Applying Scientific Thinking to Decision-Making


Ocean Protection Council Science Advisory Team member Karina Nielsen has found that working across the science-policy boundary requires a shift in mindset about one’s role as a scientist.

Note from Pam: Over the next several months, scientists from the Ocean Protection Council Science Advisory Team will be blogging at OceanSpaces about how science gets linked with decision-making. We’ll be republishing some of their advice and reflections here on LL3.0.

Scientists are inherently curious about how nature works. We enjoy applying creativity and logic in the pursuit of answers to challenging questions. We like thinking hard about how to solve a difficult puzzle, and we enjoy finding a solution. Many of us also hope that the knowledge we generate will ultimately be useful. In our scientific publications, we often point out that there are “policy” or “management” implications associated with the results. And then we think our work as scientists is done. We often assume decision-makers will seek and find the breadcrumbs we’ve left behind to create effective solutions to environmental problems. And we are often dismayed when they don’t.

Building strong bridges across the science-policy boundary involves more than simply pointing decision-makers to the most recent scientific findings. From serving on the Marine Life Protection Act Science Advisory Team to the Ocean Protection Council Science Advisory Team (OPC-SAT), and participating in focused workshops like a recent one on ecosystem health assessments, I have found working with fellow scientists to help managers and policymakers grapple with complex environmental issues just as challenging and rewarding as doing basic scientific research.

Most recently, I was involved in an OPC-SAT workshop focused on exploring Ocean Health as a Scientific Concept and Management Goal. The idea of ocean (or ecosystem) health as a metaphor for the condition or status of an ecosystem is not new. It has been part of the environmental science lexicon for decades and is now embedded into the environmental policy landscape. Yet despite its common sense and intuitive appeal, there are no generally accepted ways to measure it. Through my work with scientists, managers and policymakers on this and other science policy questions, I’ve learned a few things that other scientists may find useful as they stretch to span the science-policy boundary.

1. Take A New Approach to Engaging with Decision-makers

To span the science policy boundary, we are not being asked to be scientists for the government. Rather, we are being asked to bring our scientific way of thinking to the management and policy table. We have so much to offer beyond our own areas of expertise, because what is useful is not limited to what we each know, or the particular data sets we’ve personally collected and interpreted. It’s also how we’ve been trained to think. In other words, using evidence and applying logic to arrive at sound inferences, including identifying areas of uncertainty can be extremely valuable in helping decision-makers find tractable solutions to problems.

2. Be Willing to Co-develop Projects

Scientists can benefit immensely from collaborating with policymakers and managers. Often we start with a scientific question or problem in our field, design and complete a research project, and then reach out to the decision-makers who we think might benefit from our new findings. What if instead we engaged decision-makers from the beginning?

As scientists, we’re keenly aware of the gaps in our field. But being able to hone in on those gaps that inhibit potentially beneficial and important policy action is not something easily done from the ivory tower, the research lab or the field site. As a result there are often mismatches between what scientists think decision-makers need to know, and the information they are in fact desperately seeking. Identifying the critical knowledge gaps to fill, and/or finding focused, nuanced applications of existing knowledge are important emergent benefits of greater crosstalk and collaboration with decision-makers.

3. Look to Existing Models for Engagement (such as Marine Protected Areas)

I am very encouraged by the Ocean Protection Council’s emerging effort, Healthy Ocean California. The purpose of this effort is to make a long-term reality out of what so many of us have been working toward sustaining for a long time: a healthy, productive ocean. We’re asking the question: Can the concept of ocean health unify us for better science, policy and management?

I believe it can. It starts with California’s network of marine protected areas (MPAs). They’re the backbone of a grand experiment and observational network we can use to understand the consequences and tradeoffs of different policy decisions. The management and monitoring of these MPAs form an important foundation we can use for science-informed decision-making on issues that span management jurisdictions—water quality, fisheries, climate change, and more. The MPAs give us structure for an iterative, adaptive process that will allow us to learn and improve as we go. We can use the network and how it changes over time, under different conditions and in comparison to areas outside the network, as we would an experiment to provide critical tests and contribute to building scientific theory. We built this network, we’ve applied management decisions, we’ve set up monitoring, and now we can start using the results to improve our understanding of ocean health, and how to sustain it.

