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.