Challenges Turning Environment and Sustainability Science Into Policy: An Interdisciplinary Review

Challenges Turning Environment and Sustainability Science Into Policy: An Interdisciplinary Review

Catherine M. Dieleman (University of Guelph, Canada), Chad Walker (Queen's University, Canada), David Pipher (University of Western Ontario, Canada) and Heather Peacock (University of Western Ontario, Canada)
DOI: 10.4018/978-1-5225-7302-9.ch008


In theory, there is a strong, two-way relationship between sustainability research and public policy that functions in synchrony to identify, understand, and ultimately address ecological problems for the greater good of society. In reality, such a cooperative relationship is rarely found. Instead, researchers and policymakers face a suite of challenges that prevent effective communication and collaborative pursuits, prolonging the period required to address environmental issues. In this chapter, the authors apply a novel interdisciplinary approach to identify key barriers and solutions to translating research into policy. In doing so, the authors present two separate discussions focused on the natural and social sciences. The authors also review established research-to-policy frameworks to develop the new “cohesive” framework. By addressing key barriers between researchers and policymakers, society will be better able to respond to the various environmental stressors that it faces today.
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An ES research-policy gap forms when the scientific knowledge required to identify and address an ES issue exists, yet is not reflected in a society’s policies. In many cases society values the environment as well as sustainable development — rightly believing future developments should “[meet] the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs” (World Commission on Environment and Development, 1987 p. 15). Yet these values are not consistently reflected in policies and governance. For example, ES scientists have asserted for decades that climate change is largely due to carbon dioxide released during fossil fuel combustion, with transport alone contributing approximately 14% of the total greenhouse gas emissions (IPCC, 2013). The ES research outlining this issue is widely and freely available. Still, most societies have yet to implement any impactful policies to transition away from a fossil fuel-based transportation system (Covert et al., 2016), despite an increasing global interest in sustainable development (Waas et al., 2014).

While current interest in addressing the ES research-policy gap is high (e.g. Jerneck et al., 2011; Kowarsch et al., 2017), concerns over the limited societal impact of ES research are not new. Radaelli (1995) explains that environmental research “creeps [into] policy...via indirect, cumulative and diffuse processes” (p. 164). Others have claimed that research rarely impacts specific policy outcomes (MacRae, 1976) or lies ‘dormant’ until important events catalyze policy change (see Sabatier, 1987). No matter the exact mechanism, the slow pace of these processes may be especially unhelpful in a time of climate and other environmental crises, whereby societies are taking huge risks if they count on research findings to be ‘taken up’ by way of gradual processes.

Key Terms in this Chapter

Cohesive Production: The production of new knowledge by a temporally-stable, interdisciplinary team of researchers and policymakers housed within the same academic facilities, able to conduct continuous, low latency, and multidirectional dialogues to resolve fine-scale research-policy barriers, while still working in an iterative fashion with the public.

Consolidator Production: A one directional transference of research products to end users via a third-party organization that coalesces and translates useful new knowledge into a readily accessible format for end users.

Collinear Production: New knowledge production and dissemination conducted primarily by research experts, with limited input or feedback from end users on the utility or quality of the final product.

Knowledge to Action: The transference of new knowledge into impactful societal change.

Co-Production: The production of new knowledge by an interdisciplinarity team, involving end users in a multi-direction dialogue throughout the production processes to generate usable knowledge.

Research-Policy Gap: The limited integration of available research into policy.

Environment and Sustainability Research: New knowledge production on the functionality of our past and current socio-ecological systems, as well as the development of improved future systems.

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