When Science, Politics and Environmental Policy Meet

Michael Craig, Amanda Giang, Colin Thackray
Wednesday, January 22, 2014

What’s the difference between climate change, the Northern spotted owl, and acid rain?

That question is not the beginning of a bad joke. Rather, it was the type of question that lay at the heart of the class ‘Science, Politics, and Environmental Policy’ offered this past fall at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. For the first time, the class was co-taught by Professors Susan Solomon of Earth, Atmospheric and Planetary Sciences and Judy Layzer of Urban Studies and Planning – an interdisciplinary team that drew students from diverse backgrounds across MIT’s schools and departments. Through weekly case studies, the class aimed to better understand how the United States has dealt with environmental problems and the multifaceted role of science in that process.

Each week, students focused on a different environmental issue, ranging from historical examples like the use of lead in gasoline, to currently unfolding debates, like the environmental impacts of unconventional shale gas production. Through reading, writing, and discussion, students explored how and why these issues entered the policy agenda (or didn’t), evolving policy responses, and how science fit into the picture. While fast and hard conclusions were elusive, as the class drew to a close students reflected on several themes that emerged over the course of the semester: the complexity of the policy-making process, the convoluted path that science takes from its origin to its use in policy, and the importance of storytelling for communicating science effectively.

Opening the black box of policy-making

Many of us initially saw the policy process as a black box – we could see the inputs (mainly science) and outputs (environmental policy), but did not fully grasp how one led to the other. Over the course of the semester, we came to a far better understanding of what levers exist to influence the policy-making process.

Some of those levers are litigation, direct involvement in the political process, and communication to the public. Each can influence the conversion of inputs to outputs, but vary in effectiveness under different circumstances. In part, such circumstances emerge from existing economic and political institutions, which can constrain policymaking and create path dependency. Recognizing these realities through case studies demonstrated the importance of looking at policy issues from different angles and thinking carefully about the best strategy for effecting change.

The path from science to policy

As we peeled the lid off the black box of policymaking, we also began to recognize how convoluted the path science travels from generation to use in policymaking can be. Science does not pass directly from academics to policymakers, but rather is filtered and translated by many individuals. These individuals – and even scientists themselves – have differing values, biases, and goals that can lead them to different interpretations of, and conclusions from, science. What role, if any, should scientists play along science’s path from lab to policy? Do scientists who act as advocates harm the credibility of science as a whole, and if so, does this harm outweigh the potential benefits? For scientists who act as the ‘experts’ that communicate the scientific basis of environmental issues to non-scientists, how do their biases and values shape their actions and their interpretation of science? If science is being filtered and reinterpreted, how can we ensure the veracity of information we receive that is purportedly "based on science”?

Stories matter

Over the course of the semester, the importance of storytelling also emerged as a major theme. In many of the cases we studied, public engagement was a key driver for policy action, so effectively communicating with and reaching the public is crucial. Doing so requires the ability to tell a clear story – to communicate information (scientific or otherwise) clearly, concisely, and in a way that is relevant to the audience. Focusing on what you know can help in putting forth a clear narrative, and while uncertainties are important to convey, they do not need to be the focus of communication.

There is no easy formula for developing strong environmental policies, nor are there simple rules for how science should be involved. That said, 'Science, Politics, and Environmental Policy' helped us develop a more nuanced understanding of the complex policy-making process, and gave us tools to engage in it strategically, and with self-awareness. Rarely is there an opportunity to discuss the many-layered environmental policy system with students with such diverse expertise. The confluence of ideas and points of view from the varied backgrounds of both the students and professors resulted in a unique learning experience for this collection of young environmental scholars.


11.373/12.885  Science, Politics, and Environmental Policy (11.373/12.385)

Judith Layzer

Susan Solomon

About the Authors

Colin Thackray is a graduate student in MIT's Department of Earth, Atmospheric and Planetary Sciences working with Noelle Selin. Amanda Giang and Michael Craig are graduate students in MIT's Engineering Systems Division.


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