Conflict Resolution: Policy vs Science

Published On: November 2021Categories: 2021 Magazine, Canadian Science Policy Magazine, Science and Policy
A headshot of a black woman with the title: Conflict Resolution: Policy vs Science and Norma Domey's name and affiliation


Norma Domey

Professional Institute of the Public Service of Canada

National Vice President

Having spent more than 30 years as a Federal Government scientist who made science-based recommendations for policy makers at Health Canada and Environment and Climate Change Canada, I have found there are several inherent difficulties in applying scientific information to management decisions that likely contribute to disputes between parties over how and what information is used to inform policy decision-making. In my opinion, these difficulties stem from important differences between the way that science is conducted and the way that decision-makers use and weigh scientific information. Scientific information is often difficult to utilize in management decisions because scientific norms, processes, and limitations can result in scientific information that does not clearly support any alternative over any other. Further, as more scientific information is obtained, the weight of support may shift from one alternative to another. These shifts result more from science having different priorities and practices than management decision-making processes. However, it has been my experience that all parties involved in science and policy try their best to resolve conflicts.

Steps in Conflict Resolution:

As in any other conflict resolution process, science and policy share common ground, but that can only be achieved if you follow all of the usual steps in conflict resolution: A) Prepare the discussion so that all parties have equal footing, B) Ask the question: Where or when did things diverge? And then each side needs to listen carefully to the other. C) Have each side explain the main issues (outcomes, not concerns) caused by the divergence, and respond with how they perceive those outcomes (for example, side A says ‘Your fracking is wrecking the environment’, side B responds ‘I hear you saying that our efforts to increase oil production, including fracking, are worrying to you’. Note this is not about agreement per se, it’s about agreement on where the points of disagreement are). D) Have each side express their honest concerns about dealing with the issue (we worry you’ll destroy the environment, we worry that the industry will collapse, etc.). E) Having agreement on all of that, it’s possible to proceed to agreeing common ground and actions (we both want a thriving Canada, here’s a plan to achieve that).  There’s always an attempt to leap to judgement on that part E (don’t bother us with the concerns, etc. we already know all the other stuff), and usually that fails to find any common ground.

Turf Protection:

Many times in science/policy conflicts, each side regards the other as infringing on its ‘turf.’ The reality is that some of that turf is shared property. Rachel Carson’s 1962 book ‘Silent Spring’ was a clarion call for academics to wake up, get out of their ivory towers, and become more relevant to a society dealing with emerging threats to the environment. But as academia has responded and become more activist and relevant in many ways, there has been friction. Policy makers suspect that scientists want to write policy, scientists suspect that policy makers want to unravel science. In truth, there is some justification to those fears, in that the ordinary perspective of each side is very different. Science deals with the ‘correct’ world, where facts are stubborn things that must be dealt with. Policy deals with a political context where answers are mutable and subject to the philosophy of those that govern. When policy tries to make facts mutable, or when scientists try to make political solutions rigid, the resulting clash will be inevitable.

Serving the Government of the Day:

The hierarchy of power makes resolution of science/policy conflicts more troublesome.  Policy is in the captain’s chair, as it is closer to the seat of legislative power and legal authority. Moreover, policy usually involves an army of people serving the government of the day, while academics many times are operating as leaders of small teams, etc. In that context, it is relatively easy to characterize the academic side as being ‘biased,’ or the policy side as being ‘dismissive.’ This violates step 1 of conflict resolution above: ensuring equal footing for the discussion. This is where group action on the science side can be important, to bring things to a less personal, more equal footing. It’s one area where I think there needs to be more improvement – globally and especially in Canada. Traditionally, bodies such as national academies and larger scientific societies have taken on the role of policy critique and science advocacy. However, it appears that some of these institutions have been ineffectual (at best) or AWOL (at worst) during recent times. For example, did the Royal Society step up when muzzling of science became an election issue in Canada several years ago? No. They were invisible. Did the National Academy of Science or any Health Science professional society in the United States raise an uproar when we learned that the Biden Administration abandoned Scientific Integrity policy to control the communications of their researchers regarding COVID? Silence!

Science Advocacy:

Some groups have emerged to try to tackle the lack of activity by the traditional science advocates, for example the Union of Concerned Scientists in the United States, and Evidence for Democracy (E4D) in Canada. However, their resources are limited, and they cannot possibly cover all the important bases that need to be covered for specific critique. They must focus on the big picture. While it is true that the Professional Institute of the Public Service of Canada (PIPSC) helped to foster the establishment of E4D in Canada, and successfully defended against the muzzling of Science during the Harper Administration, it also has limits to resources and mandate – it cannot be all things to all people. So, while unions like PIPSC can be involved in urgent defensive actions, establishing constructive critique on multiple fronts becomes a bit more challenging. Perhaps the establishment of an open access journal where research by public service scientists, with a volunteer editorial staff, could provide critical evidence for the policy side to consider. Continued research and hypotheses development and testing (particularly comparative case studies and large sample size (n), empirical studies) are needed to understand the real strengths, limitations, and applicability of each dispute resolution approach to effectively assist managers to appropriately cope with disputes over science. 

Government research, by its very nature, is focused on the big, long-term picture and the public good – as Chair PIPSC National Science Advisory Committee, in my humble opinion, it’s a good place to start.