The Rabbit Hole of the Science-Policy-Practice Interface

Under the theme “Helping nature to help us”, the European Ecosystem Services Conference 2016, that took place between the 19th and the 23rd of September in Antwerp, Belgium, gathered experts from all over Europe to exchange ideas about science, policy and practice on ecosystem services and natural capital.

Louise Gallagher, Research Programme Head at the Luc Hoffmann Institute, gave a keynote speech at the Conference on the science-policy-practice interface. The full transcript of the keynote speech is reproduced below.

Keynote Speech, European Ecosystem Services 2016 Conference – Louise Gallagher, Research Programme Head, Luc Hoffmann Institute.

Good morning to you all. It is a pleasure to be here. I’m delighted to have the opportunity to be part of today’s opening session….

Ahead of our busy day, I thought I’d use this time to take a step back and give us a moment to reflect on a question together; and that question is: How do we achieve research impact at the science-policy-practice interface?

I think this is an important question because the desire for research impact may well be the common thread linking everyone in this room. I’m willing to bet that we’ve shared some similar frustrations on the challenge of integrating research into ‘real world’ decisions. Some of you here may well be on the ‘receiving end’ of research in policy, business, and NGO communities – wishing perhaps that you had researchers on tap to help keep up with the demands of the drive towards evidence-based policy and other decision making.

I know a little of these different perspectives. I am trained like many of you – an environmental economist and have worked at the United Nations Environment Programme in Geneva; and with the global conservation NGO, WWF, in Southeast Asia. Now, I’m with the Luc Hoffmann Institute – a new research group set up as a partner to WWF in honour of Dr. Luc Hoffmann, a long time friend to WWF and visionary scientist, who recently passed away.

We started our programme in early 2013 as one of a growing number of organizations seeking to transform conservation by building stronger relationships between scientists, policy makers, industry and practitioners with some differences:

  • We currently have 14 active research projects and 8 Fellows in our capacity development programme – but one shared research question that cuts across the portfolio of activities: why should strengthening these connections have an impact on conservation and how to do this effectively?
  • We are autonomous from but hosted by WWF; and they are also a major partner in most of our research. This gives us a daily reminder of the realities of conservation and opportunity to shape our research and capacity development activities to these realities.

Many people think about how research influences policy, business, NGO and individual decision making in different ways – there are 7 conceptual frameworks at our last count – all of them valid, but all of them incomplete when applied alone. We have had a carte blanche to test, experiment and challenge our own and others thinking for the past 3 years about how research contributes to conservation impact. We’ve considered what it means to integrate information into decision making, how much of which information would really make the difference? What is a better decision? Who decides what better is? What sort of timeframes matter when measuring ‘better’? Our strategy is to pick and choose, blend and mix as required – critically evaluating our impact as we go to analyse the relative pain and gain of different approaches. That way our colleagues – be it in science, policy or practice – can benefit from a better understanding of risk and return from different approaches to using research to influence environmental outcomes.


We’re reaching some conclusions that the science-policy-practice interface is less broken than it is a rabbit hole. There is no ‘gap’ between science, policy and practice – they influence each other continuously in a myriad of ways that are rarely a straight line. The problem is that we don’t really know for sure how each part of the interface influences the other. Or what to do about this when you want to accelerate the impact of research given the timeframes and scales required for decision making. That, for us, is the primary challenge for research impact at the interface. One lesson is coming through quite clearly across all our portfolio which I have found really valuable to my own understanding of what it takes to have real impact with research, and that is:

Context REALLY matters when problems are urgent and solutions uncertain – it is probably the key factor in whether research will have impact and that calls for thinking carefully about how research is designed and implemented.

One particularly problematic view of the science-policy-practice interface that we need to lose is that it functions the same way regardless of the place, stakeholders or issue. Our understanding of the link between accelerated research impact and context is, yes, there are “global” problems like biodiversity loss, rapid environmental change, unsustainable development that we observe in many places – but those problems have “local” dimensions that may trump the text book solution or the best research strategy if not taken into account … Context matters. And because of this, the notion of delivering ‘completed, polished’ science to decision makers is less useful than considering how to customise a method to a situation, or work through what type of information is needed in actual decision contexts.

Moreover, the further into the context you go with research activities, the more you need to draw on a diverse set of capacities as a researcher. It is rare for a single researcher – or even a group of scientists – to consistently have impact working alone – which is why Luc Hoffmann Institute has focused on collaborative research processes that follow a trans-disciplinary model of research processes including working through networks and partnerships in a way researchers do not typically have a chance to try – particularly early career researchers; and because of this Complementary individual capacity development to give support to principal investigators and the research teams.

This is a real evolution from where we started with our mission “to solve environmental challenges that require a range of scientific expertise”. To give this discussion a little colour I’d like to talk you through one of my major projects as a demonstration.


LIVES – standing for Linked Indicators for Vital Ecosystem Services – is an exploratory research project on methods for integrating diverse science and knowledge in support of decision making on the food-energy-water nexus. We were asked to focus on how to link indicators and make the information they communicate more actionable by decision makers. In our first phase, which ended in June, we followed an empirical research approach whereby we tested a method through experimenting with stakeholders in a WWF Conservation Landscape in rural Cambodia, in the Mekong River Basin – a poster river basin for food-energy-water conflicts.

At the global scale, we held thought leader dialogues, got actively involved in World Water Week sessions – collating and synthesising the discussion we were facilitating to produce peer reviewed publications – while learning about the current state of nexus science-policy questions. It quickly became clear however that to examine a complex concept such as the nexus was going to require ‘getting close to the action’.

