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Evidence, politics and power in public policy for the environment



Despite a recent emphasis on ‘evidence based policy’ accompanied by an abundance of ‘green’ policy instruments, experience from the European Union and OECD countries shows that decisions which truly aim to balance environmental considerations with social and economic ones remain thin on the ground. Moreover, many policies seem to fall short of, or directly contradict what the available ‘evidence’ suggests is required. This is a synthesis paper bringing together literature from the fields of political science, geography, sociology and science and technology studies to outline some of the obscurities relating to the use of scientific evidence in environmental decision-making. In this paper, we suggest that an exploration of three key inter-related issues is necessary to develop a richer understanding of why evidence and policy interact as they do. These are the nature of evidence itself; the normative, moral or ethical ‘politics’ of policy-making; and the operation of power in the policy process. Our primary goal is to bring various literatures together to better conceptualise the evidence–policy relationship. In so doing, we outline specific challenges for knowledge producers who set research priorities, and design and direct research projects. We also highlight significant implications for policy decision-making processes.
Evidence, politics and power in public policy for the
Meri Juntti
, Duncan Russel
*, John Turnpenny
Department of Social Sciences, Middlesex University, UK
Department of Politics, Exeter University, UK
Centre for Social and Economic Research on the Global Environment, School of Environmental Sciences,
University of East Anglia, Norwich, UK
1. Introduction
The idea that environmental issues should, at the least, be given
equal consideration with social and economic issues in
decision-making has gained increased political currency since
the publication of the United Nations-sponsored Brundtland
report (WCED, 1987). It has been argued by, among others,
prominent scientists (e.g. Sir David King, former Chief Scientist
in United Kingdom Government (King and Thomas, 2007)) and
the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development
(OECD) that this may be achieved through ‘improved scientific
input to policy development...’(OECD, 2002:7).
While such a goal may be eminently desirable, the complex
relationship between knowledge and policy – as we seek to
environmental science & policy 12 (2009) 207–215
article info
Published on line 6 February 2009
Evidence-based policy
Science studies
Environmental governance
Despite a recent emphasis on ‘evidence based policy’ accompanied by an abundance of
‘green’ policy instruments, experience from the European Union and OECD countries shows
that decisions which truly aim to balance environmental considerations with social and
economic ones remain thin on the ground. Moreover, many policies seem to fall short of, or
directly contradict what the available ‘evidence’ suggests is required. This is a synthesis
paper bringing together literature from the fields of political science, geography, sociology
and science and technology studies to outline some of the obscurities relating to the use of
scientific evidence in environmental decision-making. In this paper, we suggest that an
exploration of three key inter-related issues is necessary to develop a richer understanding
of why evidence and policy interact as they do. These are the nature of evidence itself; the
normative, moral or ethical ‘politics’ of policy-making; and the operation of power in the
policy process. Our primary goal is to bring various literatures together to better concep-
tualise the evidence–policy relationship. In so doing, we outline specific challenges for
knowledge producers who set research priorities, and design and direct research projects.
We also highlight significant implications for policy decision-making processes.
#2008 Elsevier Ltd. All rights reserved.
*Corresponding author. Tel.: +44 1603 591384.
E-mail addresses: (M. Juntti), (D. Russel).
Also at Department of Social Sciences, Middlesex University, Hendon Campus, The Burroughs, London, UK.
Also affiliated to the Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research, School of Environmental Sciences, University of East Anglia,
Norwich, UK.
available at
journal homepage:
1462-9011/$ – see front matter #2008 Elsevier Ltd. All rights reserved.
demonstrate in this paper – makes it more difficult to
achieve than it initially seems. Indeed, while individuals,
organisations and public policy-makers are subjected to
increasing volumes of evidence on the state of the environ-
ment and potential impacts of their decisions and activities,
experience from OECD countries shows that decisions which
truly aim to balance environmental considerations with
social and economic ones still seem rather thin on the
ground (UNEP, 2002; Jordan and Lenschow, 2008). For
example, the science surrounding climate change and the
need for urgent action is now finding its way to the highest
political levels, as demonstrated by the numerous speeches
by former British Prime Minister Tony Blair on the urgent
need to tackle climate change and the UK’s commitment to
reduce emissions greenhouse gases by 80% by 2050 (Her
Majesty’s Government, 2007). Yet, despite this high level
recognition of climate change science, we are still faced with
decision-making that is likely to increase UK greenhouse gas
emissions, e.g. the proposed expansion of the London
airports and the proposed building of a new coal-fired
power station at Kingsnorth.
Moreover, while many policies seem to fall short of or,
indeed, directly contradict what the available evidence
suggests is required (e.g. see Owens et al., 2006), existing
literature highlights how this particularly occurs in the
conditions of uncertainty, which is a prominent characteristic
of environmental policy. It appears that evidence is often used
strategically or symbolically to legitimise policy solutions that
have been arrived at on overtly political grounds (Bulmer,
1980; Majone, 1989; Radaelli, 1995; Fischer, 1995; Owens, 2005;
Rayner and Malone, 1998). This is demonstrated particularly
well by case studies of, for example, policy appraisal (e.g.
