We are entering a new era when it comes to doing science

When 11,000 scientists recently issued a warning that the planet is experiencing climate emergency, they also declared, albeit implicitly, the coming of a new paradigm of science. The new paradigm can be summarised in this way:

If problems around us are becoming catastrophic, scientists do not have the luxury of just measuring problems and explaining why problems are occurring. Anyone who claims to be doing a science is also in need of becoming part of the solution to the societal problems. 

However, there is no single approach to engage with society while doing science. Climate scientists look at problems of planetary scale, while a number of local and regional scale problems need more intimate involvement of research community, not only in defining the problems but also in co-producing solutions. In a recent paper published in Forest Policy and Economics, we outline one experimental work about policy lab methodology which we developed and used to improve community forestry practices in Nepal hills.

A new experiment from Nepal 

Nepal’s community forestry has come a long way since 70s when it was instituted in the aftermath of Himalayan degradation. In the last five decades since then, the community forestry system has evolved as a global innovation in community based environmental management.

However, a number of second and third generation issues have emerged haunting communities, the government and the research groups: forests not used actively and equitably, regulatory procedures not supportive of marketing surplus and marketable products, decision making systems captured by local elites, and the poor and marginalised groups not directly and fairly getting the dividends from forests to name a few. To get thing worse, Nepal was struck by two deadly earthquakes in 2015 the middle of our work (2013-2019), and the community forestry system was not prepared to support rehabilitation of homes and schools devastated by the natural disaster.

Nepal had a strong body of research on community forestry but much this does not finds its way into the policy room. Numerous policy decisions on forest and environment have not benefitted from emerging and potential contributions science could make. Research community lack a strategy to engage with the policy world and the affected community. The research community often finds itself frustrated over the continued neglect of research evidence by policy makers. At the same time, policy makers see researchers as addressing their own questions of curiosity, and not those of concern to policy makers.

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Methodology to foster coproduction between science and policy 

The policy lab methodology involved tackling the gap between research and policy making.

To achieve the above-mentioned objectives, we then formulated the following principles to design the EPL methodology:

1.     Ensuring collaborative inquiry between researchers and policy actors by maintaining effective interaction between the two groups;

2.     Ensuring a balance between problem analysis and solution search – exploring diverse views and generating evidence (rather than advocating a policy point of view);

3.     Treating evidence broadly – evidence as lived memory, arguments and stories as well as numbers, research-generated ‘facts’ and other quantitative materials;

4.     Simultaneous engagement in policy discourse alongside policy practice – thus creating a space for dialogue between the practical and the conceptual world views; and

5.     Being opportunistic and willing to intervene when a policy agenda or issue becomes live and open to contribution.

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Positive feedback 

It was not possible to solve all the identified policy problems but definitely the methodology created new moments to foster co-inquiry to understand and tackle the problems. “This provided a very useful forum for us to voice our concerns and the environment was such that policy makers were prepared to listen to us”, a former chair of the national federation of community forestry said to the research team when asked to comment on the methodology.  A senior government official found the methodology as creating reflective and col-learning moments on often contested policy issues.

Moving forward: Messages 

As researchers and scientists, we do not have the luxury of just diagnosing problems – we should be part of testing solutions in the real world. Or engaging otherwise with the society. Policy makers should not just say all science is too ‘academic’ – they can challenge scientists with their policy questions, and be prepared to be challenged by scientists too. Such moments of ‘dialectical reasoning’ between policy makers scientists could help find new and actionable solutions to both old and emerging socio-environmental problems.