On Jesus, resilience, and why not to influence policy

By Joern Fischer

The title of this blog entry is a bit all over the place, but I’m aiming for the content to be as crisp as ever.

Just a few days ago, an engaged discussion that I had with a colleague (who shall remain unnamed) led to one of life’s truly grand insights — well, perhaps to be taken with a grain of salt. To all religious and non-religious people alike, don’t be offended by this insight, because indeed, it’s just a metaphor that is neither pro- nor anti-religious. So, please, don’t interpret the following metaphor as either religious zealotry nor as anti-religious propaganda, because it’s neither.

But now, the all-important metaphor: “Jesus was a basin shaper” (Anonymous, 2013)


Here’s the explanation.

Many scientists interested in sustainability or conservation believe that it is necessary to do good science — but they also see part of their mission as somehow informing (or even influencing) policy. It has become somewhat of a mantra among “sustainability scientists” that we need to work on problems and find solutions. I, personally, strongly favour science that is solution-oriented rather than “fundamental”. But perhaps I’m wrong? Here’s why.

Policies are fickle. They come and go, and they usually address problems within the boundaries of what is deemed politically feasible. Often, this amounts to managing “fast variables”, or symptoms of sustainability problems. Favouring science that is policy-relevant thus means limiting science to questions that are relevant to current policy — it implies working on things that can be tackled rather than pondering fundamental problems (or “slow variables”) that ought to be tackled, but very likely won’t be by any policies at this point in time. Fundamental sustainability questions relate to how we live, what is a good life, and how we ought to share this planet with other creatures. These are key questions: but they are not directly policy-relevant.

In some settings, you find that nobody wants to hear your science. You may find your science policy-relevant, but policy makers may feel differently. This might be because you’re doing a bad job of communicating your science; but it could also be because the question you are asking do not match the symptoms or fast variables currently on the radar of policy makers.

To those who feel their work is not relevant enough to policy, or has failed to influence things for the better: perhaps you’re wrong. Some work is hugely influential by gradually contributing to changes in how we think about problems. Thinking about problems in new ways, shedding light on problems that previously were not considered, and infecting others with such new ideas amounts to shaping an intellectual basin of attraction. If your ideas are good, others become attracted and possibly infected, and one thing leads to another…. take resilience: it started as a specific concept but gradually turned into resilience thinking, with a whole body of scholarship attached to it. We should not (only) judge Holling’s original paper by its specific relevance to forest policy — its bigger contribution may have been that it has helped to shape an increasingly influential intellectual basin of attraction.

Many people have left legacies not because of policies that they changed but because they influenced people’s thinking.

So, should we engage with policy? Probably. But perhaps an equally important service is to contribute to the shape of intellectual basins of attraction.

5 thoughts on “On Jesus, resilience, and why not to influence policy

  1. Great post Joern – I completely agree, I guess I feel like the balance is just a little skewed where we spend lost of time asking questions that are not of direct practical relevance – and I guess I see policy relevance and practical relevance as two different things? There are lots of useful questions to be answered of practical relevance that I would see as important – like how to do cost effective grassland restoration say – that isn’t really policy, is still important but is still also missing some of those critical slow variables you discuss. One other thing your post made me think of is not just the implications of missing the ‘big picture’ but how the drive to create policy relevant science means that our knowledge co-evolves with a particular policy agenda. The knowledge then informs further development of policy which sets the next spur of knowledge production. STS folks have been writing about it for a while – you can see this happening with connectivity conservation in Australia – to me it suggests that we need to be extra cautious about understanding the broader social, institutional and ethical context of our work – and the implications of having that knowledge applied – when we aim to do ‘policy relevant’ research.

  2. Interesting post, Joern. While there is much to consider here, and plenty reason to think long-term “basins of intellectual attraction” are important, it’s also important to note that policy-influential people & scientists are almost definitionally less visible. This may seem backwards–we can name influential public thinkers like Carl Sagan, Stephen Jay Gould, E. O. Wilson, and Neil deGrasse Tyson after all–but conversely, “minor basins” of intellectual attraction, so to speak, still get citations and citation counts in academia. But if you’re a “minor” but significant/real policy-influencer, who outside of those influenced by you will know this? How many scientists and activists (and activist scientists) are making important positive impacts on policy to an unknown, uncited degree?