Russel and Jordan, 2007; Hertin et al., 2009) and UK transport
policy (Terry, 1999).
Our aim in this paper is to provide a synthesis of literature
addressing the complicated relationship between knowledge
of the state of the environment and environmental processes,
and the policies which affect or are affected by these. We draw
on a variety of theoretical approaches and case studies
conducted under different disciplines – namely, political
science, geography, sociology and science and technology
studies – and in different contexts. We use these to
demonstrate that the evidence–policy relationship is not as
clear cut as some advocates of more evidence based policy
might like. We claim that the way evidence is produced,
selected for and interpreted in policy-making and implemen-
tation is heavily influenced by decisions about social values
and moral and ethical choices pertinent to environmental
policy. Moreover, the evidence–policy relationship is further
complicated by the interplay of complex institutional pro-
cesses and actors representing different forms of expertise
and interests. Such interactions characteristically operate in
obscure and complicated power relationships in environ-
mental policy decision-making (e.g. Flyvbjerg, 1998; Castree,
2001; Jasanoff, 2005; Kanie and Haas, 2004). We aim to unravel
some of the obscurities related to the role of evidence, norms
and power in environmental policy processes, and outline
ways of addressing the complications these dimensions bring
to knowledge production and to the practice of environmental
2. Muddying the waters of the evidence–
policy dynamic: three key dimensions
We suggest that there are three key inter-related issues which
must be addressed by any discussion of evidence and policy-
making: the nature of evidence itself; the normative, moral or
ethical ‘politics’ of policy-making; and the role of power. We
argue that an exploration of these different but overlapping
dimensions is necessary to develop a richer understanding of
why evidence and policy interact as they do. In the following
three sections, we bring together theoretical literature on
evidence production and engagement in policy decision-
making and implementation, as well as empirical research,
conducted in different kinds of contexts, to highlight practical
implications. By bringing together this empirical and theore-
tical material, we aim to draw a coherent picture of the pitfalls
and challenges of evidence production, and outline potential
ways of addressing these. The synthesis aspires to alert
knowledge producers and policy practitioners to the chal-
lenges posed by the above three dimensions of policy decision-
making and to highlight some of the possible implications for
how research priorities are set and how policy decision-
making is designed and managed.
2.1. What is evidence? Contested claims on what counts
There is an abundance of uses of the term ‘evidence’ in the
literature [e.g. see review in Nutley et al., 2007: 23–25], and
perhaps the most concise summary of these is: all types of
science and social science knowledge generated by a process of
research and analysis either within or without the policy-making
institution. While the institutionalised practices of policy
decision-making seem to place much emphasis on scientifi-
cally generated (expert) knowledge (e.g. Turnpenny et al.,
2008), in order to qualify as ‘usable knowledge’ (Haas, 2004a:
573) scientific information needs to be regarded as relevant,
accessible and ‘neutral’ (in other words produced in condi-
tions free of the influence of non-scientific interests). One of
the defining claims for scientific knowledge is its objectivity,
and freedom from distorting factors that may alter the way
that the object of study is detected, measured and reported.
Indeed, this interpretation of scientific knowledge may be
described as abstract and, for the sake of universal validity,
disjointed from contextual factors such as local stakeholder
experience and opinions (Murdoch and Clark, 1994). However,
as Haas (2004a) points out, some studies suggest that in order
to qualify as ‘usable knowledge’ for policy decision-making,
scientific knowledge needs to be capable of commanding
sufficient political support, applicable to the problem at hand
and representative of a scientific consensus.
Many scholars have long stipulated a wider definition of
evidence. This includes the knowledge and expertise of lay
persons or stakeholders (or ‘experienced-based experts’:
Collins and Evans, 2006), which, more often than not, is
disconnected from analysis-based, scientific, evidence (Clar-
ence, 2002; see also Fischer, 2002). The proponents of this
wider understanding of evidence for policy decision-making
point out that knowledge produced without regard for the
context in which it is applied is incompatible with the
demands of environmental policy-making. For example,
environmental science & policy 12 (2009) 207–215208
Redclift (2005) argues that traditional scientific definitions and
categories obscure local meanings of nature and natural
resources, and related environmental and social values.
Moreover, while scientific categorisations are themselves
ultimately based on human judgement, it is widely agreed
that in the increasingly politicised environmental policy-
making process, dealing with conflicting interests and
normative dilemmas is crucial in order to achieve legitimate
and functional policy solutions (e.g. Fischer, 2002; Papado-
poulos and Warin, 2007). A poignant example of this is Griffin’s
(forthcoming) case study of governance of North Sea fisheries,
where fishermen successfully use their local knowledge and
experience of the state of fish stocks to refute the scientific
discourse of diminishing stocks, and to influence policy
negotiations towards a more favourable outcome for their
livelihood. Thus it could be argued that universal validity and
expert consensus are insufficient criteria on which to base
practicable environmental policy solutions.
