The fast and the few; connecting science and policy in a rapidly changing world

Opinion 
by Paul Ryan
Director, Australian Resilience Centre and ILWS Advisory Board Member

Paul Ryan Director, Australian Resilience Centre and ILWS Advisory Board Member

Paul Ryan
Director, Australian Resilience Centre and ILWS Advisory Board Member

Over the past few months I have had the good fortune of working with a range of dedicated staff from state agencies, utilities and NGOs informing policies and strategies relating to water, local food, climate and biodiversity. What struck me about the discussions these different groups are having is the distinct lack of a broader narrative around sustainability and land use to provide context for their planning processes. What’s the vision we are working towards? This lack of vision and a contextualising narrative about sustainability means at best policy making becomes inconsistent, at worst ad hoc, despite the best intentions of many policy makers.

The uncertainty surrounding a clear national direction for the sustainability of the most basic issues any society must address: food supply, water provision, clean air, protection of productive agricultural land and support for communities that manage those landscapes, and the protection and management of the biodiversity we know is critical for provision and maintenance of life sustaining services, means that all the layers of formal and informal institutions that aggregate at different scales around these issues become similarly disorganised.

This disorganisation drives stakeholders and sections of the state agencies to contract to ‘safe’ core business, in part further entrenching the silos and lack of integration we are all familiar with. Developing an integrated, innovative or expansive approach to management of any one of these issues, a logical necessity, appears beyond our current institutions. The incentives are simply not there for a policy maker to take those kinds of risks.

What’s also clear is the policy development process itself has changed in recent times. The rapid policy cycle, where policies are developed by small subsets of decision makers and stakeholders and then tested with the wider community via the media and social media is totally out of sync with the methodical and somewhat slower cycle of good science; from conceptualisation to publication. We have to keep pace with those changes otherwise risk becoming irrelevant in these debates.

So how best for an integrated institution like ILWS to provide research-based policy advice in this compartmentalised, unstable and sometimes chaotic environment? We know producing well-targeted science is a cornerstone of having influence in the policy process, but ILWS already has a strong record in that area with major successes in areas like water policy and environmental flows, for example. We also know that personal networks are critically important in having science translated into policy, becoming a trusted source of high quality science ensures ongoing input. But staying connected to an increasingly churning public sector is difficult.

Some other approaches that have had success include creating synthesis documents that integrate science into policy-ready messages, deepening knowledge about the policy process and needs by engaging policy makers in co-creation processes and forums specifically targeting policy makers (preferably where the policy makers don’t have to travel far given recent restrictions and cuts to travel budgets!).

While all these approaches and just plain luck play a part in connecting good science and good policy, we will have to continue to reflect on and question our approaches as the policy development process continues to shift towards the fast and the few.

About ilwscsu
The Institute for Land, Water and Society is one of four Centres of Research Excellence within Charles Sturt University, Australia. Its principal focus is on integrated research which contributes to improved social and environmental sustainability in rural and regional areas.

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