Navigating The Boundary
I’m excited to be writing my first blog post as a new member of the COMPASS team. I joined COMPASS two months ago, and one of the facets of work here that I’m particularly excited by is COMPASS’ role as a boundary organization. Boundary organizations are so named because they sit at the “boundary” between science and non-science. COMPASS has traditionally helped scientists navigate across the boundaries separating science from policy and media, although we are increasingly exploring ways we can support scientists to cross boundaries to connect with business, legal and other communities as well. A relatively new term, the definition and theory of “boundary organizations” began to coalesce in the early 2000s, but the role that boundary organizations play—the seat between science and non-science—has been evolving over a much longer timescale.
The boundary or divide between the science and policy world is often a source of frustration for the scientists we work with. However, this separation between the science and non-science worlds evolved to shield science from political and other influences, in order to establish authority, credibility and reliability. On an individual level, good scientists are trained to be impartial to their results. More broadly, the peer review process enables the scientific community to function fairly independently and establish sovereignty. This separation begets both authority and credibility, which is incredibly valuable in the policy world.
However, as the awareness, complexity and magnitude of environmental issues grow, we need increasing cooperation between the science and policy worlds. With a greater need for scientific information, more groups are stepping into the conversation, often advocating for specific goals. This brings new urgency to the question of how a scientist can participate in policy conversations in a way that preserves their credibility and scientific authority. Boundary organizations can help with this quandary by assisting scientists to navigate their own relationship with the boundary and also by forming a bridge between the science and policy worlds. By spending time in both policy and science, boundary organizations are in a position to connect these two worlds by supplying, translating and facilitating the movement of knowledge between them. These three functions form the backbone of boundary organization work. Although it’s not always easy to separate them from each other, they are in part defined by the level of intensity with which the producers of knowledge (in this case, scientists) and the users (in this case, policymakers) interact.
Since I’ve been at COMPASS we’ve been spending a lot of time in the supplying function, preparing scientists to navigate the boundary, interact with policymakers and “supply” their knowledge to someone who needs it. Our work in this role might include tapping our network of scientists to recommend expertise to a congressional staffer, holding a training for scientists, or it could involve a more nuanced navigation of the boundary. For example, one of the scientists we’ve worked with contacted COMPASS after receiving a request from an advocacy group to accompany them in a meeting with congressional staff. The scientist felt that his knowledge could add to the conversation, but felt unsure about how an association with a group seeking a very specific policy outcome might affect his goal to be seen as an unbiased source of scientific information in the future. In other words, he worried that the boundary would become blurred in a way that would reduce his credibility and authority. COMPASS helped him to think through the various ways that he could share his knowledge, from providing written information, to arranging a separate meeting, to clarifying upfront that he was there to provide scientific information and was not invested in a particular outcome. While it is important for scientists to reach across the boundary and participate in policy conversations, there are many different ways to do so. COMPASS and other boundary organizations can help you think through these options and navigate the boundary. In the future, we hope to share more about the other roles of boundary organizations and how COMPASS is working in this space to ensure that science is better understood and used by policymakers and society in general. This post was transferred from its original location at www.compassonline.org to www.COMPASSscicomm.org, October 2017.