Christina Swanson learned at an early stage in her career that the intersection between science and policy seldom operates smoothly. While conducting her post-graduate research on fish in the San Francisco Delta, she was part of a team that presented a study to policymakers that included the results of their research and recommendations on what needed to be done in light of the findings.
The recommendations earned the researchers a strong rebuke from policymakers. She said, “They told us that we should not be telling them what to do.”
Never one to make the same mistake twice, Swanson made certain that the next time they submitted a report, it included the results but not the recommendations. This time the policymakers were frustrated that they didn’t know what they should do.
“It made me realize that I need to position myself in the middle of this,” Swanson said. “’The middle of this ‘are the points of contact between scientific researchers and the policymakers who are often in the position of implementing government action based on research.’ In the work I do I’m trying to bring the two disciplines and two fields closer together so we can achieve the goals we need.”
Swanson is now the Chief Scientist of the Natural Resources Defense Council. She will be joined by her peers from The Nature Conservancy, Environmental Defense Fund, World Wildlife Fund and the National Audubon Society for a forum at EcoSummit 2012 entitled Where Science and Policy Meet.
Swanson suggests that the difficult nature of the relationship between scientists and policymakers may have to do with the fact that neither side is comfortable with their role. She believes some scientists are reluctant to step outside the language of science, and many shy away from what they consider to be activism.
The public, on the other hand, is not comfortable with science. “I think a lot of people don’t understand what science is. They think it’s more complicated than what it is,” said Swanson. “I think science is about getting an answer to a question. How do you collect information? It’s such an integral part of our society. We are moving forward making progress, and we encounter problems, and it’s about how we address our problems.”
Swanson explains that organizations such as the Natural Resources Defense Council are often referred to as “bridge organizations” because it is their job to build the bridge between the science people and the policy people. She said, “We are out there to translate the ‘geek speak’ into normal English so we can work closely with our policymakers.”
The current climate debate, Swanson said, “has been very educational to scientists. We came into this thinking that if we had a better idea and could give them more factual information, we would convince them.” She said the answers to convincing the climate change skeptics “are coming from psychology and the social sciences because people make decisions not necessarily on the information but on the core values they have, the type of person they are.”
Swanson said scientists are doing a much better job of connecting with the public and persuading policymakers of the importance of preserving our natural surroundings. “We can bring all these people together to further our mission,” according to Swanson. “It’s a tremendously powerful, effective way to address our problems.”
See other articles in the June 2012 newsletter:
- Letter from the EcoSummit 2012 Host Committee Chair
- A Field Trip to Stone Lab
- Welcome to Columbus: Building a Sustainable Neighborhood
- E.O. Wilson Draws the Connections Between Mankind and Forest Floor