a global, 3D atmospheric model of mercury pollution. I have also published articles and book chapters on the interactions between science and policy in international environmental negotiations, in particular focusing on global efforts to regulate hazardous chemicals and persistent organic pollutants. Prior to starting my PhD program, I was a research associate with the Initiative on Science and Technology for Sustainability at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government. I have also been a visiting researcher at the European Environment Agency in Copenhagen, Denmark, and have worked on chemicals issues at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

One thought on “How Can Research Better Inform Decision-making? Let’s Discuss….

  1. Nice job Noelle! What a great idea- I’ll be signing up. This sounds right in line with the type of work I’m doing with water resource sustainability and I’d welcome the opportunity to blend/share some of the work I’m doing with colleagues (natural, applied, & socioeconomic scientists) up in NYC- it’s a perfect fit. I’m sure they’ll be interested as well.

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