Policy relevant science – life on the boundary

I have had a couple of posts so far on what I perceive as a how-to-guide on doing policy relevant science (an overview and a piece emphasizing why contrary to popular opinion universities are actually a good base for doing policy-relevant science).

One root of my interest in policy relevant science comes from the fact that I spent 10 years as an IT/management consultant before going back to school in ecology. During this time I learned a lot about organizational dynamics and how decisions in large institutions (our customers were all Fortune 100 companies) get made. Although having no academic experience in this topic I have a fair amount of real-world experience and I enjoy intellectually but also practically see this as an area where I can add value in the push to sustainability science.

So here I want to talk about a concept that originated in the business world (indeed numerous articles were published all the way back to the 1970s by professors at business schools) but now is increasingly growing in importance in ecology, sustainability, environmental sciences and related fields. This is the notion of boundary workers.

In the corporate context, the boundary was what separated the company from the rest of the world. For both legal and management reasons there was a  lot of concern about how a company maintains its identity, focus and function as a unit and thus ultimately how one defines what is in and out of the company. And this naturally leads to the idea of a boundary. Boundaries imply demarcation of in and out, but they pretty quickly also imply ideas of flows across boundaries. Accordingly, in management theory, a boundary worker is somebody who works within a company but focuses on flows across the corporate boundary. This would include sales people, people doing marketing research, people doing the logistics of delivering goods, etc. Boundary workers are the eyes and ears of the company that help to integrate the changing nature of the real world with the focused internal workers of a company.

As mentioned there is a lot of literature on boundary workers in corporations (one operational measure is % of day spent talking to people outside the company). Contrary to many expectations, boundary workers do not suffer career-wise in many cases – they are well paid and well promoted. They have high job satisfaction. They are also not typical – they have an unusual set of skills (communication skills obviously but also tolerance for ambiguity and some other less obvious traits) and are unusually well networked. And there is a lot of theory about how groups in fast-moving industries (computers, fashion) need a higher proportion of boundary workers in comparison to slow moving fields (construction, manufacturing of durable goods like refrigerators).

How does this relate to policy relevant science? Well it seems pretty obvious there is a boundary (at least one!) between basic research and policy makers. I’m not going to get too specific here about exactly where that boundary lies, because I have a whole future post on the topic. A growing number of researchers in the field of science policy (the social science of how science informs policy) talk about this boundary and the importance of understanding it. Good examples include: Cash et al. 2004, Guston 2001, Clarke et al. 2011. One can think not only of individual boundary workers but boundary organizations (many NGOs government agencies, cooperative extension, etc).

So all of this is rewarding (and provides a platform for publishing in high profile journals!) for social scientists. Should biosphysical scientists, specifically ecologists (and here I am mostly talking about the subset that care whether their science is policy-relevant or not) care about this literature and concept? Well, I will candidly say I don’t think biophysical scientists should care about all of the literature. Some of it is very caught up in things purely of interest to social scientists and not of much practical use to scientists looking to work on the boundary (I’m not going to name names) But some of the literature is eminently useful.

For example, Cash talks about the three things science needs to have to translate well across the boundary: credibility (good science done by demonstrably competent scientists), saliency (relevance to the policy makers) and legitimacy (not done in an obviously biased fashion or more strongly done in an inclusive transparent fashion). Clark talks about how boundary work changes depending on how many players there are on the science side of the boundary and on the policy side. In a later paper Guston talks about the role of “boundary objects” – something I am planning a whole post on. Are these things that policy-relevant science workers already intuitively know? Yes, definitely. But do we benefit from having a shared language and conceptualization? Yes, definitely. As scientists, it should come as no shock that having a conceptual framework, a model if you will, and jargon is useful to those wishing to work in the area!

My last point comes out in spades when the conversation turns to the idea of training future boundary workers. I increasingly think science departments are asleep at the wheel and failing in our training if we don’t have options that enable students to get training in being boundary workers. Some students, will have no need for this as they are planning to work entirely within the “company”/boundary (i.e. basic science). But many students are increasingly planning from the beginning to work on the science-policy boundary. And we are short-shrifting these students if we don’t train them how to work on the boundary (just as we are short-shrifting students targeting academia if we don’t train them in the skills for academia like presentations, science ethics, etc). And I don’t think there are too many departments left that are so basic science oriented that they don’t have a significant fraction of their students who need boundary training.

What does boundary training for students look like? Well its not like a standard graduate lecture course. There are no equations. It is probably a bit like a seminar/discussion course but with a very different set of literature. And with leaders and/or members who have real-world experience as a science-policy boundary worker.

Here at the University of Maine, as part of the Sustainability Solutions Initiative, I co-taught a course on boundary spanning with colleagues David Hart, Kathleen Bell and Laura Lindenfeld. I learned a lot from teaching this course – from my co-teachers, from the students and from our speakers – I would even say it was a formative experience for me. The course had four components:

  1. Paper reading/lecture/discussion (with papers on boundary spanning).
  2. Speaker panels of people outside academia working on the boundary (one panel had state legislators and executive branch employees, one had NGOs, one had community organizers, etc). Students had to prepare questions in advance and write-up what they heard
  3. An internship component – students had to identify a boundary worker in their field, shadow them for a day, and write a 10 page paper reflecting on what they learned.
  4. A brief training session on science communication (with each student working through an example in their own research) largely inspired by the NSF “Becoming the Messenger” workshops.

