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University of Colorado Denver

School of Public Affairs
 

Socially Relevant Science

Digging Theories in Environmental Policy and Management Seminar


Toddi Steelman

North Carolina State University

tasteelm@ncsu.edu


 My scholarship focuses on the intersection of science, policy, and decision making.  My area of emphasis within this broader body of work has been on the role of the public and communities in decision making.   
Scholarship, according to Ernest L. Boyer, the author of the Carnegie Foundation report entitled Scholarship Reconsidered, encompasses four key elements.  These include teaching, discovery and research (what is conventionally considered scholarship in the academy), application, and integration.  I like this division because it reminds us as scholars that our jobs are much broader than just conducting research or engaging in discovery.  With the significant legitimacy challenges facing the institution of higher education I feel it is incumbent on every participant within the academy to more fully embrace the call of scholarship writ large.  We simply need to figure out how to make ourselves more relevant—and with that comes the responsibility to be more meaningful to society.
 
As a policy scholar interested in the intersection of science, policy, and decision making, it may come as little surprise that I am personally interested in this vision of scholarship.  If one hopes to have an impact on policy or decision making with one’s science, then it means becoming more fully engaged outside the walls of the academy.  Interjecting yourself into the halls, arenas, discussions, and fora where decisions are made is essential if you wish your science to have influence. 
 
I have co-authored or authored four books.  I have also written numerous peer reviewed articles and book chapters as well as scores of lay-oriented works.  The books have provided an opportunity to work on a much larger canvas to sketch out ideas.  The articles provide a venue for thinking about more precisely empirically derived relationships.  All of this is to say that I have thought rather strategically about how I position my works and what function I have them serve.  In this essay I focus on the books because they give a clearer picture of the arc of my intellectual career to date.
 
Much of my work is collaborative.  The three co-authored books were born out of key relationships with colleagues where we realized that the whole added up to more than the sum of the parts of our individual work.  My first book—Collaborative Environmental Management:  What Role for Government? (Resources for the Future, 2004) challenged the conventional wisdom that collaboration was a grassroots effort often devoid of governmental influence.  This book was written while I was an Assistant Professor at the (then) Graduate School of Public Affairs, University of Colorado, Denver.  My colleagues and I started with the assumption that government was an important actor but not prevalent in all aspects of collaboration.  We each had specific case studies that we brought to the table and devised a framework to unpack the key aspects of collaboration.  What we found surprised us.  Government, both as an actor and as an institution, was prevalent in all collaborative efforts.  Based on this finding, we devised the structure of the book—Government as encourager, follower , or leader, which helped specify the roles that government can and does play in collaborative environmental management.  This book has been fairly well cited in the literature, and I haven’t adequately followed up to see how the ideas have evolved in others’ work.   In terms of future research, my sense was that the framework we devised in this book could be applied to other cases to see if it held up and how well the encourager, follower, leader typology applied in other public policy contexts beyond the environmental realm.  Overall the work on collaboration has best been typified by either conceptual or more qualitative, case studied based work.  Larger-n, quantitative studies that seek to prove or disprove general propositions relating to collaborative based work need to be conducted at this stage to further the field.  Some excellent studies currently exist, but there is plenty of room for additional work in this arena. 
 
My second book—Adaptive Governance:  Integrating Science, Policy, and Decision Making (Columbia University Press, 2005) was written with Professor Ron Brunner (University of Colorado, emeritus) and several of our graduate students.  In this book we sought to raise awareness of and question the key intellectual paradigms under which we as practitioners and intellectuals operate in natural resource management.   In short, we wanted to rethink the relationship of science in the decision making process and how it related to policy goals.  Conventional wisdom, in the form of Scientific Management a la Taylorism as it ubiquitously emerged in the early 20th Century, suggested that if we could focus on the right targets and efficiently produce them, then we would realize better gains for society at large.  This philosophy pervaded the early natural resource management agencies.  In translating Taylorism, the Progressive Conservationists sought to use science by honing in on key targets and managing efficiently for them.  In doing so, science was believed to be able to provide key policy answers and actually became equated with policy solutions.  Once the science had it right, this policy could then be trundled through the bureaucratic decision making machine in a top down manner to achieve results.  While this is a caricature of the complexity actually involved, the key point is that there was a prevailing belief that Science à Policy à Decision Making.  In our book, we tried to make clear that this paradigm of thought continues to pervade much of the thinking about environmental and natural resource management.  We wanted to encourage an alternative paradigm—something we called Adaptive Governance.  This competing belief system envisioned a complex policy process where a pluralist society has multiple interests that must be acknowledged and ideally integrated or balanced into something approximating a common interest, which is the policy goal.  If you begin by acknowledging that there are multiple interests that need to be integrated or balanced, then that means you need a decision making structure that can accommodate the integration and balancing.  Most likely this will have to be done at a more decentralized level to accommodate these interests.  Within this decision making structure, science and other types of relevant knowledge can be brought to bear to define the problem and the alternatives in a more collaborative and integrative manner.  This alternative paradigm redefines the role of science away from providing THE answer to providing key inputs into a decision making process that needs to define the problem as well as the feasibility of alternatives.  This book has also been fairly successful in terms of putting the idea of adaptive governance into the vernacular.  Others have also posed competing definitions of the term, so there is no unified agreement on it.  I think there is more room for demonstrating where and under what conditions the adaptive governance approach works (or doesn’t) so we can better learn about its limitations and more constructive application. 
 
