What are the Facts? Moving Beyond Adversarial Science

Complex problems require complex solutions and have far reaching impacts on different groups of people and stakeholders. Whether it be land use management, new/expanding energy sources, or climate change each stakeholder has their own set of goals and a different image of what “success” looks like when addressing any global change challenge. In too many cases stakeholders with conflicting views of success gather research that supports their view points, and both sides beginning flinging “facts” at each other in opposition. How can we address complex problems from a shared base of facts?

The technique we discussed in the IGC seminar on December 5, 2018 is known as joint fact-finding, which is an approach that aims to move beyond ‘adversarial science’ by engaging stakeholders to collectively identify their information needs, gather neutral experts to develop and implement research agendas, and collectively consider the results and the implications on policy-making and planning.

Our discussion began with a summary of the joint fact-finding process by Dr. Todd Schenk, Assistant Professor in the School of Public and International Affairs and faulty affiliate of the Global Change Center. Dr. Schenk is an expert on collaborative planning, particularly joint fact-finding, which was the subject of a book co-edited by Dr. Schenk. After familiarizing ourselves with the process of joint fact-finding, we broke into three random groups for a role-playing exercise of joint fact-finding. Our subject was the Mountain Valley Pipeline. Though this project is well beyond a possible joint fact-finding stage, its proximity and relevancy to the Interfaces of Global Change at VT made it useful as a hypothetical example for a role-play exercise. One group represented the energy and development companies behind the project, the second the many environmental groups and local land owners concerned about the project, and the third the many governmental regulators and courts that evaluate public concerns and legality of the project. After identifying our stakeholders, we decided what the priorities and objectives of our stake holder groups were, then decided what information we would need to evaluate if our concerns/objectives could be met and how we would go about doing that.

After the exercise we had a little bit of time to reflect upon the discussion. Clearly joint fact-finding and other collaborative planning methods are a better way to gather facts and find a fact-based solution to an issue. What is unclear is how we bring groups together early enough and willing to engage in the lengthy and sometimes costly process of joint fact-finding. Stakeholders must be willing and able to spend time sending representatives and agreeing on experts to meet their respective goals. Our final question was “What, if any, is the role of the IGC/GCC in facilitating or taking part in joint fact-finding initiatives?” As experts in our fields we can be willing to serve as neutral experts in charge of conducting research and gathering facts for joint fact-finding projects. As individuals we can be involved in collaborative planning and advocate for joint fact-finding over “adversarial science.”

Devin Hoffman is an IGC fellow working on fossil reptiles with Dr. Sterling Nesbitt in the Department of Geosciences. He studies diversification and ecology.