Science-Policy Interaction

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Science-policy interaction is understood here as “the ways in which research impacts on policy and policy draws on research”


The Coastal Wiki contains a great deal of policy relevant information. Nevertheless, policy makers often complain about a lack of policy relevant research results and scientists often complain about the ignorance of policy makers of their policy relevant research results. Bridging the gap between policy and science is an issue which has triggered intensive debates over many years. No simple recipes have emerged. This article highlights some major causes of poor science-policy interaction and is intended as a help to avoid obvious pitfalls. It addresses in particular science-policy interaction related to environmental and societal issues.

The Knowledge Cycle

Figure: The Knowledge Cycle: an idealistic conceptual model of Science-Policy Interaction.

The knowledge cycle depicted in the figure provides an appealing model for science-policy interaction. The simplest interpretation of the picture is: science delivers facts and figures on which policy can build and policy formulates demands for lacking knowledge. However, reality is more complex, for several reasons.

The role of science is often seen as providing hard facts and figures. However, facts and figures produced by science generally refer to specific temporally and geographically bounded situations, which seldom match the situations of practical interest. Situations of policy interest often lay in future and are subject to more interactions of greater complexity and to different, often hardly known boundary conditions. Results of relevance for policy require extrapolation or generalization, relying on assumptions or models. But models are abstract intellectual constructions; they do not represent the complexity of the real world. The science input to policy is therefore cursed with uncertainty and arbitrariness, especially in situations where underlying (natural, social) processes are not well understood. Science is an evolutionary (and at times even revolutionary) process, often with competing explanations for why things are as they are. Science-based policymaking may even become an illusion in cases of strongly conflicting scientific opinions and frequently changing insight and forecasts.

A second important reason for failure of the knowledge cycle are the different time scales at which science and policy progress: the knowledge cycle does not fit the policy cycle. Policy generally moves faster than science. Ongoing research produces new scientific evidence while policy decisions had to be taken already on the basis of earlier preliminary insight and forecasts. New theory, concepts, and empirical “facts” may emerge, pointing to opposite conclusions. This may frustrate the policy process and undermine the willingness of policymakers to listen to scientists and to invest in research.

Policymakers and scientists have different perceptions of scientific knowledge. Policymakers want stable knowledge based on scientific consensus. For scientists, knowledge is work in progress that advances by questioning and debating controversial evidence and arguments.

Conflicts between science and policy may also arise from different perceptions regarding the weight of scientific evidence in policy decisions. Policymakers base their judgments not only on scientific evidence but also on their own experience (tacit knowledge) or on information provided by non-scientific stakeholders. Such knowledge may be considered by technical experts as scientifically invalid. Disputes often already originate from different views on how a policy problem should be defined.

Can policy relevant research be objective and value-free?

Research results in the field of ICZM have societal implications when used by policymakers. Societal implications are not value free; they can be "good" or they can be "bad", according to different moral value judgements. What if scientific research yields socially undesirable outcomes? Can scientists remain indifferent to the societal implications of their research results? Should scientists privilege socially desirable outcomes? For example, turning research on sustainability into research for sustainability? The science community is strongly divided about this dilemma[1]. It entails a serious risk, the risk of losing scientific authority: science that is seen by policymakers as just another opinion.

Ten Ways of Conceiving the Research Policy Dynamic

Policy makers and scientists approach problems from viewpoints that are basically different. However, better understanding these different viewpoints contributes to filling the science-policy gap. Here we cite ten views of the problem of science-policy interaction, from the review paper Bridging Research and Policy by Diane Stone, Simon Maxwell and Michael Keating.[2]

  1. The problem can be defined as a public goods problem, where there is an inadequate supply of policy relevant research.
  2. The problem can be defined as one of a lack of access to research, data and analysis for both researchers and policy makers. Activities dedicated to improving both access to and the diffusion of knowledge should receive high priority.
  3. The problem can be defined as the poor policy comprehension of researchers towards both the policy process and how research might be relevant to this process. Overcoming this lack of understanding requires researchers to study the policy process, to demonstrate the relevance of research, and to build methodologies for evaluating research relevance.
  4. The problem can be represented as ineffective communication by researchers of their work. Improved communications strategies are consequently encouraged.
  5. The problem can be defined as societal disconnection of both researchers and decision-makers from those who the research is about or intended for, to the extent that effective implementation is undermined. The appropriate focus is on (for example) ‘participatory analysis’, ‘street-level bureaucracy’ and encouraging ‘public understanding of science’.
  6. The problem can be defined as the ignorance of politicians about the existence of policy relevant research, or the incapacity of over-stretched bureaucrats to absorb research. The solution – ‘building bridges’ or constructing ‘conveyor belts’ – takes form, for example, of conferences and workshops, or the appointment of specialists to government committees.
  7. The problem can be conceived in terms of policy makers and leaders being dismissive, unresponsive or incapable of using research. This problem requires improvement in governmental capacity to recognize and absorb research, as well as in the capacities, personnel and resources of the state structure more generally.
  8. The problem can be conceived of as not simply a question of research having a direct policy impact, but one of broader patterns of socio-political, economic and cultural influence. This leads to questioning of the domains of research relevance, impact and influence, and requires the adoption of a longer-term perspective where research may take a generation to exert real influence.
  9. The problem can be defined as one of power relations. This generates concerns about the contested validity of knowledge(s), issues of censorship and control, and the question of ideology.
  10. The problem can be viewed as one of the validity of research, and problems relating to the question: what is knowable? Attention is then focused on different epistemologies and ‘ways of knowing’.

