Decision scientists in the policy arena a guide by David Pannell

These strategies are not in order of priority and they shouldn’t be considered as a prescriptive recipe. Rather, think of them more as ingredients. It depends on how you combine them as to what type of cake you create.

  1. Develop relationships with policy makers: Attempt to establish a high level of mutual understanding and trust. Information needs to flow in both directions. Only that way can you understand their perspectives and needs, and they understand your contribution.
  2. Research is not enough: Appreciate that good science is needed but is not sufficient for decision makers. In considering policy options, policy makers will probably be more concerned with social, economic, political or administrative aspects than with technical aspects of science.
  3. Practice excellent communication: In communications, recognise the lack of time that policy makers have. Be very brief, focus on clear messages, use simple language, free of jargon, using a mixture of approaches. Written material is useful but is not sufficient. Even more important is effective verbal communication.
  4. Simplicity is essential: As far as possible, the solutions one offers need to be simple, transparent and understandable. Policy makers are likely to be suspicious of solutions that rely on complex and opaque computer models (although the success of climate modellers in influencing the debate about climate change shows that models can be used if their message is sufficiently clear and simple).
  5. Work with intended users: This will help to ensure that the solution being proposed is in fact practical and sufficiently simple. It will help to make sure that their issue of concern is addressed in a way that is relevant to them. When attempting to convince policy makers, it helps to be able to demonstrate that the solutions being proposed are already in use in the real-world.
  6. Distinguish between knowledge and values: Be clear that the values that policy attempts to enhance are based on the desires of the community, not those of researchers. It is acceptable for research to deal with values (eg, studies of the non-market values of environmental outcomes) but one must be clear that policy makers will have their own views about the values. Traditionally, science deals primarily with knowledge rather than values, but of course scientists are influenced by their own values.
  7. Be pragmatic: One has to accept compromise, and it may be necessary to make conscious decisions about where you can and cannot afford to give ground.
  8. Be patient and persistent: Your work may not be influential at first, but its acceptance could grow over time if you are persistent. Establish networks and build support for your ideas over time. Repetition is essential, even to people who are already on your side.
  9. Be resilient: Numerous problems, frustration and setbacks will arise. People with vested interests in the status quo will actively resist proposals for change. These people may be insiders to the policy organisation and so have better access to decision makers than outside researchers do.
  10. Timeliness is important: Be prepared to respond quickly to requests for information. Policy makers cannot wait for additional research.
  11. Find a champion: Earlier I’ve noted mixed evidence on this, but at least in some cases it is likely to be worth cultivating a champion for your work within the policy organisation.
  12. Avoid any appearance of vested interest: Do not present findings and seek funds at the same time.
  13. Choose your research/analysis topics well: It doesn’t matter how good your communication is or how strong your policy networks are if the topics you are researching or analysing are not important to policy makers, or are not providing information that can help them. This seems obvious, but is sometimes not considered sufficiently when decision scientists are planning their own work.

Theses strategies, adapted from Pannell and Roberts (2009) and Gibbons et al. (2008), are provided as food for thought for decision scientists.

For more on decision-making in designing and creating environmental policy check out David Pannell's article 'Decision Science and Environmental Policy: Achieving better outcomes from environmental policy is more than just good science'

More info: David Pannell david.pannell@uwa.edu.au

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