My third book—Implementing Innovation:  Fostering Enduring Change in Environmental and Natural Resource Governance (Georgetown U. Press)—was published in 2010.  This was a sole authored book that took about 10 years to bring to fruition.  I clearly work more quickly as a collaborator than alone!  I finally completed a publishable version of the book while on sabbatical in Vancouver, BC.  The book tackled a central question in policy and management—why do some innovative programs succeed, while others fail?  I devised a framework drawn from the neo-institutional and policy studies literature to comprehensively evaluate three case studies of innovative programs in natural resource management.  This framework suggested that individual, structural, and cultural characteristics all influence the potential for innovation’s success.  Conventional wisdom in the public management literature holds that individuals, or policy entrepreneurs, are the key forces behind change.  My analysis suggested an alternative interpretation.  Structures were the key characteristic that led to persistence in an innovative program’s success.  While individuals and culture were important in many respects, unless those characteristics could be leveraged effectively to build an effective structure, then the innovation’s longer term duration was questionable.  This work was based on three qualitative case studies and future work would ideally use the framework to test a larger dataset, perhaps more quantitatively, to see if the findings hold.  I think the key finding to test in the future is whether the importance of structures holds over individual and cultural aspects when looking at a larger data set.  This would have implications for how we think about innovation and the public management, policy, and administrative theories that we teach that often focus on individuals over structures. 
 
Environmental Policy and Knowledge:  Reimagining the Boundaries of Science and Politics (MIT Press, 2010), was written with my original Ph.D. advisors, Drs. William Ascher and Robert Healy.  Using the categories of generation, transmission, and use, we tracked how different types of knowledge (including science, local knowledge, and public preferences) were used in decision making.  Science is often privileged in environmental decision making, perhaps undeservedly so.  The claim is made that science is objective, unbiased, or neutral.  These claims often fall apart when one takes a closer look given the inherently social natural of the construction of science.  Alternatively, local knowledge and public preferences are dismissed because they are perceived as biased, subjective, or prejudiced.  If all knowledge is at some level socially constructed, then why do we privilege some (science) and not others (local knowledge and public preferences)?  In part, this division happens because we like to separate the spheres of science and politics.  However, in hardening these boundaries, we only serve to politicize science and scientize politics.  In the book, we argue that a more fruitful way forward might be to more fully embrace the constructive side of politics—the shaping and sharing of public values—so that science can play a more productive role (and less politicized) in decision making.  In trying to force politics and science apart, we ultimately devalue science and scientists because we put both the science and scientists in the impossible position of trying to be arbiter in what ultimately are value-based decisions.  We suggest in the book that we need to integrate science into more explicitly political practices.  By crafting decision processes that acknowledge multiple interests, creating opportunities to explore science in ways that build credibility among these multiple interests, and then leveraging other types of relevant knowledge, including local knowledge and public preferences, perhaps we can build more durable policy alternatives to pressing environmental problems.  This book is mostly a theoretical argument about how one can explore the role of knowledge.  Future work should strive to empirically test, either qualitatively or quantitatively, whether approaches that seek to broaden the types of knowledge brought to bear in environmental decisions actually result in more robust solutions than those that rely only on science. 
 
The majority of my most recent scholarship has focused how we create more disaster resilient communities.  Within this context, I have worked on wildfire because it is one of the most prevalent natural disasters in the United States.  Working in this arena has led me to think about how to position my own science to be influential among key decision makers in the wildfire arena.  For me, this is what makes my scholarship meaningful.  I feel that it fits within the science, policy, and decision making trilogy because I am trying to learn at a meta level how a scholar can make her science relevant.  Crafting relevant science has meant working very closely with key stakeholders to understand how they define problems and the contexts within which they work.  It has entailed spending countless hours in meetings as a participant observer to gain credibility.  It has meant churning out results in a very short time frame to demonstrate responsiveness and ensure the science is available to influence decision making in a timely manner.   The outcome of this effort has been to ensure the science produced has an actual influence within the wildfire decision making arena.  It has been very satisfying as a scholar to see how one’s science can effect change.  Embracing the larger goal of scholarship-- teaching, discovery and research, application, and integration—has led me to think much more broadly about my own professional goals and what I want to achieve.  In doing so, I strive to make my science more relevant to society at large thereby demonstrating the value of our institutions of higher learning and the people that make them possible. 
 

 

 

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