A few guidelines for effective science-policy interaction

Roger Clark and Errol Meidinger[3] propose in their review paper Integrating science and policy in natural resource management several strategies for successful science-policy interaction.

The integration of new scientific information into policy is greatly facilitated for policies developed according to the principles of adaptive management. These principles emphasize uncertainty, the existence of multiple competing hypotheses, collective learning and incremental change. Adaptive management therefore can more easily cope with the continuing flow of new information produced by ongoing research. Adaptive management is also an appropriate strategy for learning what works and why, so that we can apply the lessons in the course of policy implementation.

Intermediaries between science and policy, individuals who can link the worlds of science and management and translate the concerns of one to members of the other, can be very helpful to streamline science-intensive policy processes. They are sometimes called “science brokers” or “boundary spanners”. Their efforts are generally aimed at evaluating, formulating, or altering management policy. They can also moderate cross-disciplinary working groups involving scientists and policymakers, to build a genuinely informed understanding of each other’s views and interests.

Clark and Meidinger mention several other important preconditions to successfully integrating science and policy:

  • clarity of objectives, processes, and desired outcomes;
  • clarity of roles and responsibilities of scientists, policymakers, and the public;
  • quality control through open peer and public review;
  • effective communication and involvement of stakeholders throughout the process.

The climate debate on the causes and impacts of global warming is an illustration of difficult science-policy interaction related to uncertainty and arbitrariness. The assessment process established by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change provides an example of how to deal with this problem. Key characteristics of scientific international assessments, such as IPCC, are:

  • they are demand driven, with involvement in the assessment process of the full range of decision-makers who would implement the potential responses;
  • they are designed as an open, transparent, representative and legitimate process, with well-defined principles and procedures;
  • they involve experts from all relevant stakeholder groups in the scoping, preparation, peer-review, and outreach/communication;
  • the process incorporates institutional as well as local and indigenous knowledge whenever appropriate;
  • results and analyses are technically accurate;
  • conclusions are policy-relevant but not policy-prescriptive;
  • conclusions are evidence-based and not value-laden, i.e. they are devoid of ideological concepts and value-systems, recognizing that the assessment conclusions will be used within in a range of different value-systems;
  • they cover risk assessment and management;
  • they present different points of view;
  • they quantify, or at least qualify, the uncertainties involved.

Science-Policy Interaction in the context of ICZM

Science-policy interaction is essential for the implementation of Integrated Coastal Zone Management (ICZM). The ICZM Recommendation of the European Union states, as one of the eight principles of good ICZM: “Adaptive management during a gradual process which will facilitate adjustment as problems and knowledge develop. This implies the need for a sound scientific basis concerning the evolution of the coastal zone.” The Evaluation report of the ICZM Recommendation stresses the need for improving the knowledge base for ICZM and recommends “to provide guidance and develop human capacities through education and training and to support ICZM training centers, staff-exchange opportunities, university courses and advanced adult education”. Capacity building for educating coastal managers is substantiated in several Coastal Wiki articles, e.g. Capacity Building Needs Associated to the ICZM Cycle, Consultation on Maritime Policy: the issue of Capacity Building and Problem structuring in decision-making processes. However, the ten views above also point to a lack of policy awareness of researchers – an aspect that needs to be incorporated in Capacity Building programs. The development of Decision support tools is an important step in bridging science and policy, although it should be recognized that the use of these systems in decision-making processes is still limited. The Coastal Wiki is another major effort to convey scientific insight to policy makers. The Main Page reminds authors that the Coastal Wiki is primarily meant for disseminating knowledge to a broader audience than the circles of specialists working at the frontiers of science. Many articles are written from a science perspective, though, and only a minority of articles is authored by policy makers. This in a way illustrates the difficulty of establishing real science-policy interaction.


  1. Van der Hel, S. 2018. Science for change: A survey on the normative and political dimensions of global sustainability research. Global Environmental Change 52: 248–258
  2. Diane Stone, Simon Maxwell and Michael Keating. Bridging Research and Policy. Contribution to an international workshop held at Warwick University in 2001, funded by the UK Department for International Development.
  3. Roger Clark, Errol Meidinger [and others]. 1998. Integrating science and policy in natural resource management: lessons and opportunities from North America. Gen. Tech. Rep. PNW-GTR-441. Portland, OR: U.S. Department of Agriculture, Forest Service, Pacific Northwest Research Station. 22 p.

See also

External Links

Further reading

Bodo Von Bodungen and Kerry Turner, editors. Science and Integrated Coastal Management. Berlin: Dahlem University Press, 2001, 378 pp. ISBN 3 934504 02 7

The main author of this article is Job Dronkers
Please note that others may also have edited the contents of this article.

Citation: Job Dronkers (2021): Science-Policy Interaction. Available from [accessed on 17-06-2021]