In contrast to scientific knowledge, the defining character-
istic of lay (or local) knowledge is that it is embedded in a
specific cultural and often also practical context (Murdoch and
Clark, 1994). While institutionalised practices of decision-
making seem to grant the ‘universal validity’ of scientific
knowledge a superior status, local knowledge is rapidly
gaining ground as a means of legitimising policy and
improving accountability and transparency, and is thus
increasingly seen as instrumental in achieving policy com-
pliance (Radaelli, 1995; Owens, 2005; Papadopoulos and Warin,
2007). Some critics go further and suggest we should move
beyond the adversarial juxtaposition of ‘experts’ and ‘citizens’
(embodied by most examples of strictly choreographed citizen
consultation) in policy decision-making and restructure this
relationship altogether (Booher and Innes, 2002). Rather than
treating citizens’ input to the policy process as instrumental
for achieving policy compliance, Fischer (2002) emphasises its
role in ‘‘bringing forth new knowledge and ideas capable of
creating and legitimising new interests, reshaping our under-
standing of exiting interests and in the process, influencing
the political pathways along which power and interests
travel’’ (Fischer, 2002, p. xii). This suggests that citizen
participation has epistemological implications, in other
words, it concerns the commonly held interpretation of
how it is possible to acquire meaningful knowledge about
different things and phenomena. Lay knowledge is crucial for
addressing context-related specificities and for devising
policies that actually work in practice. It also offers a different
epistemological view point that has potential to lead to new
and perhaps more legitimate and valid understandings,
framings and even solutions to environmental governance
and sustainable development (see also Booher and Innes,
Work by Yearley (2006) on air quality modelling neatly
illustrates the above point in a pertinent example of how lay
knowledge can provide valuable insights when used alongside
more traditional science. Yearley found that where lay
knowledge was not included in the modelling process, local
populations were generally sceptical of the analysis and felt it
did not match their experience of pollution. Consequently,
citizens were concerned about value for money of such
research. On other hand, where lay perceptions were included
in air quality models, parameters were widened to include
attributes such as dust and odour. Moreover, air quality maps
based on citizens’ perceptions could be used to determine the
sensitivity of expert models. In such cases, Yearley argues that
lay knowledge can bridge ‘knowledge and policy’ through
‘contributing to the quality of the available models and by
helping to assess the validity of the outputs’ (Yearley, 2006:
Formulations such as post-normal science (e.g. Funtowicz
and Ravetz, 1993), citizen science (Irwin, 1995) and participa-
tory sustainability science (e.g. Kasemir et al., 2003) set out
knowledge-gathering activity as a process of dialogue between
specialists and stakeholders. Drawing from the tradition of
participatory research, it has been suggested that, to ensure
validity of the evidence produced, citizens’ experience-based
expertise should be engaged in the whole research process,
from question formulation to defining the use of findings
(Fischer, 2002). While participatory approaches to evidence
generation are often hampered by the demands that this
places on the capacity of citizens to comprehend complex
environmental issues, it is possible to outline some implica-
tions that should result from a wider epistemological basis for
valid evidence. Instead of endorsing the polarisation of lay vs.
expert in evidence generation, experts’ roles could include
deciphering and interpreting complex issues to a wider public
audience, thus facilitating public involvement in decision-
making (Fischer, 2002).
Not surprisingly, several writers emphasise that the
distinction between lay and expert knowledge is a political
one, and ultimately concerns the allocation of power in policy
decision-making. Restricting the scope of evidence, whether
in favour of lay or expert knowledge, is of course a powerful
way of influencing decision-outcomes and sometimes seen as
key to achieving any outcome at all (Haas, 2004a). While the
superior position of scientific knowledge has in many cases
become institutionalised and embedded in the practices of
decision-making and knowledge production, the problem is
that this is often taken for granted and the implicit politics of
power thus remains unquestioned (e.g. Redclift, 1992, 2005;
Murdoch and Clark, 1994). In the next section we explore this
political dimension in more depth.
2.2. Politics: taking on the normative dimension of
environmental policy
Recent decades have seen increased focus on developments
surrounding the role of scientific knowledge and technological
development within society. The identification of a ‘risk
society’ (Beck, 1992), in which technological advances are no
longer simply a positive sign of ‘development’ but are
themselves creating new threats, has been accompanied by
increased awareness and understanding among citizens of the
complex and sometimes precarious balance between nature
and society (see also Castells, 2000). These developments
complicate the role of scientific knowledge in policy-making
and some are particularly pertinent for environmental issues.
Due to the complexity of ecological processes and their
interdisciplinary nature, establishing scientific certainty over
cause–consequence relationships is particularly challenging
(e.g. Haas, 2004a,b). In the light of such problems, it has been
environmental science & policy 12 (2009) 207–215 209
argued that political and value-based statements are gaining
ground as legitimate arguments in defining environmental
problems and policy solutions (Hajer and Wagenaar, 2003).