To that end, we:

  • Started from their societal problem, and our science problem
  • We engaged more than 60 stakeholders over 4 workshops with 3 different stakeholder groups and over 3 decision scales with Researchers from University of Bergen, University of Maryland, Royal University of Phnom Penh and Royal University of Agriculture, WWF and other civil society organisations, national government and provincial government stakeholders.
  • In the field study, we used a method of participatory systems thinking – causal loop diagram building for those who use this technique yourself – to combine qualitative and quantitative information from science, policy and practice communities about the food, energy and water interactions in our field study.

Attendance and quality of participation was higher than other stakeholder engagement processes that WWF have been able to achieve in this place. National government officials reported in evaluation feedback forms that they were thinking about their job differently with more confidence in identifying problems and their causes, a new understanding of the need for ‘accountability’ and the hope to maintain the cooperation among such different groups (national and local level, government, NGO, farmers) that the workshop had facilitated, to support in decision-making processes going forward.

Some of the advantages we’ve seen after following this approach include:

  • Crossing scales means we’re not engaging in ‘THE’ science policy practice interface but multiple ones at multiple scales…this is more appropriate for a cross-scale issue like the nexus;
  • We’ve been more ready to respond to stakeholder and research partner requests – the feedback loops are much tighter than with a model of independent research being produced and then presented to key audiences as a finished product;
  • It gave us the opportunity to understand and be ready to gently challenge the mental models of the actors involved in our research process – including of ourselves:
    • In Cambodia, goal agreement is high – reduce poverty, improve human well being. But the ways of getting there are contested. With respect to ecosystem services, the concept is new here and open for intentional or accidental misuse. The shared understanding of “cause and effect” between ecosystem services degradation or natural capital loss on local income generation developed, not only between researchers and stakeholders but between the stakeholders. This means we’ve moved beyond explaining what risks are emerging in the landscape because of threats to ecosystems to talking about what solutions might be needed. That might sound like a small step but considering my baseline in 2013, I’m claiming this one as a victory.
    • A common response in our field study context is to question the data behind an analysis that might be challenging to your world view – I’m guessing you’ve experienced this in other places too. We’ve found it is difficult to discard results of a participatory modeling approach when the linkages are identified by relevant stakeholders and when the data comes from power holders – in this case we focused on collecting government held and approved data. Again, it feels like we have a pathway around a typical blockage to integrating research findings and it feels like success.

We developed multiple impact pathways, in part thanks to new networks and partnerships which may diffuse the research learnings and outputs.

  • The modeling results are being used by stakeholders to discuss options for action in managing natural resources in the Mekong Flooded Forest Landscape; provincial government partners suggest that we could take the learning from our pilot forward into local economic and land use development processes for the next cycle of planning beginning in November 2016.
  • The learning from our research process about the ways in which integrated planning can be achieved is being included in a new national legislation in Cambodia – the Environment Code. Our national stakeholders have reflected that the process we’ve been through produces both the science needed as well as the dialogue to fill an important gap in the way development planning is conducted and wanted to include reference to this in the Code to give us opportunities for later exploration.
  • Our learning is being incorporated into the WWF Basin Report Card Initiative by University of Maryland researchers and helping this group to improve upon their current approach.
    An early review of indicators in river basin governance and management and synthesis of learnings from our field testing has been used by WWF and by UNEP-DHI in the preparation of a new guidance document for river basin managers.

However some of the challenges that we face include:

  • Mundane problems like coordination across scales and many actors; cost and time availability to bring people together – the existence of networks and partnerships alone are not sufficient, and they take time and money to fully utilise; and …
  • More worrisome ones like a lack of shared clarity on goals and objectives across the research team and stakeholders. A transdisciplinary process involves more people from more diverse backgrounds. More ‘hard’ deadlines. It is important not take anything for granted in how the research team members and the broader stakeholder group see the end goal and expect the research to have impact. Professionals across the interface may share a common aspiration to make change; but it is not uncommon for people who share a similar mission to have different understanding – different mental models – of the path towards that vision. And when we’re in a complex problem space, spending the time to map and share these different understandings is time well spent. A critically important lesson I’ve learned is the importance of not neglecting the mental models that your research partners bring to the table – be they from the science world or not. Taking your time at the design phase the project’s strategy is invaluable, and revisiting often to check-in with people is time well spent.

In conclusion

Having impact with research is a spectrum of challenges, the more complex, the deeper down the rabbit hole you decide you want to go. But there are ways and means of setting your work up for success. It starts with acknowledging three things:

  • There are rarely simple solutions to working at the interface; no one method; no one approach that will always work. Successes in integrating research into policy and practices are more often incremental and process-based, that takes time.
  • Individual people and organizations cannot do this alone! The challenges of the 21st century are a big ask of us as people… but the good news is that we can be in the ‘big ask’ together. We need to work together through networks and collaborative processes that are looking at problems and solutions from different perspectives, recognising that the real chance of impact lies in our whole, not just our own expertises – “knowledge co-production’’ to use the jargon – but also,
  • We need to learn how to do ‘team science’ better – particularly the type where we engage many different actors in the research process. A step in the right direction is as individuals to start focusing on learning, not just about content knowledge, but learning how to genuinely value the full range of knowledge, expertise, wisdom and thinking that it takes to tackle the mountains we climb together.

    Main image: © WWF / Simon Rawles

Luc Hoffmann InstituteThe Rabbit Hole of the Science-Policy-Practice Interface