Produce, use, influence: The role of information in marine environmental decision-making

Photo by Dennis Jarvis
Photo by Dennis Jarvis

Dr Bertrum MacDonald, Head of Environmental Information: Use and Influence research program, Dalhousie University

Bertrum contributed this article as part of our call for blogposts on conference themes. Submit your blogpost: 

How many of us have read or are aware of publications by governmental and non-governmental organizations on the state of coastal and marine environments? How many of us have then used these reports to work on environmental issues or in policy contexts? If asked, can you describe how information has been or is being used to provide solutions to threats to the world’s coastal and ocean environments?

Paradoxically, while the volume of evidence is extensive and increasing, the state of marine environments continue to deteriorate at alarming rates.

Since 2002, the Environmental Information: Use and Influence Research Program (EIUI) at Dalhousie University, Halifax, Canada has been building greater understanding of the production, use, and influence of marine scientific information in public management settings.We feel that the first step to address problems at the science-policy interface is to understand the role of existing information at this interface.

With a focus on marine environmental scientific information, we are asking:

1) What are the enablers and barriers to use of scientific information as it moves through policy and decision making processes?

2) What qualities and filters do policy and decision makers use to select information sources from the large volume of available information?

3) How and in what forms is information used by various stakeholder groups as they work on environmental issues?

4) What is the role of the news media, social media networks, and other web information pathways in the creation of marine environmental policies?

5) What metric(s) will account for indirect or direct use and influence of information in public policy contexts?

Our research is conducted primarily through case studies with governmental, intergovernmental, and non-governmental organizations representing national, regional, and global settings where marine environmental information is used in the development and implementation of environmental policies. We are involved in ongoing research partnerships with many of these governmental organizations and are also engaging new partners.

Due to the complexities of the science-policy interface, our case studies utilize mixed methodologies (citation analysis, content analysis of policy documents, interviews of various actors in public sector management, direct observation of meetings, discourse analysis, surveys, and network analysis) to achieve comprehensive understanding of the pathways of marine environmental information from production to use and influence in public sector settings.

Our studies have shown that many organizations rely on their own publications as a primary means to communicate results of research and related activities. But, in spite of using a range of techniques to disseminate their information, awareness promotion strategiesused by governmental organizations are more likely to reach the interested public – established groups that historically respond to government surveys and interviews – than the general public in public policy development. The usefulness and influence of information are affected by the level of stakeholder involvement in production of information and the communication of information to all stakeholders where technical language can still be a significant barrier.

Our findings have prompted recommendations about the communication of scientific information that were presented to the case study organizations to increase the use of their information in policy and decision-making. For instance, the Canadian provincial Nova Scotia Department of Fisheries and Aquaculture and the Gulf of Maine Council on the Marine Environment (GOMC) are considering ways to maintain existing partnerships with stakeholders, create new means to continuously engage the interested public, and communicate initiatives to reach the general public in order to increase understanding about coastal and marine issues.

Our studies have also highlighted the need for governmental organizations to employ numerous forms of communication. Organizations should continue to use traditional methods, e.g., news in print and audio formats, while increasing the use of new tools and techniques such as social media to engage diverse audiences. Social media are also likely to engage younger audiences. While some governmental organizations are wary of using social media, important steps are being taken by these organizations in the use of social media.

Clear guidelines for the production and distribution of publications will help to increase the effectiveness of these processes. Governmental organizations are now more aware of the need to consider the promotion of publications while in the production phase when audiences are identified and strategies are developed to ensure that the information reaches decision-makers.

As our research progresses we continue to generate important insights on information diffusion methods, information networks and decision-making processes, current and changing information seeking and sharing behaviours, and opportunities and barriers to information use at the boundary between science and policy knowledge management.

I lead the EIUI interdisciplinary research team (pictured) of faculty and graduate students. Our research capitalizes on the diverse expertise in the team: I study the communication of scientific information; Peter Wells, Adjunct Professor in Marine Affairs, aquatic toxicologist, and a former senior government research scientist; Elizabeth De Santo, faculty member in Environmental Studies at Franklin & Marshall College in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, with a research focus on institutional interactions having worked with intergovernmental and non-governmental conservation organizations; and Kevin Quigley, a faculty member in Public Administration specializing in public sector risk and strategic management. The Masters and Doctoral students also come from diverse backgrounds including information management, marine and environmental studies, resource management including fisheries, public administration, and law.

The conference on Science Advice to Governments is timely and directly relevant to the research conducted by the EIUI team. We particularly look forward to learning about the discussion in Panel 1: The process and systems for procuring evidence and developing/delivering scientific advice for government.