How to improve the dialogue between science and society. The case of global environmental change

The challenge of global environmental change

Global environmental change, which includes climate change, stratospheric ozone depletion, loss of biodiversity, changes in hydrological processes and the supply of freshwater, land degradation and stresses on food-producing systems significantly affects human health and well-being. Governments are recognizing that natural resources are not inexhaustible and that the environment can no longer provide a reliable base for development if we continue to operate in a “business-as-usual” mode.

Driven by society´s concerns for its own future, the role of science is evolving towards greater societal accountability and relevance. Policy is increasingly called upon to use knowledge based on scientific analyses and to take action to mitigate, regulate and adapt to global environmental change.


Global environmental change (GEC) science is at the forefront of the current evolution of science because it is asked to provide:

1.predictions on the rate, shape and extent of GEC, to decisions on mitigation options, and
3.guidance for adaptation to GEC.

Science, including GEC science, although responsive to policy, should be ahead of and quite society´s demands and should not be driven only by public agendas.

It is critical to construct the dialogue between science, policy and society in order to provide educated and effective responses to GEC. An analysis and understanding of the science-policy interface is needed to guide this process.

The inter-American Institute for Global Change Research (IAI) is an intergovernmental organization in the Americas dedicated to GEC research and its socioeconomic implications. The IAI fosters research beyond the scope of national programs in order to increase the scientific capacity of the region and inform and advise policy.
It supports research through multinational collaborative research networks (CRNs), involving over 450 scientists in 19 countries of the Americas.
This policy brief builds upon a range of forward-looking lessons that have emerged from the IAI-SCOPE analysis of GEC science-policy dialogue in te Americas.



ACTORS The scientist

Francis M. Cornford, a Professor of Classic in Cambridge, wrote in 1908 in his Microcosmographia Academica: “You think (do you not?) that you have only to state a reasonable case, and people must listen to reason and act upon at once. It is just this conviction that makes you so unpleasant. There is little hope of dissuading you; but has been convinced for son long that it is now time to do something else?”
Against this unpleasant conviction, how does global change science move towards presuation?

ACTORS The politicians

US President Herbert Hoover candidly recognized in his 1952 memoirs that a great silencer for the foolishness of an over-zealous decision-maker is to place him or her on “a research committee with a few persons who have a passion for truth… I can now disclose the secret that I created a dozen committees for that precise purpose”.


The first recorded environmental commission, a royal air pollution commission, was set-up in 1285 and deliberated for 21 years. Its recommendation to ban coal burning in London was permanently implemented in 1956, following the Great Smog of 1952.


Lessons learned from the IAI experience

IAI-SCOPE Assessment of GEC Science-Policy Dialogue in the Americas

Ten years of the IAI research, cooperation and networking experience were analyzed by the Scientific Committee on Problems of the Environment (SCOPE) and the IAI with the aim to assess the GEC science-policy dialogue in the Americas.
For the analysis, international experts on scientific and legal and industry, were invited to develop background chapters on the following aspects of the GEC science-policy interface:
Interdisciplinary (social/natural sciences)
Societal vulnerability
Communicating GEC science
Institutions as initiators and users of GEC science
International conventions as legal frameworks in which GEC science operates.

Investigators from IAI CRNs provided case studies on climate change, land use, ecosystem assessments, biodiversity and human well-being, focusing on the projects potential or real links to policy and society.

At a workshop held in Ubatuba, Brazil in December 2005, four chapters of a report to be published by SCOPE and IAI were developed to integrate the background chapters and the case studies. The following overarching issues were addressed:
Steering research towards policy relevance
Stakeholders and GEC science
Delivering GEC science to the policy process
Communicating science to the media, decision-makers and the public.



Making scientifically informed decision

Effective policy response to GEC requires the integration of political with scientific and technical consideration.

The reality of GEC obliges society to question the concepts of development and economic growth. Development of what? For whom? At what cost? At what pace and for how long?

