How is policy formed? Links between researchers, science brokers, stakeholders and governance


This year’s Fram Forum features three articles related to how various actions taken by scientists, interest groups, and legislators converge in policymaking. They also illustrate why the process can be agonisingly slow and sometimes falls short.

By: Janet Holmén

Photo: John Leithe/Norwegian Polar Institute

Time capsules

The first article is about the Norwegian Environmental Specimen Bank, a repository of samples – time capsules of the current environmental state. Researchers collect these samples from animals, plants, air, and soil alongside their ordinary fieldwork. The interaction with policy lies in the future: archiving material in the Specimen Bank makes it possible to look backwards in time and quantify chemicals that were not of concern when the samples were collected, or detect the first appearance of substances that were previously unknown. The Bank’s focus is on persistent organic pollutants (POPs), but the samples could conceivably be used in unexpected ways in the future, yielding knowledge that is not directly related to pollutants.

POPs are just one of many types of stress that affect human health and the environment in the High North. Ideally, all sources of stress should be taken into consideration when formulating environmental policy.

Multiple stress

Our second theme article is about the Arctic Council working group AMAP’s efforts to persuade regulators to address the effects of multiple stress under the Stockholm Convention on POPs. The article highlights several dilemmas that arise along the path from science to policy. Who gets to decide how scientific findings should be evaluated? Expertise is needed to interpret scientific findings, but expert viewpoints can be biased. Should scientists be involved in the policymaking process, and if so, at what stages? If scientists collaborate closely with policymakers, would that threaten their objectivity and credibility?

Using the Stockholm Convention and AMAP’s role as a case study, the article describes an intricate process where the players shift back and forth between informal and strictly formalised procedures, between close collaboration and a high degree of separation, balancing expertise and political goals. The case study concludes that despite nearly two decades of hard work and several important achievements, multiple stress proved too complex an issue for the regulatory agencies – at least for time being.

Foto av mange mennesker som sitter i en sal foran en skjerm
Day 1 of negotiations at the 2019 Meetings of the Conferences of the Parties to the Basel, Rotterdam and Stockholm Conventions. Photo by IISD/Kiara Worth

Including stakeholders

The last of our theme articles also deals with a complex issue. The SUSTAIN project examines how climate change, anthropogenic factors (including pollutants), and management strategies in terrestrial, marine, and freshwater systems in northern Norway and Svalbard affect the systems’ resilience and ability to support resource exploitation.

Here, the researchers made a concerted effort to include stakeholders in the project from the initial stages of defining the problems to be addressed, thus making the collaboration deeper and closer than has been customary. The article shows the benefits of building mutual trust between the players. Shared understanding of both the problem and the strengths and weaknesses inherent in various types of information allows for nuanced interpretation of the data. This is especially important when unexpected findings crop up.

Shared understanding of both the problem and the strengths and weaknesses inherent in various types of information allows for nuanced interpretation of the data. This is especially important when unexpected findings crop up.

All three articles underline the importance of taking a long view, being consistent, and working diligently over time to build science-based environmental policy. Many of the samples in the Environmental Specimen Bank will probably never be used. But others may yield crucial information at some unforeseeable time in the future: samples sorted and preserved at Bergen University Museum by the young curator Fridtjof Nansen were studied over a century later with techniques far more powerful than he could ever have imagined.

The stance taken by the Stockholm Convention on multiple stress was decades in the making, and not entirely satisfactory, but at least the issue has been put on the table. The SUSTAIN project is about sustainable management, but the article emphasises that commitment and collaboration with community stakeholders must also be sustained; building trust takes time and requires hard work, and it cannot be done from an ivory tower.