Environmental policy decision-making frequently brings
together a variety of actors with diverse and often conflicting
goals and values, which can result in cacophonous negotia-
tions in pursuit of broadly acceptable solutions (Hajer, 1995;
Castree, 2001; Braun and Wainwright, 2001; Hajer and
Wagenaar, 2003).
Consequently, problem framing (i.e. precisely defining
the problem at hand and how severe it is) has become a
central issue in attempts to find policy solutions to
environmental problems and threats (Hajer and Wagenaar,
2003; Gottweis, 2003; Murdoch, 2006). How we perceive
nature, how we define what is natural, what is social and
what, within these premises, is regarded as an environ-
mental problem is not self-evident or, indeed, always
possible to define on the grounds of scientific knowledge.
This is visible, for example, in difficulties experienced in the
implementation of the UN Convention to Combat Deserti-
cationinsouthernEurope.Adger et al. (2001) argue that
there is a rift between desertification as defined at a global
level for the purposes of the convention, and localised
understandings based on practical experience. Indeed, case
study research from southern EU states shows that the
discord over what exactly is meant by desertification and,
consequently, who should be held responsible, has diverted
attention from devising the National Action Plans prescribed
by the convention. This has hindered the implementation of
measures that could contribute to the mitigation of
problems related to water depletion, and degradation and
abandonment of agricultural land in these localities (Juntti
and Wilson, 2005).
Thus, defining environmental problems for policy decision-
making and finding appropriate policy solutions often
involves a complex web of underlying understandings of
cause and consequence relationships, as well as normative
presumptions about what should be done. Hajer (1995)
suggests that problem definitions are shaped by: expert claims
concerning the state of the environment; policy solutions
promoted by different powerful actors; and responses to
expressed preconceived institutional critique by non-govern-
mental organisations and demands and assertions by street
level bureaucrats. Along similar lines, some organizational
scientists argue that institutional reactions to problems are
shaped through a collective definition of what is and is not
viewed as an appropriate policy response (March and Olsen, 1994:
252). Consequently, ‘‘rules, procedures and goals without
primary representation in formal organisations’’ (Jepperson,
1991: 151) are said to determine also the ‘appropriateness’ of
the selection of evidence sources, types and use. One example
is how discord caused by differing institutional responses to
environmental problems hampered government reaction in
the UK foot-and-mouth disease crisis in 2001. As the crisis
unfolded, different UK departments were pushing for different
policy responses: the UK’s agricultural ministry successfully
pushed for a policy of culling to eradicate the virus while the
environment ministry failed in its calls for a vaccination policy
(Richards and Smith, 2002: 9). At the time there were different
claims and counterclaims regarding the validity of each
approach, particularly surrounding the economic impacts
on beef exports and the UK tourist industry of each policy
option. Thus, rather than objective response based on the best
science, the issue was framed by institutional conflict over
what was considered to be the most ‘appropriate’ policy
One way of unravelling this ‘logic of appropriateness’ is to
view the decision-making process through so-called dis-
course oriented approaches which aim to access the often
unspoken notions of legitimate normative order (i.e. a certain
kind of a hierarchy of interests and needs) (Hajer, 1995;
Weaver, 2004). Much like the notion of ‘sustainable develop-
ment’ that hinges on fitting together economic, social and
environmental demands, ‘environmental sustainability’
often involves inevitable trade-offs and compromises by
involved interests. A typical example is the difficulty of fitting
together short-term economic growth and environmental
protection of resources (although, as Rydin (1999) points out,
proponents of the ecological modernisation theory perceive
significant potential for synergy between economic growth
and environmental protection). The various different ways of
framing environmental problems and relying on certain
sources and types of evidence in decision-making can mask
conflicts of interest as well as potential synergies. Several
academics have pointed out that to make any real progress
(for example more effective policy), conflicting discourses
need to be overtly juxtaposed and dealt with in environ-
mental policy decision-making (Redclift, 2005; Rydin, 1999).
While deep-rooted tensions can exist between different
constructions and framings of environmental problems
and policy solutions, the different normative discourses
can continue to compete throughout the policy process and
obscure policy problems, strategies and even measures
themselves (Hajer, 1995).Thishasspecicimplicationsfor
the policy decision-making process, particularly the capacity
that decision-making practices yield for deliberationbetween
different interests and administrative sectors (Hajer and
Wagenaar, 2003; Skogstad, 2003). Deliberative policy-making
is itself a focus of a vast scope of literature and the following
section will highlight a few more examples of the significance
of negotiation and deliberation for evidence use in the policy
process. Meanwhile, a key question in regard to evidence
production, adoption and interpretation in the policy process
still remains: namely ‘how does an actor, discourse or indeed
specific evidence become dominant and/or institutionalised
into a policy?’ This brings us to the issue of ‘power’ in the
policy process.
