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Trusting Science to Help Create Environmental Policy

Public policy should be based on solid scientific research and it is often presumed that when policy decisions are made, decision-makers have utilized the available scientific resources and evaluated the significant potential impacts.  According to the World Health Organization, impact assessments are the vital links in the chain between evidence and decision-making, strategic policy decisions are often made before such assessments of the available scientific data are completed.  The scientific community to date has not maximized its potential to positively influence policy.  Scientific uncertainty, lack of transparency and understanding of scientific data, as well as the timing and communication of relevant information are a few of the challenges facing US decision makers.

Science and engineering research and innovations are intricately linked to societal needs and the nation’s economy in areas such as transportation, communication, agriculture, education, environment, health, defense, and jobs.  The knowledge of these societal needs influences many of the United States’ public policies, yet scientific uncertainty continues to be one of the key challenges facing environmental scientists and policy makers.  When concerns arise about the accuracy of findings, policy can be adjusted to meet needs and specific agendas of those that have more influence. Fensham (2008) stated that if a policy maker is opposed to a specific action, and the available scientific data is inconsistent or open to interpretation, it raises “scientific uncertainty” which allows the action to be put off or modified.

The science and engineering communities are not represented by one individual or organization; its opinions are consensus-based with researchers coming together from different perspectives to consider an issue based on the obtainable empirical evidence.  If consensus is achieved based on the evidence, that information is conveyed to policymakers and they can then determine whether or not to take action and what actions to take. If there are disagreements within the community and consensus is not fully achieved, taking policy actions in response to a concern remains challenging.

According to Schlesinger and Sproull, clarity or transparency is essential for environmental scientists when sharing information with policy makers in helping to reduce policy uncertainty.  It is also necessary for researchers to have an understanding of the scientific basis for legislative proposals and the policy decisions associated with them.  Scientists have choices in terms of how they present their research and the role they play in political discussions and policy development.  While scientists and their organizations may agree on the finding regarding an issue, they may disagree on the best actions to take in response to their findings, in part related to differing values on a proposed policy. Policymakers can then become overwhelmed with the abundance of information being provided.

When policymakers are sorting through vast amounts of information from the scientific community, it can be challenging to determine which information is the most relevant to a particular issue or decision.  Communication between policymakers and the environmental science community can also be trying due to different fundamental perspectives, regardless of the issue (National Center for Atmospheric Research [NCAR], 2011).  Scientific data is but one of the factors in a policymaker’s decision process, which can include cultural, economic, and other values.

As reported in Schlesinger and Sproull, the National Academy of Sciences (NAS) stated that an effective assessment aims to integrate the concepts, methods, and results of the environmental sciences into a decision support framework.  However assessments that provide useful, credible scientific information to decision makers in a timely and clearly understandable manner remain the exception rather than the rule. This type of assessment will be essential if policy makers are to utilize scientific assessments before determining policy.  Development of assessment processes that link scientists and policy makers in a dialogue that encourages a mutual understanding of what is needed, what can be credibly specified, and how it can be said in a way that maintains both scientific credibility and political legitimacy is an essential component of strong environmental policy.  Making scientific data understandable and conveying that information in a useable format to policy makers, as well as the general population, will ensure that available data is employed effectively.

Scientific knowledge and technological developments are constantly changing; however this is not true of public policy. Policies that have been in place for years may not reflect the latest knowledge.  Better communication of scientific information to policy maker’s offers the expectation that policy may be amended as supporting scientific evidence is amassed (Walt, 1994).

Despite the challenges, scientific and technical knowledge and guidance can provide policymakers with an opportunity to make their decisions based on the best information available.  Scientific research will play a more significant role in determining policy if research models are improved and there is less uncertainty in the findings.  Conveying pertinent information to policy makers in a clear and timely manner will enhance the role of science in policy decisions.  The potential exists for the scientific community to play a more significant role in environmental policy decisions if they can work through the existing challenges.

Brian P. Doyle is sustainable manager at NCH, Naples, Florida.


Fensham, P. J. (2008). Science education policy-making: Eleven emerging issues. United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization. Retrieved from: http://unesdoc.unesco.org/?images/?0015/?001567/?156700e.pdf

National Center for Atmospheric Research. (2011). The weather and climate impact assessment science program. Retrieved from: http://www.assessment.ucar.edu/?overview.html

Schlesinger, J., & Sproull, R. L. (2001, December 4). What is the IPCC and how does it work? In Climate science and policy: Making the connection [Report]. George C. Marshall Institute.  Retrieved from: http://www.marshall.org/?pdf/?materials/?86.pdf

Stine, D. D. (2009, May 27). Science and technology policymaking: A primer (Rep. No. RL34454). Retrieved from: http://www.fas.org/?sgp/?crs/?misc/?RL34454.pdf

Walt, G. (1994). How far does research influence policy? European Journal of Public Health, 4, 233-235. Retrieved from: http://www2.eastwestcenter.org/?research/?popcomm/?pdf/?2_Selected_Readings/?Walt_article.pdf

World Health Organization. (2011). Policy brief: Impact assessment – bridging science and decisions. Retrieved from: http://www.who.int/?heli/?impacts/?en/



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