This mix worked extremely well for us, and I will probably use the same mix whenever we next repeat the course. The exact mix, length, and details of the assignment could obviously vary from case to case. But the idea of bringing in diverse outside experts is I think essential.

So, my bottom line is this. For science to expand out and reach policy, we need to have good conceptual models of this process to make us skilled practitioners and to help train students. The model that resonates the best for me centers on boundary spanning and boundary workers. I like this model in part because I think it makes clear that not everybody in science is or needs to be a boundary worker, that we can have boundary spanning and non-boundary spanning roles, and that the act of boundary spanning is indeed much more than “just doing science but communicating it better”. I think scientists need to: a) not just leave this topic as a research topic solely to social scientists, and b) start getting serious about this as a formal skill that we need to train our students in.

What do you think? Are you a boundary worker? Do you want to be? Do you work at a boundary organization or want to? Does the notion of being at or spanning the boundary resonate? What do you think universities need to change with respect to boundary spanning?


19 thoughts on “Policy relevant science – life on the boundary

  1. That all sounds good, but what “company” is going to hire these science-policy boundary workers? From what I’ve seen, competition for science-policy positions is fierce (e.g. AAAS policy fellows) and possible positions such as in government (not currently hiring at the federal level), non-profits (tiny employment segment), and extension schools (usually more market-based than environment-based) are few and far between.

    • ATM gave some good suggestions below. But I wouldn’t agree that non-profits is a tiny base. I can’t speak to weather USGS and NOAA (Fisheries) are hiring this year but they have huge research arms. State governments in fish and game units have positions. As ATM notes I think boundary workers are found all over the place.

      • Non-profits hiring PhD scientists is tiny. USGS and NOAA have been slammed by the sequester and aren’t hiring right now. I agree that for-profit-type management (forestries, fisheries, fish&game, etc.) agencies have some jobs out there. But generally speaking, my impression is if someone wanted to get one of these sorts of jobs, one would go in for a Masters and not a PhD…

      • It’s not a great market anywhere right now unfortunately. We just had a budget meeting at my university today and it is official the faculty will be shrinking next year. Hopefully the macroenvironment turns around sooner rather than later.

        I have had the discussion of Masters vs PhD for management jobs and while I agree this has traditionally been a masters level job that is increasingly changing.

  2. Really interesting concept. I think my field (wildlife sciences) have a lot of boundary workers and to provide some training towards this job. Again, I’ll mention the Cooperative Research Units of FWS/USGS as an example. The funding comes often comes from state grants that have applied goals – this gives students experience with ‘real world’ problems and introduces them to potential employers. I know a couple of my fellow students who have been hired on the basis of the research they did for states. We also have yearly meeting with our cooperators where we present our research and ask for feedback. Great practice for not filling one’s conversation with jargon/lecturing.

    As for where boundary workers work – state and federal jobs including biologists and managers (species/park/wetland); some of the large NGOs like Ducks Unlimited, Tall Timbers, TNC, ABC. I guess these employ only a few people in the grand scheme of things but for wildlife/biology/ecology students, this is where most of them end up if they stay in the field. On paper, these are all biologist jobs but in practical terms, they’re boundary workers.

    • WIthin the academic literature on boundary organizations, cooperative extension is often higlighted as a success. And from my own experiences working in universities, I would agree.

  3. Entirely separate from my above comment: What do you think about people who interface directly with the public rather than policy makers? Are science journalists boundary workers? Only if they were trained as scientists? Or does it depend on where/for whom they work? (Just trying to sort out exactly what classifies someone as “in” vs. “out”…)

    • Oh I definitely think interfacing with the public is a boundary job. You’re presaging a future post on how many boundaries are there!

  4. Interesting. I’ve never heard the term boundary worker before, but I think I’ve fallen into a position as one recently – working as an ecologist at a regional conservation agency in Ontario. I certainly feel like I wasn’t trained for much of what I’ve been doing at work, but in a way my outsider/insider status can help me do my job. For example, I often need to ask for definitions of terms or for more background information, which can end up helping everyone by starting a discussion that might not happen otherwise about the assumptions, purpose, and goals of a project.

    One frustrating thing about boundary jobs is when the boundaries are more like walls. Although everyone I’ve spoken to likes the idea of academics and conservation agencies working together more often, it’s harder to make it actually happen.

    A last thought: my observations support the idea that there are more PhDs being hired in jobs like this – but I’m not clear on whether this is an active choice on the part of the hiring agencies, or because there are more unemployed ecology PhDs on the job market!

    • Interesting points. As to whether a boundary feels stuck, challenging, complex or rewarding is probably just different descriptions of the same underlying nature of working on the boundary. Which you feel probably depends on the day!