Legitimacy of GEC policies is founded on the need to harmonize development with the capacity of life-support systems to support present and future societies needs. Thus legitimacy is founded on understanding and knowledge, and making decisions becomes a continuous learning process closely linked to science.

Early engagement of scientist and policy-makers, from the initial framing of the research question, promotes this learning process by building trust in both the science and policy process.

Changes in scientific or academic reward systems and funding mechanisms are needed to encourage policy engagement and interdisciplinary and catalyze science policy interactions.

Resource and land users typically have time horizons well beyond the duration of research projects or legislative periods. “Policy” should create an enabling environment that links these different time scales.




The Main Challenges to Science:


Achieving Societal and Policy Relevance

Societal and policy relevance of science is determined by attributes that should be learned through a dialogue between science, society and policy sectors.

GEC science transformation towards greater societal and policy relevance does not happen in a linear or planed process. Much of the current transformation takes place randomly as scientists and research institutions react to changes in science funding, societal attitudes and policies.

Credibility, Practicality, Usefulness, Accessibility and Acceptability are the main attributes of research that go beyond conventional measures of scientific quality and determine societal and policy relevance of GEC science.

While scientific credibility is based on peer-review, societal credibility is commonly based on trust. Developing trust depends on the policy process, on sharing scientific messages in understandable, non-ambiguous and unbiased terms and on responding to new needs as policy and society evolve.

Integration of scientific excellence, multinational and multidisciplinary cooperation and capacity-building generates an environment in which policy relevance is developed.

Policy relevance is further promoted by the exposure of researchers to societal needs as they work across cultures and perceptions in international research.


Achieving policy relevance of science

Establishing and maintaining credibility
-Building and maintaining trust and credibility between all partners is needed from the outset.
-Trust is frágil and when lost, recovery may be difficult.
-Long-term, stable and adequate science funding enhances credibility.
-Involving potential users is advantageous.

Ensuring acceptability
-Facilitating the understanding of uncertainty and/or dealing with natural variability.
-Mediating through actors with long-term involvement with policy-makers.
-Developing Decision Support Systems targeting immediate policy and operational use.
-Using pilot studies to demonstrate the usefulness of scientific knowledge.
-Publishing in high visibility journals.

Achieving practicality 
-Continuing commitment, being flexible and able to respond quickly.
-Being open to possibilities beyond initial objectives to meet new needs as policy evolves.
-Recognizing social, political and economic contexts is researching planning.
-Involving social scientists.

Demonstrating utility
-In influencing policy, “good science” is not enough.
-The potential relevance of scientific output may not ve immediately recognized by users.
-Fundamental research and monitoring can have long-term relevance for policy formulation.
-Basic research output is unlikely to fit the needs of the policy process.

Providing accessibility
-Communication with the user either directly or indirectly in understandable terms is critical.
-Developing a common language to communicate with users is a learning process.
-Using empirical observations as examples for explanation.
-Using appropriate and possibly novel formats to communicate science findings.


Linking GEC science to society


colUnderstanding global environmental change must be broad, multinational and multidisciplinary and must include the building of capacity to enhance future understanding.

Evaluating GEC knowledge needs continuous re-adjustments and dialogue to avoid mismatches between the mutual expectations of all concerned stakeholders. It requires diverse mechanisms for their engagement and often involvement of mediators such as non-governmental and intergovernmental organizations.

Valuing scientific information involves public perceptions and values, and discussion of global change therms such as risk and vulnerability, land use change, biodiversity, the environment and human well-being. This relies on advocacy, including by scientist yet, when scientists become advocates they must be careful not to sacrifice scientific credibility.

Deciding and acting translates knowledge and will into actions such as mitigation, regulation or adaptation. Reacting o new information and demanding new information closes the science-policy cycle, re-engaging science in the policy demands and societal concerns.
Funding agencies have a major role to play in this cycle by translating policy and placing research into societal context.