Tooling up the Science-policy Interface

Unlike molecules and atoms, collisions between scientists and policy makers are unlikely to result in predictable bonding. Instead the elements of science and policy often act like those immiscible liquids – oil and water.

Communication difficulties between policy makers and scientists arise for a number of reasons. For instance, scientists disseminate their findings mostly through academic publications, but policy makers generally do not have the time or technical expertise to find, read and understand this material. Policy makers want solutions while scientists are trained to explore problems. Scientists tend to carefully point out risk and uncertainty while policy makers tend to be terrified of these. And then there’s the language issue. As a non-specialist audience, policy makers are unlikely to understand technical language, while scientists may find politics-speak confusing or ambiguous.

Each year a significant amount of time, money and intellectual effort is spent on environmental science research. However, to protect people and the planet, the findings of this research must be integrated into legislation and policy so that it can make a concrete difference. The space where science and policy meet and interact (or not!) is known as the science-policy interface, or SPI for short. While the worlds of science and politics must come together to ensure that legislation is evidence-based and effective, communications between these two spheres can be difficult.

BRIDGE, linking science and policy, is a TCD Geography research project that aims to build a suite of tools to improve communication between environmental scientists and policy makers.  The use of scientific information in environmental policy formation should make this policy more effective. The BRIDGE science-policy communications toolkit is designed by looking at what works well elsewhere and also by the communication needs of scientists and policy makers in Ireland.

The BRIDGE toolkit design is grounded in the essential elements of good science-policy practice, such as two-way communication, networking and knowledge-brokering, where intermediaries act as translators of knowledge and facilitators of communication. The BRIDGE project focuses on three core environmental policy areas: biodiversity, climate change, and water quality and management. These sectors have been identified by government, as well as economic and environmental organisations, as being key to Ireland’s sustainability strategy.

An interesting aspect of this project is that the toolkit is being co-produced by those who will eventually use it (see Fig 1 below). Two workshops were run during the project to explore the communication difficulties, needs and views of leading researchers, policy makers and intermediaries such as environmental non-governmental organisations (ENGOs) and environmental journalists. This information has directed the design of the toolkit. Tools in the BRIDGE toolkit include strategies, exercises and guides for exploring the policy relevance of science, planning science-policy communications, creating science-policy content and building science-policy networks. It is intended that the completed toolkit will be available by Autumn 2013.

Fig 1: Co-production of the BRIDGE Toolkit

Authored by Joanne Rourke, Postdoctoral Researcher, TCD Geography

Cartoon Source:, original unknown


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