2.3. Power: achieving dominance in policy decision-
Just as ambiguity of discourses and policy problems may serve
to hide conflicts, similarly the ‘genteel veneer’ (Lindblom,
1980: 17) of analysis may be used to obscure politics in the
policy process, while the fundamental understanding of what
is an appropriate policy solution is defined by the most
powerful actors within the normative premises of the
dominant discourse (Flyvbjerg, 1998; Owens, 2005). Never-
theless, in order to understand how evidence is marshalled
and translated into policy, it is crucial to understand how
environmental science & policy 12 (2009) 207–215210
certain actors and knowledge claims become ‘powerful’ in the
policy process. Radaelli (1999) draws attention to how
uncertainty and lack of transparency in policy decision-
making procedures provide opportunities for different actors
such as representatives of research or administrative exper-
tise to seize power over the ‘logic’, or mode, of policy decision-
making. For example, transparency of policy decision-making
and public accountability may become compromised by
intense bargaining by different administrative bodies, who
may act to defend their policy arenas from turf invasion, or act
strategically to form networks and coalitions to increase their
bargaining power in the policy process. This kind of ‘bureau-
cratic politics’ (Radaelli, 1999) can include incorporation of
new policy goals and measures to seek new justification for
the dominant policy model, which often represents short-
term problem solving through incremental change of periph-
eral principles and goals. Problem expansion can also inject
new issues into the initial policy problem in order to ‘lure’ new
groups of stakeholders into the dominant policy coalition
(Skogstad, 1998; Coleman and Perl, 1999). A typical example of
this can be found in the EU agricultural sector where the
Common Agricultural Policy has arguably maintained its
productivist logic based on the idea of ‘agricultural exception-
alism’, justifying the payment of subsidies to farmers
(Skogstad, 1998). While in recent times it has become difficult
to defend the exceptional need of European agriculture for
state subsidies, environmental arguments have been ‘coupled’
with agrarian ones to justify the need to keep farmers on the
land (e.g. Wilson, 2007; Gallardo et al., 2003).
On the other hand, Radaelli (1999) posits that high
uncertainty is often used to justify the powerful position of
expert knowledge and a ‘technocratic logic’ (Radaelli, 1999:
764) in the policy decision-making process. This is a
particular characteristic of the EU policy process, where
the principle of subsidiarity arguably obscures the conven-
tional ‘power hierarchy’ of government. In such circum-
stances, policy-making tends to be highly technical, relying
heavily on supposedly apolitical committees of experts to
broker agreements and prepare policy decisions (Jordan,
2001; Peterson, 2003; Haas, 2004a). Through a combination
of bargaining and strategic use of expert knowledge, policy
officials act as brokers, mediating and forging compromises
among potential supporters in an effort to arrive at ‘optimal’
outcomes attempting to satisfy a range of interests without
significant compromise to any. In the case of the EU this
refers to decision-making in the Council of the EU where
policy needs to be acceptable to all member states
(Skogstad, 2003). While ‘expert power’ may to an extent
be necessary, Haas (2004b) suggests that more stringent
‘science policy’ involving careful and transparent coordina-
tion by government of the use of expertise is key to
Indeed, research by Skogstad (2003) on the regulation of
genetically modified organisms (GMO) in the EU suggests it is
very difficult to achieve effective policy solutions in this kind
of environment, where legitimacy rests not on the basis of
deliberation by factions of a representative democratic system
but through relying on expert authority. This has led to an
implementation deficit in the EU GMO legislation where
member states have refused to comply with resulting policies.
Skogstad (2003) however suggests that policy compliance is
more readily achieved through so-called ‘integrative decision-
making’ aimed at maximizing the common good, rather than a
bargaining process. Matland (1995) equally suggests that the
extent of ambiguity and/or conflict over policy goals and
means is decisive for whether and how policies evolve in
implementation. Contextual factors such as local and regional
stakeholder involvement and interests gain significance in the
case of ambiguous policy objectives. High levels of conflict
over means or objectives on the other hand renders policy
outcomes dependent on the relative strength of policy
coalitions. Thus, the implementation of policy solutions in
practice is likely to vary dramatically between different
localities based on factors such as local understandings of
best practice or competing evidence claims from powerful
local policy actors or networks (e.g. Hiedanpaa and Jokinen,
Summing up, there is a wealth of so-called institutionalist
(or neo-institutionalist) approaches which have successfully
grappled with the issue of how ‘power’ influences what
counts as legitimate knowledge in sustainability and envir-
onmental policy debates. Most of the above examples suggest
a degree of ‘waywardness’ in how ‘power’ operates in the
policy process. We suggest that in order to understand the
notion of power, and its role in the policy-evidence relation-
ship, it should be understood as vested in interaction between
certain actors and enacted, rather than allocated a priori
(Law, 1998; Castree and MacMillan, 2001; Latour, 2005). Such
‘network power’ can be catalysed by the mutual benefits
vested in effective collaboration as opposed to traditional
power struggles or ‘manoeuvring’ (Booher and Innes, 2002
and as Skogstad, 2003 suggests). In other words, a certain
interpretation of evidence or a framing of environmental
sustainability becomes powerful only when it is adopted or
enacted by a host of relevant decision-makers and stake-
holders. By association, this renders the proponents of this
specific discourse ‘powerful’. This relational understanding of
power has been taken further by the Actor-Network-Theory
(ANT) (e.g. Latour, 2005), which depicts the notions of agency
and power as outcomes of network building (Goodman, 2001).
