This is a question I’ve been pondering over the past few days. Lots of social science research has found that in situations when uncertainty in high such as where decision-makers are grappling with lots of “unknown unknowns”, and there isn’t a values consensus (e.g. there isn’t agreement on ends and means), that information doesn’t matter. It may be invoked by some actors to support positions they already hold, and/or it may be used symbolically, but it isn’t central to decision-making or policy. Such research has also consistently found that peoples’ values are not derived from facts.
These research findings struck a chord because of a case study I’ve recently been working on which looks at a scenario process that was conducted under conditions of deep uncertainty. What I found was that actors selectively used the information that was produced to support a position they already held on the issues. Whilst the intent of the exercise in question was, in part, to change or challenge actors’ mental models; instead the opposite tended to occur (i.e., reinforcement of pre-existing views).
What should researchers do if they’re operating in such contexts? Given that the basic activities of research includes gathering data, analysing it to produce findings (i.e. information) and reports, etc, this suggests that these activities are largely a waste of time if they’re done in such a context.
It also struck a chord regarding the foresight work (or so-called “futures”) work I’d done. Often these methods (e.g. scenario methods, etc) are used due to the level of uncertainty; indeed some foresight experts argue the central aim of foresight is to enable actors to better cope with uncertainty. However, a common finding of assessments of such methods is that they tend to have a weak influence on subsequent decision-making or policy-making – my own experience confirms this, too. So, what to do?
Adjust or lower expectations?
One possibility is simply to recognise that science and research (more generally) doesn’t determine decisions but can support them. For example, political decisions will always be political and, perhaps, in some cases science and research can play supporting roles. Decision-making within the private sector can also be political, with internal strategy contests and related political processes.
Linked with this perhaps the researcher should just accept that their work will mostly likely be used selectively and as political “ammunition” and simply make peace with this reality.
Work in different contexts?
Another obvious possibility is simply to seek other contexts where information matters more. However, given this would mean not working on wicked problems (e.g. climate change) it wouldn’t be an attractive option for many researchers who want to help to address such complex social problems.
Consider different models of how knowledge and science are used in decision-making
The so-called “linear model” of the role of science in policy proposes that we first need to secure agreement on the facts and that this is the essential prerequisite for policy action. A related idea is that science can be used to reach political consensus by making these decisions science-based (not political). Scholars have termed alternative models an “interactive model” or a “stakeholder model”, amongst others. Carol Weiss’ work on research utilisation, for example, discusses an interactive model where “the process is not one of linear order from research to decision [i.e. the linear model] but a disorderly set of interconnections and back-and-forthness that defies neat diagrams”. Weiss discusses other models such as the political model of utilisation (research as ammunition) and tactical models of utilisation, as well as others that are more commonly discussed (e.g. knowledge-driven policy model, problem-solving model). She points out that research utilisation can be more subtle and diverse than many people think.
If we consider the example of climate change, political scientist Roger Pielke Jr has argued that a key barrier to greater action is the belief that everyone needs to believe the science and have a common view on this in order for the politics (policy-making) to progress, i.e. the linear model. Instead, action may be enabled by first searching for policies that meet the needs of various actors and then, subsequent to this, finding evidence to support those specific actions (which is sometimes pejoratively termed “policy-based evidence”) – i.e. decision → research (not the other way around).
Adopt/Play a different role(s)
A further possibility is to shift from being a researcher or scientist to adopting an explicit role in political process (e.g. becoming a politician or an activist) or an alternative advisory approach. Action on wicked problems may need to be imposed, which entails the use of power and authority, or may require political actors to reach political compromises, both of which a scientist or researcher cannot do without compromising their existing roles. As such playing different roles may also be a choice that’s worth considering.
Pielke Jr makes the related argument that if a researcher or a scientist moves into the policy advice space that leads them down the path of the politicisation of science (although this is not necessarily a bad thing). Pielke Jr also argues that experts need to ask themselves some key questions:
- Are you trying to compel certain decisions (that you prefer) or to empower decision-making?
- Are you only trying to resolve empirical questions that can be resolved by science, or are you seeking to play other roles such as determining or expanding choices on decision options?
- Is an issue so important to you that you want to be an advocate? If so, are you trying to leverage (often non-transparently) the authority of Science to compel the actions you wish to see taken, or are you willing to openly be a participant in political processes?
- Are you, in fact, being a “stealth” issue advocate whilst claiming to do “pure science”?
To those questions, I would add: what do you do when information doesn’t matter (or, at the very least, matters less than you would like it to)? What choices has this led you to make?