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.

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, http://mit.edu/mercurygame. 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?