In addition to providing a dynamic understanding of the
notions of power and agency, the ANT helps by demonstrat-
ing how the material context, for example the natural
resources in question (the ‘‘non-human content’’ of the
networks), play a role in empowering specific actors in
specific contexts (see Murdoch, 2000). Again, mechanisms
such as the commissioning of scientific studies, and mon-
itoring policy impact, are employed with varying success in
order to stabilise these powerful positions and to ensure
specific coherent outcomes of interaction (e.g. Morris, 2004;
Lockie, 2006). This emphasises the need to pay attention to
the context in which knowledge is commissioned or selected
foruse,aswellasproduced.Forexample,Burgess et al.’s
(2000) study of the implementation of a wetlands conserva-
tion scheme outlines differences in the make-up of the
knowledge base on which different actors, in this case
farmers and conservation officials, base their assertions of
authority. In both cases it is the ‘actor worlds’, and their
interpretations of how nature or natural resources are
included in the networks of power that enable agricultural
environmental science & policy 12 (2009) 207–215 211
production, that are under contestation and in competition
with each other.
3. Conclusion: challenges and potential
solutions for evidence production and
engagement in environmental policy
With the rise in the currency of ‘evidence based policy’, the
way that evidence is drawn on, commissioned and employed
in the policy process certainly merits further attention. We
have seen that three overlapping issues – power, politics and
what counts as evidence – form a fundamental foundation for
environmental policy-making. Our primary goal in this paper
has been to provide a conceptual synthesis of theories and
empirical findings pertaining to the evidence–policy relation-
ship and contribute towards a better understanding of why
aspirations for achieving better policy through more effective
use of evidence in the policy process are more difficult to
achieve than might first appear.
As we argued at the start of this synthesis, the notion of
evidence based policy tends to ‘obscure or neglect important
political, social and moral judgments’ (Sanderson, 2002: 70; see
also Murdoch and Clark, 1994; Redclift, 2005), and contrasts
sharply with the picture we paint above, which suggests that
the relationship between evidence and policy is highly
politicised, complex and recursive. Our synthesis highlights
the significance of the often unclear processes by which
knowledge becomes ‘evidence’, including the place of lay
expertise within the official definition of evidence. This lack of
clarity is compounded by the complex interplay of institu-
tional processes and actors representing different interests
and forms of expertise involved in environmental policy
decision-making. Moreover, as environmental problems
themselves are complex and fall within the realm of a number
of scientific and socio-economic disciplines, knowledge about
the environment characteristically involves a degree of
uncertainty. Thus, environmental policy decision-making
tends to be highly politicised (Castree, 2001; Braun and
Wainwright, 2001).
Our synthesis suggests a number of possible solutions for
dealing with this complexity in the evidence–policy relation-
ship. First, the notion of validity of evidence would benefit
from a more transparent treatment of the division into lay and
expert knowledge in evidence generation. While this does not
mean that ‘basic science’ is in any way redundant in evidence
generation (Haas, 2004b), there is a need to see science more as
a process of social context negotiation between specialists and
stakeholders, and an increased emphasis on the stakeholder
perspective ranging from problem formulation to validation of
research results (Fischer, 2002; Funtowicz and Ravetz, 1993).
This negotiation between different kinds of expertise within
the process of producing evidence differs markedly from the
notions of consultation or communication that commonly
occur in policy decision-making, which mostly refer to
imparting of conventional scientific expertise (for example,
the requirement to include consultation in policy assessment
processes (Russel and Turnpenny, 2009; Hertin et al., 2009).
While it remains unclear in which contexts participatory
approaches lead to a more prominent role for lay knowledge in
the policy process, literature suggests that the scale and style
of decision-making have significance. On the one hand
Turnpenny et al. (2008) find that in the case of policy
assessment in the EU, a more ‘narrow’ understanding of what
counts as evidence (particularly results from cost–benefit
analyses) tends to prevail in spite of extensive participation
from a wide range of actors. In Griffin’s case study of North Sea
fisheries governance, however, the lay perspective manages to
achieve almost disproportionate prominence and influence in
negotiations at Regional Advisory Councils, which were
established explicitly to produce more locally and ecologically
sensitive management advice and to facilitate dialogue
between lay stakeholders (i.e. fishers) and scientists (Griffin,
Forthcoming). In order to better understand exactly how and
why these observations occur, exploration of further key
research questions is required.