4. Broaden the Community of Scientists Engaged

We need to keep working to broaden the community of scientists who are active in the policy and management process. We also need to expand the pool of scientific information that scientists and decision-makers can draw from, including academic knowledge, traditional knowledge, citizen science, and local expertise. Examining multiple lines of evidence from different sources to test assumptions and answer questions is an important aspect of scientific thinking.

The boundary between science and decision-making is a fuzzy one. We never have all the information we would like. There is always uncertainty we wish we could reduce. We know that if we only had more time, more resources, and more data we could provide a more robust answer. But managers and policymakers are most often charged with making decisions in the here and now with the information that is currently available. Coming to a conclusion or making a decision in the face of uncertainty can be very uncomfortable for scientists. Inaction can be equally uncomfortable or even impossible for the policymakers and managers charged with tackling environmental challenges. This is the “fuzziness” that can make boundary-spanning feel uncomfortable or even a little scary. But to make science and scientific thinking useful and accessible to decision-makers, to have impact, to actually have science-informed policy, or at least to have science at the table when decisions are being made, we must be willing to stretch outside our traditional disciplinary comfort zones.

As they say sometimes, “If you’re not a little bit uncomfortable, you’re not growing.” It’s not just about ecology, or climate science, or fisheries; and it’s not about being 100% certain about our conclusions before we help inform policy. It’s about to bringing a diversity of scientists, scientific information and scientific disciplines together to work adaptively and iteratively with decision-makers to find the best possible answers to the questions we have about California’s ocean health, something that is important to everyone.

Other blogs in the “Perspectives from the OPC-SAT” series: Introduction to the Series; and Part I: Gone with the Wind? What climate-driven changes in wind intensity means for CA’s Ocean Health.

Karina J. Nielsen is a professor of biology and director of the Romberg Tiburon Center for Environmental Studies at San Francisco State University.

Beyond “More Data Are Needed”: How Scientists Can Participate in the Policy Process


Karen Lips admiring a red salamander (Pseudotriton ruber). A new chytrid fungus of salamanders has recently been discovered in Europe; infected imports of pet salamanders could threaten US salamander diversity. (photo: Carly Muletz)

How exactly do you do policy? That was my question when I applied for the Leopold Advanced Training session on Hitting the Policy Mark last August. I signed up because I wanted to learn more about the policy process and how it might offer practical tools to reduce the loss of amphibians from invasive pathogens. While a graduate student and later as an assistant professor I had observed disease epidemics pass through several of my research sites and wipe out the amphibians. We had no idea of how to stop this disease, where it came from, or much about its biology. What we did know is that this microscopic fungus was devastating amphibian populations around the world, and the loss of all those amphibians was causing problems for the animals and ecosystems that depend on them. Worst of all, we saw little evidence that this disease could be eradicated once it was established at a site.

Clearly something needed to be done to stop the spread across the globe. For example, in the U.S. a federal regulation or other policy could be designed to allow us to test live animals in trade for disease, and then prevent them from escaping into the wild to infect other populations of amphibians. After some research I was surprised to learn that while polices exist to prevent the import of diseased livestock and agricultural pests (overseen by the US Department of Agriculture) and similar policies give the Center for Disease Control authority to control the arrival of human pathogens (like Ebola); no regulations exist that allow for disease surveillance of wildlife imports or that give US Fish and Wildlife Service the power to prevent the import of diseased wildlife. That’s right – any kind of wildlife, not just amphibians. This is a problem, and one that is likely to get worse with huge numbers of wildlife species traded globally and new infectious diseases being discovered every year.

What wasn’t clear was what was needed to develop a policy to tackle this growing problem. Who was in charge of writing such a bill, or implementing such a regulation? What kind of information did they need? Where did I, a field ecologist, fit into the process? So I went to the internet. But I could find no textbooks on “Policy 101” (I looked), useful online guides (I googled that), or academic papers describing how to get involved in the policy process. I wasn’t even sure what it meant “to do policy.” What kinds of activities does that entail? How does one get involved? And what exactly do we, as scientists, have to offer that would be of any help?

