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Assumptions when working at the policy, research and practice interface

What do the terms knowledge brokering, transfer, exchange, translation and mobilisation actually mean and what’s the difference between them all.​

Why you need to take time to understand the sectors you work with or risk losing time, trust and buy in.

“Researchers don’t understand how we work” This is a common statement we hear when we speak to government or not for profit professionals working at the interface of research, policy and practice.  Understanding the scope and scale at which staff in government and not for profit sectors work, along with the need to meet the needs and contexts of the whole state or nation, is often misunderstood by researchers or assumed to be impossible to do.  This leads to many problems particularly if working on projects. 

However this can also be problematic and act as a barrier when trying to share knowledge, whether to influence decision making, build trust, or achieve buy-in.  Therefore what can research, policy and practice professionals do to ensure effective knowledge exchange?

Fernandez argues that incorrect assumptions by scientists around the role of expert knowledge in decision-making limits their influence and impact in the decision-making process.In this discussion paper, Fernandez argues that there is confusion among environmental scientists about the role of expert knowledge in decision making, focusing on four widespread assumptions:

  • That better information is all that it takes for individuals and societies to change their behaviour in favour of the environment
  • That such information mostly involves hard data (i.e. peer reviewed), properly communicated
  • That scientific consensus – even certainty – is indispensible for managerial and political action
  • That scientists are in a privileged position to provide an unbiased view and to propose the ‘best’ solutions on issues close to the field of their expertise

The author analyses these assumptions and their consequences, pleading for a more realistic attitude towards ecological research and argues that not only are these assumptions wrong, but that they are detrimental because they act to limit environmental scientists influence and impact in the decision-making process. Furthermore Fernandez (2016) argues that tacit knowledge (i.e. non-codified knowledge) can have a large influence on how issues are perceived, prioritised and addressed.

The author includes a ‘cheat sheet’ for environmental scientists to guide their interactions with decision-makers and other non-scientists, aimed at avoiding counter-productive arguments or assumptions. The sheet includes 12 common complaints that may arise from oversimplification of the decision making process to address complex, context dependent and value-laden environmental issues and offers advice on why each of these complaints could be counterproductive.

At the very least, this paper may encourage its readers to be more open and reflexive to the views of others and accept that addressing complex issues involves a range of actors, choices and values. This is an argument favouring the need to engage more, not less, but to be mindful of how you engage.

This annotated bibliography was developed from the following paper:
Fernandez, R.J (2016) How to be a more effective environmental scientist in management and policy contexts. Environmental Science and Policy 64:171-176.