Reflections on the Boundary of Science and Policy

People have dedicated their careers and spilled much ink on bettering relations across the science – policy divide. In recent years, whole institutions have sprung up in order to better communicate and work across this boundary, the kind of institution formally called a boundary organization. In short, the people who work at such places must know the language and culture of both sides, be able to navigate around the sensitivities of each, and serve as a trusted person in moving a conversation along. These people are often called “honest brokers” because of the importance of the trust they must gain and hold. As someone who’s now working on the boundary for a number of years in the marine conservation world, I have some reflections of how exactly that role is not so simple. Hopefully my top 10 reflections will be helpful in building the next generation of boundary spanners.

1. Narrow boundary organizations have an inherent conflict of interest

While the science-policy divide is huge and probably not going away anytime soon, many boundary organizations scope their goals much more narrowly, say around a particular policy. In the ocean world, there are places that advocate the science behind marine protected areas or fishing catch shares. However, when the political zeitgeist or the science moves beyond these tools, the boundary disappears. Therefore, the organization has vested interest in keeping the boundary around, important, and controversial – when in reality, the best and perhaps easiest solution would be for the boundary to naturally dissolve. In the marine protected area example, an organization set up to be an objective source of information and evaluation of the MPAs would be moot in a world where MPAs are proven as ineffective or some better policy tool comes along.

2. Boundary organizations can add another step of information transfer and relationship building

Especially when boundary organizations get big enough to start having their own internal hierarchy (think bosses, human resources, etc), that structure has to fit in the boundary. This can be problematic as meetings take time and accommodating this institutional structure may wear out the people you’re trying to help. Picture an organization serving the boundary between the fishing industry and management – they may end up calling the state agency employee in charge of the major fishery enough to be annoying. Perhaps instead, in this instance, a better strategy might be to have someone within fishery management whose job it is to be the trusted broker.

3. The type of staff matters

Boundary organizations tend to choose employees by academic standards of expertise – like PhD scientists with some training in communications. Because of this and the fact that they are generally nonprofits, they tend to fall into the same grant-driven employment cycle, favoring short term contracts. However, it’s important to remember that the main goal is to build trusting relationships beyond a single project, then there’s a mismatch of incentives in funding and program mission. There’s no easy solution here, but it’s something to consider as grants end.

4. Balance research at the boundary and capacity building

Spanning a boundary can lead to a better understanding of the social relationships between important sectors of society, best enabled by a social scientist on staff with freedom to do some inward reflecting and analysis. There’s also an opportunity for capacity building among your sectors by directly identifying their needs or helping to develop a community of practice on either side of the boundary of people who play in the boundary space. However, funding streams for these types of activities are different, and rarely mix. Plus, blending a project portfolio can muddle public perception of the types of activities the organization is focused on. For example, do you present research results ‘based on what we know’ or through a peer-reviewed journal?

5. Continually ask yourself ‘who’s the audience?’

As with any social research, personalities matter. Those at the helm of the organization and their ability to relate to different sectors determines the kinds of bridges that can be made. For example, the US commercial fishing industry is small and therefore often left out of the marine conservation conversation, even though the have great potential to be huge allies to environmental groups if done correctly. The degree of their participation is determined by early, sincere interactions and getting them involved at the ground floor rather than bridging later.

6. Legal authority: it matters

The science-policy boundary can quickly start to look like advocacy unless there’s a strong, mutually-agreed upon relationship between managers, scientists, and the boundary organization staff. What role does each serve in setting an agenda or working on a joint project? What happens when someone goes rogue? Management agencies often have science branches in charge of monitoring, for instance. So a boundary organization offering to do that science ‘objectively’ is just duplicating effort and probably allowing people to step on each others’ toes.

7. Learn the tools of the boundary and their limitations

There is a fairly large suite of tools and methods available to help better bring people together over boundary issues, including expert judgment, peer review, and science needs assessments. However, many of these tools can easily reify existing power dynamics that privilege existing expertise, like the professors in the room. This can make it very hard for new people to ‘break into the club’. Remember that each boundary organization only has the capacity to maintain a finite number of trusted relationships, and they should be comprehensive on any given issue. So don’t stretch too thin.

8. Capture can happen

While boundary organizations are awesome, remember they are not a panacea. Staff can still be ‘captured’ by one side of the boundary, or incentivized to side with them more often. This is not always intentional or malicious, but just life – for example, I’ve witnessed boundary spanners meet their spouses on the job or be inspired to start their own fish farm. Reflect that life changes happen and there may be a day you don’t serve the same role on the boundary you once did.

9. Remember ethical expectations of everyone involved

It’s not just two sides of an issue or culture that boundary organizations attempt to bridge, but the professional ethical expectations of everyone involved. This sets a very high bar. For example, policymakers are increasingly held to a high standard of transparency and may have established pathways for public participation in making new policy. Boundary organizations have the potential to provide a different bureaucratic pathway to new policy, but it won’t be under the same magnifying glass. Funders (generally private) who support boundary organizations can also exert more power than they would otherwise have by encouraging these pathways in their favor. Furthermore, since boundary organizations are generally nonprofits, they are not subject to (and often unable to access) the usual ethics review boards (in research settings, the IRB). While this may add efficiency to a project, it may render the results unpublishable in academic journals and may leave breaches in ethical standards with no formal process for review.

10. Office culture is key to getting anything done

While this is true in any setting, it’s exponentially true in such a participatory, multi-languaged world as the boundary. Boundary work often involves connecting the ‘weedy’ bits of both worlds – for example helping a citizen science monitoring group’s methods come in closer accordance with the state monitoring metrics or poring over data-poor fisheries and brainstorming ways to come up with information on which to base decisions. These kinds of tasks require a wide breadth of expertise and lots of teamwork. But teamwork is a double-edged sword. Getting everyone up to speed on a project and not stepping on people’s toes takes time. Lots of time. Meetings also have to happen with partners to make them feel like they’re active members of the team, even if only playing a minor role. Making these sorts of meetings productive and rewarding is key.

Boundary work is some of the most rewarding, impactful work out there. Bringing people together, decreasing conflict in an ever-more-partisan society, and seeing science in our legislation is all rewarding. As a society, we still don’t really know what to make of the boundary organizations that dedicate their entire existence to these tasks – and as such they all look different. They’re funded differently, arise out of very different histories and needs, and start with wildy different social networks. There’s definitely something to be learned from this natural experiment, and it’s time we started talking about all this wonderful learning.


  1. john beck · June 20, 2016

    Did I miss something? I had always heard that MPA’s were effective and essential…

    • Amy Freitag · June 21, 2016

      It depends on how they’re set up. MPAs for the sake of protected areas become paper parks. They’re better (and this is where the world is headed) as part of a landscape planning process, like marine spatial planning. That means you decide on all activities, not just displace the unfavorable ones in one area. Plus they require implementation and enforcement, which is not always easy when you’re talking about marine spaces and especially the high seas. That’s a much longer conversation to be had, but there’s some food for thought on when they might not be the best option.

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