With the guidance of the Leopold trainers I started digging into the issue of wildlife disease policy, talked with colleagues who worked in agencies and NGOs on policy-related wildlife issues, and met with policymakers to hear their opinions. I requested meetings with the natural resource committees in both the House and the Senate, and I participated in the National Environmental Coalition on Invasive Species Legislative Fly-in. NECIS arranged meetings between a group of us scientists with legislative assistants from several Congressional offices, and organized a Congressional briefing on Invasive Species, where three of us presented research related to H.R.996.

Recently, Chad English, the Director of Science Policy Outreach for COMPASS who facilitated the training, told me I’d done it! I’ve “done” policy! I talked to colleagues, got meetings with legislative staff, and have been closely connected to the ongoing policy discussions now trying to address this issue. I know lots of scientists who’d like to get more involved, but aren’t sure where to start. Here’s what I learned from this experience:

1) Leverage your networks. If you want to get more involved in policy, use your existing networks to provide openings, introductions and opportunities. In my case the Leopold Network provided the guidance and suggestions for how to start, and then I contacted my friends and colleagues who work on wildlife policy issues. Living in the DC area, and working with various agencies and conservation organizations as part of my academic position, I already knew some key people who worked on this issue. One colleague became my navigator – somebody who explained the ins and outs of the issue, identified the concerns of opposition groups, and was willing to work with me and others as part of his job. I was lucky that some of the outreach activities and academic projects I had worked on in the past reappeared in this policy context and served as important links to ongoing policy activities. Those past efforts showed my new contacts that I had established connections and previous policy experiences, and that I was serious. My scientific network was especially critical when it came time to write a 10-minute briefing; I contacted several of my old friends for the most up-to-date info, insights and opinions on the topics I didn’t know as well.

2) Clear, concise communication is important. This was true at every step of the way. When I met with committee members or when the NECIS group met with Congressional staff, it was critical that speakers provided concise but relevant comments that explained the concern, why it matters, and what, if anything could be done. These meetings were short – all were less than an hour, most were 30 minutes or less – and there was no time for rambling, tangential, or sloppy explanations. Crafting a thorough, engaging, and accessible 10-minute talk for the briefing was a great test of the communication skills I’d learned in the Leopold Leadership Program. I totally rethought how I was going to present this talk and led with a more dramatic and personal story than I would normally use in a scientific talk, because I wanted to get the audience’s attention and communicate concern about this issue. I created a storyline that related my research to the loss of our native biodiversity and highlighted the gaps in our existing policies, which allow imports of wildlife without testing for infectious diseases or pathogens. I ended with a reference to existing legislation awaiting action in both houses.

Effective communication was especially apparent at the July hearing held by a subcommittee of the Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works. The subcommittee convened two panels of experts (one of federal scientists and one of scientists from private conservation organizations) who presented testimony on S.1153 and seven other bills. I was impressed at the brevity of the testimony – we heard introductions from several senators, testimony from four different experts, and a Q&A between the senators and experts on all eight bills and they still finished within 75 minutes! That’s because the full written testimony is entered into the congressional record, but all presentations were less than five minutes. If only faculty meetings were so efficient!

3) Know your audience. As when giving a good talk or media interview, it was important to know something about each legislator’s district and its issues, and the legislator’s background and interests to prepare for the group meetings. I used this iPhone app to read up on bill sponsorship, committee actions, committee membership, and voting records of all the legislators we visited. It was relatively easy to identify one or more invasive species that were a financial or health risk for every district or legislator. And while we scientists like to promote the ecological benefits of taking action, and the moral and ethical aspects of conserving biodiversity, the most powerful arguments were those that showed the financial burden of invasive species introductions. Every expert and senator, regardless of their position on the bills they were considering, mentioned the expected financial burdens to taxpayers and to agencies of every proposed bill, or the costs that would result from not passing such a bill. Requests for more research funding or claims that “more data are needed” won’t cut it here.

4) Work with what you’ve (already) got. At every stage in the process, it was especially helpful to be able to discuss specific legislation – in this case the companion bills H.R.996 and S.1153. Even though both bills had a low probability of becoming a law, they provided a starting point for a conversation that I tailored to fit that person’s interests. For example, in some of my meetings I discussed general issues of invasive species; in others, the usefulness of these bills in filling a regulatory gap; in still others I asked about the reasons for the lack of cosponsors or what an improved version of the bill would include.

