Editor’s note: The Environmental Information: Use and Influence research program (EIUI) – which brings together experts in information management and the natural and social sciences – examines the role of marine scientific information in environmental management. The program is based at Dalhousie University in Halifax, Canada. This past month, MEAM interviewed four members of the program – Elizabeth De Santo (now at Franklin & Marshall College), Bertrum MacDonald, Suzuette Soomai, and Peter Wells – about their work.

MEAM: Tell us a bit about your research.

EIUI team: Our team studies the interface between the production of scientific information and its use in policy and decision making contexts, i.e., the science-policy interface. One aspect that we are examining in particular is the role of information produced by governmental and non-governmental organizations (i.e., grey literature). While academic researchers most often publish in primary scholarly journals, much of the key information produced by governmental and non-governmental organizations resides in the voluminous and rapidly growing grey literature.

We have adopted a case study, organization-based approach, and to date have studied the information produced as grey literature by Canadian, US, and international organizations. Some of our findings so far include:

  1. The format of information and the way in which it is communicated and presented influence how (and whether) it is used in management. For instance, we’ve found that decision makers in Environment Canada want briefing notes that summarize complex topics succinctly rather than the original, detailed technical papers.
  2. Governmental, inter-governmental, and non-governmental organizations are increasingly producing diverse research outputs to reach diverse audiences. A great example of this is the Government of Nova Scotia’s The 2009 State of Nova Scotia’s Coast Report. This report included three products – a lengthy technical report, a summary document, and several fact sheets – designed for a wide range of users including the federal, provincial, and municipal governments and the general public.
  3. Information is increasingly being co-produced, often by diverse actors, because resources for conducting research are limited, and there is a need to incorporate the views of multiple stakeholders and different types of information.
  4. Stakeholders need to find information credible (sound), legitimate (fair), and salient (relevant) for it to be “useful” in decision making. One approach that Canada’s Department of Fisheries and Oceans and the Northwest Atlantic Fisheries Organization are using to get credible, legitimate, and relevant scientific advice for decision making is embedding processes to produce scientific advice within their organizations.

MEAM: So how do you actually figure out if scientific information is being used and influencing policy and decision making?

EIUI team: Measuring information use is a major challenge in studying information pathways. In addition, identifying the “influence” of information is complicated. Are use and influence the same? In many of our studies, we have seen that scientific information influences (i.e., it is considered in) policy-making, but it is only one factor that affects policy outcomes. Prevailing socioeconomic and political pressures also play an important role. This raises questions about "whose science" matters and who gets to make decisions.

MEAM: What can marine managers do in their daily work to improve the use of high quality science in the development of marine policy and management?

EIUI team:

  • Empower stakeholders and communicate with them: Incorporate stakeholders in environmental policy processes – not just as observers but as active participants in decision making. Foster and include indigenous and local knowledge and citizen science contributions and provide reliable and regular communication with stakeholders.
  • Embrace scientific uncertainty: Recognize and accept that marine systems are complex and ecological assessments can exhibit great scientific uncertainty. Fully acknowledging this uncertainty allows decision making to proceed in a precautionary manner rather than having the limitations of knowledge be an excuse for inaction.
  • Foster trust: The actions above will help build trust. This is vital for increasing compliance with management actions and strengthening managers' and decision-makers' legitimacy in the eyes of stakeholders.
  • Understand how information flows through relevant networks: Understanding the challenges and enablers in the production, communication, and use of information can help organizations modify their practices to produce more credible, relevant, and legitimate information and increase its uptake in decision making. It can also help them avoid the flow of misinformation, whether disseminated deliberately or accidentally, that we are seeing with the increased use of social media and unverified sources.
  • Employ mid-career scientists as intermediaries between new science and information and policy/decision makers: These experienced and trusted advisers can help translate/communicate new and relevant information so that it can be considered appropriately in policy and decision making.

Learn more about this work on our website, on Twitter @eiui_dal, and in our recent book Science, Information and Policy Interface for Effective Coastal and Ocean Management.