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Scientists and policymakers: wave goodbye to the valley of death

01 June 2013

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Paul Harris is Deputy Director of the HC Coombs Policy Forum and a Special Advisor on government and international relations to the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO), Australia’s national science agency.

We need to ditch misleading metaphors which imply that linking science to innovation or policy is the task of heroic pioneers write PAUL HARRIS, RYAN MEYER and PEAT LEITH.

Powerful metaphors are often used to describe the challenges of linking science to its application and use in the world. We often hear about the gap that needs to be bridged, the chasm between two cultures, the insurmountable barriers or, most evocative of all, the valley of death.

The common theme is a separation that can only be crossed at great risk to the career of the intrepid explorer. These metaphors are negative, and can be unhelpful for those who occupy the space between science and decision-making. And a lot of the time, such metaphors are empirically wrong.

Linking science to policy or innovation often involves working across cultural and professional boundaries, and reconciling different timelines and expectations. But however you describe the landscape between these activities, it is not littered with bleached bones. Rather it is home to a variety of diligent, smart, hard working and creative people. It is more akin to Plato’s agora than a chasm of despair: a place where our most closely held ideas about knowledge and democracy are continually being tested, reworked and improved.

So let’s do away with valley of death metaphors, which rest on flawed linear assumptions and reinforce the idea that linking science to policy is the task of heroic pioneers. It doesn’t take a solitary, genius scientist or a brave, visionary policy-maker to cross the valley of death and come out the other side. It takes an entirely different kind of courage: to work in teams, to share accountability and to develop and maintain complex relationships with other people who have different training, expertise and interests.

Fortunately, we now have access to a wealth of research and practical experience from those who spend their days turning the wasteland into an agora. We recently organised two workshops – one hosted by the HC Coombs Policy Forum at the Australian National University in Canberra, and the other by the Tasmanian Institute of Agriculture in Hobart – which brought people together to share their experiences of linking science and decision-making.

Participants at these workshops drew three main conclusions. First, rather than drawing rigid boundaries around science, policy, citizenship and innovation, we need collaborations to reach across these spaces and respect expertise on all sides. Second, such collaboration requires trust, mutual understanding, skillful communication and a careful attention to process. Third, scientists and the users of science are not solely responsible for making this happen; we need organisations that “live” in the boundaries, and specialise in working across various domains (what are sometimes referred to as “boundary organisations”).

Scientists and policymakers do this too of course, but a distinguishing feature of boundary organisations is that such integration is their primary function, not an optional extra. As a result, they have often developed professional approaches, and ways of evaluating their success.

But with so much going on in the boundaries, why do old metaphors persist? And whose interests do they serve? The leaders of the scientific community sometimes don’t help. On a recent visit to Australia, Sir Paul Nurse, the president of the UK’s Royal Society, used the tired “valley-of-death” metaphor to frame his keynote talk. Nurse rightly argued that all parts of the innovation system are important. But his remedy for improving links between science and policy was essentially more support for the best scientists, who would then come up with solutions to complex societal problems. If the landscape, in his eyes, includes nothing more than science and users of science, separated by a desolate wasteland, he’s missing a crucial part of the solution.

People, projects and organisations are already populating the valley. But they don’t always ask for, or receive recognition for their work. They can help a researcher to frame a project in order to maximise its relevance. Or they can help a government agency or local council to access particular kinds of expertise or data to help address a thorny policy problem.

Whether you’re a scientist or a potential user of science, rather than attempt a solitary journey through the valley of death in a hermetically sealed vehicle – windows up, music blasting, AC on max – why not put the top down, take in your surroundings, and make a few pit stops along the way?

Paul Harris is deputy director of the HC Coombs Policy Forum in the Crawford School of Public Policy at the Australian National University. Ryan Meyer is associate scientist at the California Ocean Science Trust, university fellow with the Research Institute for Environment and Livelihoods at Charles Darwin University. Peat Leith is a research fellow and co-convenor of the Science for Society and Policy Program at the Tasmanian Institute of Agriculture at the University of Tasmania.

This article was originally published on the Guardian: http://www.guardian.co.uk/science/political-science/2013/may/31/scientists-policymakers-goodbye-valley-death

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