    In my opinion, contributing to long-term shifts in thinking is interesting and fundamentally important, though at the same time, the reason many of those above are “known” is because of their public personas. (Ostrom is an example, like Holling, of a highly influential scientist with a small public “footprint” on popular consciousness.) The question (which is probably unanswerable empirically, but I have my theoretical leanings) is whether the *average* scientist has greater “positive impact” through incrementally adding to scholarship (perhaps pushing towards the larger basins by providing additional evidence/”attraction”) or would have greater “positive impact” by incrementally adding to solution-oriented and/or public-facing work.

    I draw heavily on the work of John Kingdon, and I’m desperate that more scientists become familiar with his work, which breaks policy change into a semi-random process with three “streams”: Policies (Solutions); (Electoral) Politics; and (Public Perception of) Problems. I think scientists have a *key* role in developing solutions (and Kingdon’s work shows that the more “shovel-ready” they are, the more likely positive policy movement will occur) and in being part of the discussion in public perception of problems. Neither one of these things are necessarily better aided through addressing “slow variables”, though Kingdon stated that he felt exactly the type of thing you’re talking about–major intellectual basins of attraction (though he used different words)–has an underappreciated part in policy change. (One might also add that it’s undermeasured.) All the same, there are plenty of reasons to think that articulation with change requires more engagement with the practical; we can’t all be a basin of attraction, but we can all add to solutions and public will–if nothing else, by realizing that we are PART of the public and have (in my opinion) responsibilities as Citizens to be deeply involved in thinking about and agitating for practical (and idealistic) change!

  3. Thanks Jahi, for this comment — interesting thoughts. Indeed, it’s not at all clear that there is a single solution as to which is better. Probably for some it’s best to stick to “basin shaping”, while others should influence policy (even at small scales), and yet others might do both in a big way. And I guess there is a risk that one might use these options as excuses to underperform in either area — e.g. “I’m making a difference here, so it’s okay if my work is not theoretically deep” — or “I’m advancing theory, I simply don’t have time to connect with policy”. From what you say, the challenge might be how to find the balance of how to do both; and this balance may well differ between people, phases in life, and situations.

    Finally — agitating for change is a nice phrase — what does it mean? Does it mean I need to connect with policy makers? Or is this blog (for example) agitating change, too?

    I guess the interim conclusion for me is that there are many ways in which to contribute to much needed change, and it is healthy to reflect on all the potential options to develop one’s personal “change agitation portfolio”…

  4. “I guess the interim conclusion for me is that there are many ways in which to contribute to much needed change, and it is healthy to reflect on all the potential options to develop one’s personal “change agitation portfolio”.

    Quite so. But I think the vast majority of us (especially academics) spend very little time thinking about what agitation means whatsoever–or even view themselves as attempting to agitate. There are many ways to agitate, but I would argue what we need far more of right now are scientists doing so through direct interaction with communities (especially less politically-powerful communities), amplifying voices that aren’t heard enough, and helping bring other voices to higher platforms… and then stepping aside. (“Sharing the mike.”) Deep, prolonged engagement with communities is important, and spending some time studying how change happens while developing one’s portfolio is vitally important to. Stumbling through by either assuming that whatever you’re doing is good enough, or by simply doing whatever appeals to you without thought about what it’s good for, is insufficient and, to me, not rigorous.

    In other words, I’d likes scientists (and their institutions!) to be debating the best ways to agitate, based on information and knowledge, not assumption or presumption that what they’re doing is enough, or that doing anything differently is unnecessary or undesirable.

    A quick personal note: I’ve been at IATP for two months; I’ve helped draft documents my colleagues have taken to meetings with grassroots organizations, handed to the Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food, and used to apply for funds to implement programs alongside farmer groups that would change the way they farm. Who knows what, if any, of these activities will have a positive long-term impact? And how much of this should/could be done within academia? Obviously academics can’t simply become full-time activists–but they likely should be doing more. Your blog is definitely agitation! But it’s also, I would guess, not viewed as contributing to core work by your university (it would not at most US universities).

    And of course, it’s possible that “the science” DOES say that we should all be full-time (or more-time) activists –on the streets, in communities, with a variety of community groups– if we actually do want change: http://www.newstatesman.com/2013/10/science-says-revolt

    • Hi Jahi,

      well turns out my university likes my blog! I’m in the faculty of sustainability (a pretty unique thing in its own right), and our dean is “professor of transdisciplinary methods” — in other words, we’re trying to do precisely that here.

      Do we do a good enough job? Is this sustainable, in a world of dog-eat-dog funding races etc? I don’t know.

      But on the positive side anyway, some institutions (like ours) are trying …



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