I saw another example of this during the NECIS Fly-In, where I got to see how consultants and lobbyists worked with conservation organizations to advocate for particular legislation. I heard them discuss the political realities of invasive species legislation, which items were noncontroversial and likely to gain bipartisan support, and how new political, social or scientific developments would affect reception of the bill. It was obvious that these were ongoing discussions between colleagues that were important in sharing knowledge and finding areas of agreement where the various stakeholders might find a mutually beneficial outcome.

Final Thoughts

In the end it was clear that the legislative process, much like other forms of outreach and engagement, requires a lot of patience and persistence to build support and maintain momentum. As of July 2014 S.1153 was still in the Environment and Public Works committee awaiting mark-up for the reconvening of Congress after August Recess. Meanwhile, in July another bill was introduced in the House, H.R. 5156 that would authorize the Secretary of the Interior to identify and declare wildlife disease emergencies and to coordinate rapid response to these emergencies.” It has been referred to several subcommittees for consideration, so perhaps we will see future discussion of this issue before the end of this session. I’m not sure what the future holds for any of these bills, but I am hopeful that all this legislative activity reflects the real concern I heard regarding the risk of new wildlife diseases being imported into the US.

This was an incredibly valuable opportunity to see how the legislative process works, and also how the legislative process interacts with regulatory agencies. I learned a lot about the policy process and was encouraged that many of the skills and approaches also apply to the general issues of communication, outreach, and engagement (see also this article on what scientists need to know about policy). It took some time to meet the right people, but nothing I did required any special skills or connections. The hundreds of people I saw visiting their representatives this summer reminded me that government decisions rely on both public opinion and on science.

So how about it? Are you ready to “do policy?” It’s a good time to let your voice be heard.

Karen Lips, a 2005 Leopold Leadership Fellow, is an associate professor and directs the graduate program in Sustainable Development and Conservation Biology at the University of Maryland. Follow her on Twitter (@kwren88).

Teaching Scientists about Global Environmental Politics: The Mercury Game

Students playing the mercury game

Training future scientists is the key mission of those of us who are university faculty. But are we training science students effectively to address important global issues like climate change, biodiversity, toxic pollution, and other sustainability challenges? How can faculty help students develop skills to help them interact with policy and decision-makers – when many faculty haven’t even had that training themselves?

At the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, we’ve developed a teaching tool that faculty members can freely download and use to help educate future scientists about global environmental policy and the role of scientific expertise. It’s a negotiation simulation called The Mercury Game, which is focused on the global negotiations to address mercury pollution. Combatting mercury pollution is the goal of the newest global environmental treaty, the Minamata Convention. Though the game addresses this specific issue, it serves here as a case study to teach broader issues about science-policy interactions at a global level, which are relevant across many global environmental problems. For example, students learn how nations come together to address global sustainability challenges, and explore the roles of informed and active scientific participants.

The Mercury Game is a role-play simulation that students can play in a group of 9-11 participants, and it takes about 3-4 hours. Each student takes on the role of a country, non-governmental organization, industry representative, or scientific organization in discussions about how to address global mercury pollution. Students read a scientific assessment and short briefing materials, then discuss and agree to selected policy options. Playing the game helps participants explore the consequences of representing scientific uncertainty in various ways in a policy context. The game focuses on the credibility of various sources of technical information, strategies for representing risk and uncertainty, and the balance between scientific and political considerations. The game also requires players to grapple with politics – it explores the dynamic between the global “North” (the developed world) and the global “South” (the developing world) at the heart of most treaty-making difficulties.

We designed the Mercury Game to be as easy as possible for faculty to use in science courses – it includes a teaching note, powerpoint slides, suggested supplementary assignments, and reading materials. So far, the Mercury Game has been played by over 300 people. It has been used with undergraduates and graduate students at eight universities, and played at three conferences, including with actual negotiators of the mercury convention. Our initial research on the game shows that students gain both scientific and policy knowledge from the experience, which is a win-win for science classes. If you’re interested in playing the game in your courses or with your research groups, it’s free to download on our web site, We’d also appreciate your feedback about the game and whether it’s useful in your efforts to teach about science-policy interactions.

We created the Mercury Game because we believe there is a clear need for more curricular packages that assist science educators in training a larger number of scientists to address global sustainability challenges. We’d be very interested in hearing about similar efforts elsewhere. If you know of any further resources, please let us know in the comments. What has been your experience teaching science students about policy?