  5. Thanks Brian for this post, it’s helpful to have a term to package the zone that I think I’m increasingly drawn to, both out of enjoyment for what the role entails and also out of a sense of duty. Margaret Kosmala’s points really resonate with me – much as people are calling for more students to be trained in active engagement, and I think such training would be valuable, I am at a loss to understand how exactly one makes a living at it. Federal jobs are typically (though not always) limited to research topics close to home, which is less appropriate if your expertise is international. There are the big NGOs but recently large NGOs are cutting back research staff. I haven’t been trained to do any of the communication I do, and hope I can receive such training; but in the meantime the question is how does one remain a scientist at all.

  6. Mac Hunter, a long time participant in this area, noted the following to me by email in comment:

    In general I think boundary work has been key to the success of ecologists who work for almost every kind of institution except academia for many, many years. What is different recently is the new terminology (at least for ecologists) and the advent of some social scientists starting to describe and analyze the science-policy boundary. Within academia, I think departments that focus on natural resource management (e.g. wildlife and fisheries programs) have long recognized the issue (including both interaction with the public and policy makers) but have not done much to prepare students beyond requiring some economics and communications classes, and then mostly just for undergraduates. Departments in the basic sciences have been slower to respond because for many of them the ultimate prize remains turning out students who become professors, and these folks seem slow and reluctant to embrace the importance of jobs outside the academy. My two cents based on casual observation, not study of any data

  7. Here is another email comment from a colleague, Aram Calhoun, on a great way of training for future boundary workers:

    I think landgrant Universities,by virtue of their raison d’etre, should be well positioned to train students in boundary spanning. From my experience working in policy for 15 years, the best training we can give students is to spend a lot of time at the state legislature. There is no better classroom than watching how policy is made. A fabulous student project, undergraduate or graduate, would be to choose a debated issues (toxins in plastics, vernal pools, etc.), attend the hearings…testify….,do the homework to learn who the key players are “on and off the court” and to study the process. I am sure students would come away with a list of skills they need to hone, based on their observations of who and who is not successful, influential, etc. that they would never forget. It could inspire many of them to learn how critical objective science is as a “credibility”tool, yet how inert it is without a communicator.

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  9. I am just now catching up with with post and your subsequent one on boundary objects. I had never heard this phrase before, but it precisely describes what I have recently started doing in my new job.

    I am trained as a marine ecologist/oceanographer (PhD) and I work as a consultant to federal and regional agencies to help decision-makers (regulators, resource managers) make decisions about ocean science (for which they have little or no expertise). This ends up primarily being a communication challenge for me – how to explain complex topics without losing or glossing over vital detail? I have to answer to science advisory panels that can be quite pushy and opinionated about how much detail we should be insisting be used in decision-making. Likewise, I talk to managers and regulators who acknowledge that the science is interesting, but say that it just doesn’t provide them with the necessary concrete information to decide if an offshore construction project should be allowed a permit (for example).

    This is definitely not just a social science/communication problem. In order to be effective, I need to stay linked to the research community in my field and stay informed about published literature. Publishing my own work is incredibly challenging, however – I have had manuscript reviews come back that simultaneously say “this is too quantitative and science-y” and “this is not quantitative enough”.

    I just joked the other day that I should propose a special session at a conference one of these days that is “A support group for scientists working with managers”. I’d be really interested to hear from more boundary workers.

    • Thanks for sharing your experiences. I think your experiences of “too quantitative” and “not quantitative enough” reviews on the same piece of work is typical, and needs to change, but it also probably means you’re doing exactly the right thing!

      And while you were joking about support groups for scientists on the boundary, I in all seriousness think university scientists need to do a better job of recognizing and valuing these skill sets, ranging from graduate training (part of the point of my last post) all the way up to worrying about if we have a critical mass of such people at universities to various forms of outreach to people in government and NGOs (rotations in academia, seminar series, and etc)? I’m curious what you think would be helpful?

      • I think that if the goal is training students, it is totally attainable. I can only speak from my own experience, but I had near-full immersion in boundary work from the beginning of my graduate training. But I was a member of a very large lab where a lot of my participation and coordination with fed/state/NGO folks was highly subsidized. AND I was willing and interested in sacrificing field/lab time in order to engage in boundary work (something my lab-mates did not necessarily do). So, I think under the right conditions, the training can be successful. Seminars and academic rotations would absolutely help increase the visibility of boundary workers and attract students to the boundary.

        The real key is to keep the graduates of the boundary work program highly credible with the academic community. This is not an easy thing. Keeping up on the literature and going to conferences is mostly at my company’s (my own) expense. At the same time, a boundary worker cannot appear “too academic” for her dealings with management/regulatory people. One has to be willing to be a chameleon. I literally dress differently for meetings with academics versus managers. I wouldn’t want to waste too much time in graduate training on this topic (I think it would completely undermine the credibility of the program because we are not ready to admit that this is reality). Hence the need for a support group. Workshops, conference sessions and social media I think are all better places to ask and discuss – what are the strategies for blending in a bit on each side of the boundary (while still doing great and highly relevant boundary work)?

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