BY CALEB O’BRIEN  |  MAY 14, 2020

As the COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted, the role of science in policymaking can be complex and fraught. Recently, Global Change Center affiliate Todd Schenk, Assistant Professor in the School of Public and International Affairs at Virginia Tech, joined a group of graduate students in the Interfaces of Global Change Seminar to discuss the complicated interplay between science and public deliberations in another realm: Joint fact-finding and collaborative adaptive management.

From the vantage of the ivory tower, scientists can fall prey to an unrealistic view of the relationship between science and policy, mistakenly believing that there is a straight line from good research to good policy, and that more good science should lead to more good policy. Alas, the world’s a messy place, and that messiness can have real consequences for human and environmental health and wellbeing. Consider, for example, the resurgence of preventable diseases caused by fear about vaccines, or the gridlock around anthropogenic climate change.

The messy interface between science and policy is due, in part, to the nature of science: It is incremental, uncertain, contested, distant, hard to translate, and often ensnared in the quagmire of wicked problems. What’s worse, parties on every side of a dispute can often marshal scientific findings that seem to support their position, making it difficult to establish a common baseline of facts, let alone achieve a solution. Shenk, an expert in environmental policy and planning with globe-spanning experience, proffered joint fact-finding as one path through the thicket of adversarial science and conflicting priorities.

Joint fact-finding is a process by which stakeholders, experts, and decision-makers collaboratively strive to address factual disputes around science-linked policy issues such as environmental protection, energy, and public health.

Schenk guided the IGC students and some visiting faculty members through a hypothetical joint fact-finding exercise based on conflicts around the Mountain Valley Pipeline. Following a standard protocol for joint-fact finding, the participants explored relevant stakeholder groups, untangled their positions and interests, and delved into the process of collectively mustering a common pool of knowledge upon which the participants could draw when (hopefully) fashioning a solution to their conflict.

The exercise highlighted the challenges and complexities of incorporating science into fraught, multi-stakeholder processes. Although the simulation Schenk conducted was a simplified serious game, it offered the IGC cohort fodder for reflection on the roles they might in their future careers as scientists. Joint fact-finding is one tool that could help researchers blaze a path through the thicket of adversarial science.

Caleb O’Brien is a PhD student working with Professor Marc Stern on a research project studying place-based climate change adaptation in the United States.

Header photo credit: Beckley Register Herald