Several authors show that, in a best-case scenario, state–
civil society collaboration not only allows the utilisation of
different knowledges, but, crucially, provides an opportunity
to find new and innovative solutions and agendas (Booher and
Innes, 2002; Fischer, 2002). Much like the integration of the lay
perspective into evidence generation, this requires a delib-
erative approach. One pertinent problem and research topic is
thus how to achieve such ‘authentic dialogue’ (Booher and
Innes, 2002: 15) through participatory practices. Unfortu-
nately, the reasons for enhanced participation can stem from
a need to legitimise political decisions, or to aid the
implementation of such decisions, instead of (or as well as)
to genuinely improve the knowledge about the system. Often
such motivations are hidden. It can be revealing to consider
cases where stakeholders disagree with ‘official experts’ as to
the best course of action (e.g. Few et al., 2007), especially when
the validity of stakeholders’ opinions are called into question
by the experts. Crucially, we concur with Griffin (Forthcoming)
who emphasises that instead of prioritising any particular
form of knowledge at any particular scale (or stage of decision-
making), all knowledge should be treated with caution,
seeking to understand the conditions under which it is
Second, it is not only the rift between experts and lay
stakeholders that complicates environmental policy, but also
the range of involved interests (different administrative
sectors and stakeholders, for example) that adds to the
political struggles. Thus, who gains discursive power in the
policy process and how they maintain it are crucial questions
for understanding how the evidence–policy relationship
operates. We suggest that an understanding of power as
contingent and vested in interaction amongst actors in
specific material contexts could offer a significant methodo-
logical option for exposing the ways that actors attempt to
engage knowledge to their advantage in the policy process
(Law, 1998; Castree and MacMillan, 2001; Latour, 2005). As
environmental sustainability often involves compromises
with economic and possibly even social interests, it is likely
that the different actors involved in decision-making will try
to influence decision-making through drawing on evidence
that supports their respective interests or normative posi-
tions. To make real progress towards environmental sustain-
ability, Redclift (2005) suggests that we need to re-examine the
normative assumptions behind different interpretations of
environmental science & policy 12 (2009) 207–215212
sustainability. Along the same lines, Rydin (1999) stipulates
the overt juxtaposition of disparate and competing discourses,
based on value and interest conflicts, as necessary for any real
progress towards more effective policy solutions. While
normative issues need to be overtly addressed through
deliberative decision-making practices (which can also enable
the integration of a variety of knowledges as discussed above),
for example Skogstad (2003) suggests that instead of bargain-
ing to minimise individual losses, decision-makers should
aspire to finding compromises that maximize the common
good, as these are more likely to be viewed as legitimate by
stakeholders and achieve policy compliance.
Finally, it has also been suggested that there is a cognitive
aspect to evidence use (Owens, 2005), where it is incorporated
into the policy process through learning over long timescales
(Sabatier, 1998). Such learning is said to be particularly
pertinent where problems are trans-scientific and unstruc-
tured, as is often the case with environmental sustainability.
In such examples, knowledge can lay dormant and is only
turned into ‘evidence’ when the political climate is ripe for a
problem to be identified (Kingdon, 1995; Sabatier, 1998; Owens,
2005). In this view, evidence is background information rather
than directly transferable truth (Rayner, 2003) and in specific
cases there is a ‘‘gradual diffusion of understanding about how
society works, its integration, strains and conflict’’ rather than
‘‘generation of factually useful, instrumental [evidence] which
will be of immediate benefit to policy-makers’’ (Bulmer, 1990:
137). This kind of ‘policy learning’ can be criticised for yielding
only incremental change and also for being conditional to
when, where and for whom new evidence will become ‘useful’
(Owens, 2005; Sabatier, 1998). However, the deliberative
approach in policy decision-making that is seen by many as
crucial for managing the normative conflicts and dilemmas of
environmental policy also offers potential for ‘structural
learning’ that refers to changes in the discursive frames that
actors engage when defining their normative view points and
interpretations of validity of knowledge for example (e.g. Grin
and Van de Graaf, 1996). Structural learning can lead to
permanent behavioural change and even change in how
actors view their own interests (Grin and Van de Graaf, 1996,
see also Hajer and Wagenaar, 2003; Sabatier, 1998). As
suggested by the notion of ‘authentic dialogue’, the quality
of communication is key to the resolution of conflicts of
interest and bridging of different interpretative frames and
ways of viewing environmental problems and possible
solutions. Booher and Innes (2002) suggest that in order to
move beyond adversarial juxtapositions and reap the full
benefits of stakeholder collaboration in planning, collabora-
tion partners need to be aware of the potential mutual benefit
vested in collaboration (usually improved choice in the form of
a wider selection of possible planning options enabled by
wider participation). This resonates with the idea of decision-
making for the common good put forward by Skogstad (2003)
and implies the need to build conditions of trust which will
encourage different parties to work together. Booher and
Innes (2002) outline the following conditions for ‘authentic
dialogue’: communication has to be accurate, sincere and
aiming at fully informing all involved parties.
