How to make “good policy” from “good science”? An agroeco-infodump with Steven Rosenzweig

In other “original content” news, the following conversation on ResearchGate with my co-author Steven Rosenzweig seemed like it might be useful, so I thought I’d give it a (slightly?) larger audience than the comments section for my 2013 conference presentation, The need for action, ethics and values in ecology: Examples from food systems and conservation (though thank you to all of the countless folks who no doubt have been closely following it with baited breath!)
Steven commented:
I think your point about the disconnect between “good science in” and “good policy out” is as salient as ever. I’ve often fantasized about really diving into the solution implementation literature, which it appears you may have done. Is it as enlightening as you would have hoped? I feel as if there is more analysis to be done about why we aren’t seeing the environmental policies we would expect by looking at surveys of public environmental concern. Maybe I’m still swimming in pessimism of the election, but many federal politicians aren’t beholden to the public or to the truth, and the incentive structure in policymaking isn’t necessarily designed to reward well reasoned and forward thinking decision-making. Where do scientists fit in in this new political reality? I think you may be right that we need to enter the political and moral realm more explicitly.
Writing back to him, I pointed to some sources others might find useful:
Thanks for the comment, Steven Rosenzweig .
From my point of view, the “solution implementation literature” is fully as enlightening as I would have hoped, though of course what it did not provide was a straight-forward recipe for fixing things.
That said, it has offered any number of useful insights.
One, as well established in numerous venues, science is not and cannot be “neutral,” particularly with regards important issues of the day. (Even the choice of a researcher to focus on one issue versus another, and seek to procure public or private resources for it, is a powerful signal of what that researcher considers important, and puts at the very minimum support for their research as having a higher priority in their mind than other research, and implicitly higher than other uses of public funds. The fact that researchers often don’t think of it this way does nothing to decrease the force or effects of this dynamic and its implications.)
This may or may not be a point I have made before
I continued —
Two, policies almost never get changed/passed/improved without a policy advocate. One necessary corresponding idea is thus that if a scientist has an idea about proper/better policies, and incorporates it into their work (motivations, questions, or conclusions), they are implicitly assuming one of the following:
(a) Someone involved in policy will read their article/ideas and advocate for it on their behalf;
(b) Their article/ideas may influence a broader consensus, such that someone involved in policy will be influenced by the “proper” synthesis of this consensus and advocate for appropriate corresponding policy ideas;
(c) Policy advocates are not necessary and that policy-making bodies as a whole proceed based on careful assessment of often-complex, often-contradictory, often-paywalled, often-technical body of research, and make time for this above other completely valid priorities (and any questionable ones as well).
None of these are true or present. A scientist with ideas for proper policy who does not advocate on their ideas’ own behalf, or work with others who may be willing to do so, is consigning him or herself to very, very low probabilities of having any important influence on policies.
Further, ethically speaking, scientists should not assume that there is unlimited time for everyone in society to consider each problem in its details, and so in the scheme of things, priorities have to be made. Scientists who are not involved in considering the larger political economy–competing priorities and effects on others of their preferred policies, whether directly or from opportunity costs–again are hobbling their ability to be effective.
I have a rather long bit on how policy change *does* work, but for short versions, I highly recommend Paul Cairney’s work: https://paulcairney.wordpress.com/ . His “1000 word” summaries are very useful.
Hmm…. I also would add that something scientists seem loathe to consider “how much evidence is *enough* evidence for action?” in their opinion. While evidence & research are important and necessary, we too often act like it is possible or desirable for things to slow down and wait for nice, clear research, instead of the constant need to make decisions in the absence of certainty. When scientists lack any idea of competing priorities, limitations on budget, etc, their ideas are all the more likely to be ignored.
But I suppose the SHORT SHORT version of policy implementation is I am quite convinced we cannot achieve many of our policy objectives–substantive equity, sustainability, halting and adapting to climate change, stopping biodiversity loss, food security–fully within our current governance systems. From many researchers, but including Elinor Ostrom and Prugh, Costanza & Daly, I believe there is clear and compelling evidence that a more participatory democracy is a necessary but not sufficient condition for solving these various problems. While many see political change as hopeless or too slow, I would point out that political change obviously *does* happen, so while it does not happen on a set schedule, it behooves us to work towards it, as working towards it makes it more likely to happen; and that I think there is ample evidence we don’t have an alternative, so however long it takes is how long it takes, but that there are no effective shortcuts. (Prugh, Costanza and Daly argue that top-down/benevolent dictator approaches seem attractive with reference to stopping environmental catastrophe, but that there is ample evidence that this does not, and is extremely unlikely to ever, work.)
In the “meantime”:
The snake finally eats its own tail! I’ve managed again to link to myself.
Steven made the claim (which I cannot scientifically verify) that he found these responses enlightening, and that others would, too. I leave that question to you, dear reader. (Or readers, if there actually is more than one of you.)

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