Missing links: Connecting science with environmental policy

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This report focuses on complex issues that face environmental policy makers, and analyses how science, research and technology can be used more effectively to address such issues. In doing so, it examines how the links between science, policy-making and the public interest can be strengthened to engender confidence in how policies are developed and what they will achieve.

 

Commissioner's preface

In this study we are interested in who is doing science and research, and how, rather than just what is being done. We look at what is driving science investment, the relationships between scientists and policy-makers and, most importantly, how environmental policy and decision makers are blending their knowledge from a range of sources. In short, we focus on the social, political and economic influences that shape environmental policy and decision-making.

Increasingly, solutions to environmental issues and progress on environmental sustainability demand greater understanding of very complex ecological systems, often over long timeframes. However, these two factors - complexity and long timeframes - do not fit comfortably with many current human, societal, economic and governance constructs.

We trust this contribution will stimulate thinking and further dialogue around environmental policy and decision-making, and our current capacities to deliver good policies.

 

Executive summary

Environmental policy-making imposes many pressures and responsibilities on central and local government decision makers. They must deal with complex issues that reveal limitations in our understanding of natural systems, and uncertainty about the extent of human impacts on those systems.

Single perspectives of specific scientific disciplines, worldviews and stakeholder interests will only lead to partial solutions. Today's complex environmental issues require research to be more integrative across scales of time and space, and to be more open to exploring their social dimensions. For science to effectively influence environmental policy, it must be credible, salient and legitimate.

We highlight some approaches to improving science-policy-stakeholder links, relationships and communication. We conclude with suggestions for forging better links and developing better processes to deal with complex environmental policy issues. 

Recommendations

  1. The Minister for the Environment establishes a process whereby changes in the state of New Zealand's environment are identified and reported on at regular intervals (at least every five years).
  2. The Minister of Research, Science and Technology establishes a process to undertake regular and systematic reviews of central government environmental agencies and regional councils to assess the effectiveness of their scientific and technological capacities and capabilities for environmental policy-making. The results of such reviews should be published.
  3. Environmental policy makers (such as central and local government elected representatives and their advisers) consider developing strategic, long-term, formal alliances with science providers to encourage scientific input throughout the policy cycle - from problem identification through to monitoring and evaluation of policy outcomes.
  4. Environmental policy makers explore options for improving communication links between scientists, policy makers and the public, including the use of 'boundary organisations'.
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