Summing up, we argue that that both academic research
and policy decision-making need to become sensitive to these
interpretative and normative dimensions of environmental
problems and policy. This can only be done by directly
juxtaposing the different takes of lay interests, experts and
stakeholder interests relevant in each case-specific instance of
decision-making. Moreover, any solution has to be contex-
tualised and embedded as well as (environmentally) sustain-
able (while remembering that these two are not necessarily
synonymous) and thus different types of knowledge are
needed. We reinforce the need to bridge the gap between lay
and expert understandings of environmental issues, and to
respond to the challenge that this poses for the validity and
legitimacy of evidence generated specifically for policy
decision-making. We believe that addressing the three major
dimensions of the policy-evidence relationship set out in this
paper is an important step towards a clearer understanding of
why policy so often seems to contradict scientific evidence –
and to see how we might reach environmentally sustainable
policy solutions that will also work to produce environmen-
tally sustainable outcomes.
This paper was written with the financial support of the
MATISSE (Methods and Tools for Integrated Sustainability
Assessment) project, financed under the European Commis-
sion’s Sixth Framework Programme. Duncan Russel was
supported in the writing of this paper by the ESRC (PTA-
026-27-1094). Meri Juntti was funded by the ESRC as a part of
the research programme on Environmental Policy and
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Meri Juntti is a lecturer in Sustainable Development and Environ-
mental Management at the Department of Social Sciences, Mid-
dlesex University and a visiting fellow at the Centre for Social and
Economic Research on the Global Environment, University of East
Anglia. Her research interests include policy deliberation and
agenda setting in the context of environmental policy integration;
and participation and learning in policy implementation and
Duncan Russel is a lecturer in the Politics of Climate Change and
Sustainable Futures at the Department of Politics, Exeter Univer-
sity and a visiting fellow at the Centre for Social and Economic
Research on the Global Environment, the University of East Anglia.
His research interests include the politics of climate change,
politics of policy appraisal, environmental policy integration
and evidence based policy-making.
John Turnpenny is a Senior Research Associate at the Tyndall
Centre and CSERGE, University of East Anglia. With a background
in Meteorology, Environmental Science and Social Policy, John has
carried out interdisciplinary research on applications including
participatory integrated assessment and the nature of the
science–policy interface. Current research interests include the
use made of policy analysis in policymaking, the ‘real world’
research needs of policymakers, and the various constraints con-
ditioning selection of policy analysis tools.
environmental science & policy 12 (2009) 207–215 215
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Too many sociologists in the last quarter of a century have, like Molière’s famous character Monsieur Jourdain, been speaking prose without realising it. Their work has had considerable impact on the practical world, but for much of the time they have been steadfastly denying its usefulness, even in one case going to the lengths of writing a book entitled Why Sociology Does Not Apply (Scott and Shore, 1979). Starting from the view that a dominant theme of American sociology has been the argument that knowledge can transform society in obvious, self-evident and desirable ways, Robert Scott and Arnold Shore hold that many sociologists have a mistaken conception of the influence of research on policy. They see a schism opening up between social scientists doing routine disciplinary research and policy researchers doing work on policy questions.
Starting with a narrative detailing of the personal experience of being close to the murder of Dutch filmmaker Theo van Gogh on an Amsterdam street, the introduction lays out the crucial role of giving meaning to events for authoritative governance. Based on the assumption that political situations are often far more open than is appreciated the introduction develops the question how to conceive of an authoritative political governance in today's conflict-ridden situations. The Van Gogh case is seen as an illustration of a 'dislocation' - a situation where political routine is lifted from its solid institutional hinges. At those moments, the quality of the performance can make claims authoritative or failures. Moreover, government performances influence whether reasoned elaboration may take place. The introduction suggests to break with the separation of style from content and collective intelligence: it is through the presentation of the political self that meaning is given, roles are defined, and
The first sections of this chapter analyse the concept of sustainable development. The current thinking in environmental economics, which has gained favour within some international development agencies, is critically discussed. The economists' technical treatment is compared with a more thoroughgoing account of the economic, political and epistemological dimensions of sustainable development. In this context, some of the new approaches which outside development agencies are currently taking towards local-level environmental management are briefly discussed. Next, the chapter examines some instances of conflicts over resource use which have prompted popular participation and struggles to gain greater local control over the environment. The analysis focuses on situations in which natural resources are highly valued and have been heavily contested politically. The final section of the chapter outlines an approach to contested environments which focuses attention on power and political mediation in the resolution of environmental conflicts at the local level. In this section the chapter tries to incorporate some experiences of poor people's participation in resource management in order to set out a framework for analysis that takes into account both the need for popular participation and the utility of local-level environmental management as complementary facets of the problem. -from Author