Joint fact-finding: A practical method of scientific advising

In the face of conflicts, such as the Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear power plant incident, societies need effective mechanisms to link scientific information to the policy-making processes which applies societal values and tolerance for risk or uncertainty. Photo courtesy of Michaela
In the face of conflicts, such as the Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear power plant incident, societies need effective mechanisms to link scientific information to the policy-making processes which applies societal values and tolerance for risk or uncertainty. Photo courtesy of Michaela/flickr

By Masahiro Matsuura, Janesse Brewer, and Peter Adler

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Decision-makers in the public policy arena are often requested to provide the evidence for their decisions, backed by sufficient scientific expertise.  In the same vein, scientific information has become a major source of public policy controversy.

The Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear power plant incident, for example, has triggered a major controversy over the management of radiation risks in Japan partly due to the lack of conclusive information on low-dose radiation risks. In the United States, decision-makers are grappling with issues ranging from genetically modified agriculture to renewable energy strategies that can replace fossil fuel sources. In the face of such conflicts, societies need effective mechanisms to link scientific information to the policy-making processes which applies societal values and tolerance for risk or uncertainty.

Joint fact-finding is a mechanism that seeks to resolve science-intensive disputes and incorporate the best-available science into policy-making. It has been practiced mostly in North America for more than thirty years in the field of urban planning and environmental dispute resolution.

In joint fact finding processes, information users, such as stakeholders and decision-makers, take responsibility for framing questions, obtaining data, and summarizing information. Knowledgeable stakeholders from different sides of an issue are brought together and asked to consider the kind of information they need. Scientific experts are asked to take the humble role of assistants who help stakeholders frame scientific questions, obtain data, and undertake an analysis.

The users explore the assumptions and processes behind scientific analysis. In a conventional scientific advising scheme, an expert might explain the conclusion of an analysis, but not its assumptions, method, and uncertainties. Even if such a shortcut might seem efficient, it can cost a lot more in a long run when the expert’s prediction is contested or turns out to be “wrong.” Therefore, the users of the information must be able and willing to, understand the assumptions and methods that lead to an expert’s conclusion.

In order to make joint fact finding processes work, professional facilitators, mediators, or process managers, must be involved to help organize and manage the process. They have expertise in designing such dialogue among stakeholders for collaborative problem-solving. The four decades of experience in North America has produced hundreds of such professional facilitators in the field of urban planning, environmental, and health policy-making.

After jointly identifying scientific “facts,” stakeholders might present their findings to decision-makers. In other cases, depending on their mandate, continue deliberation over policy options and reach  consensus recommendations for consideration by decision-makers.

There have been many successful instances of such joint fact finding exercises over three decades.

In the Brooklyn Navy Yard resource recovery plant case in 1984, local residents organized a movement against the plan to build a garbage incinerator in their neighborhood by the city. A local scientist sided with the residents by claiming that the risk of cancer would be raised significantly by possible dioxin emissions from the plant.

The city government, however, defended its own analysis indicating a negligible additional risk from the plant. Due to the stalemate between the city government and the local residents, the local Academy of Science organized a public forum in which scientific evidence from both sides was examined through a dialogue facilitated by MIT professor Lawrence Susskind. Participants of this one-day forum found a major gap in the assumptions that each side employed: proponents used the most-likely case and opponents use the worst-case scenarios for predicting the outcomes.

In the end, both parties reached an agreement to build the plant with the condition that it would be shut down immediately if the emission standard was not met. This was one of the pioneering cases of joint fact finding in the United States.

A more recent case of joint fact finding includes a study group of possible health impacts of geothermal power plants on the island of Hawaii which concluded in 2013. While the expansion of geothermal power, as a source of renewable energy, has been explored on the island, nearby residents are concerned about the possible health impacts from hydrogen sulfide emissions.

Directed by the Mayor of Hawai‘i County in Hilo, a joint fact finding process was initiated to examine long-running allegations of health harms from periodic hydrogen sulfide emissions. Twelve stakeholder representatives were invited to a series of four meetings in nine months. The group was asked to recommend the general eight parameters of a longitudinal health study, which is now underway.

The use of such processes is not limited to the United States. For example, joint fact finding processes on offshore wind farm siting, biomass energy, and high-level nuclear waste disposition have been organized in Japan by one of the authors in the past. Similar processes, albeit they were not labeled as joint fact finding, were also exercised in Europe in the context of city planning.

In addition to the literature referred in this article, the resource materials from our recent workshop on joint fact-finding in March 2014 would help you further explore the practice of joint fact-finding, which is a practical method of scientific advising in the context of public policy controversies.

Masahiro (Masa) Matsuura, Ph.D. is Associate Professor for Science, Technology, and Innovation Governance Program at the Graduate School of Public Policy, the University of Tokyo.  He has been exploring the interface between scientific
experts and stakeholders in policy-making processes by looking at the practice of environmental dispute resolution and consensus building on urban and regional planning, energy policy, and ocean management.

Janesse Brewer, MPA has nearly 20 years experience as a mediator, facilitator, and advisor for complex multi-stakeholder policy issues.  She is President of 23.4 Degrees and part of the ACCORD 3.0 Network where she specializes in helping stakeholders navigate their way to solutions where science, ethics, and values intersect.

Peter S. Adler, PhD is a planner and conflict resolution expert specializing in science-intensive policy matters. He has held executive positions with The Keystone Center, the Hawaii Justice Foundation and the Supreme Court of Hawaii, teaches advanced negotiation at the University of Hawaii and heads The ACCORD3.0 Network, a group of 25 experts in resolving stubborn policy challenges.