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:
- Paper reading/lecture/discussion (with papers on boundary spanning).
- 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
- 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.
- 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?