Towards Useable Science: The Case of the US Global Change Research Program

Sunday, February 14, 2016
Michael J. Bernstein, Arizona State University, Tempe, AZ
In the post-WWII science policy era, public research investments have been aligned with different government initiatives in defense, healthcare, and environment. In parallel, a myth of unfettered scientific pursuit for intellectual satisfaction has persisted. Such a myth ignores that science is itself a social process embedded within society. The idea of scientists freely exploring the frontiers of knowledge, as valorized by Polanyi’s vision of a Republic of Science, has led U.S. science to an untenable position. The science policy paradigm of usable science has sought to dispel the above and other myths about governance of science. A particular myth scrutinized by useable science researchers is that decision-makers benefit from research only after science is settled and done. For the past 25 years, the US Global Change Research Program (USGCRP) has operated under a legislative mandate that reflects a tacit appreciation by policymakers of the need for usable science. Despite its mandate, the USGCRP has struggled with aligning the social and managerial organization of federal global change research with the aspiration for usable science. The most recent 2012 USGCRP strategic plan, however, indicated a renaissance for usable science. In this poster, I present preliminary results of a study into the factors that have enabled and constrained USGCRP’s push toward usable science. The research entailed consent analysis, drawing on organizational and public administration theories, of some 150 government, academic, and National Academies documents related to USGCRP, as well as 57 interviews with current and former program participants. Interviewees were recruited to reflect the 15 agencies and offices associated with USGCRP, as well as the bureaucratic organization of the program. Early findings highlight how program re-orientation from a “loading dock” model—producing science for decision makers to use as they see fit—to an “end-to-end” model—having research producers and users come together to mutually inform need in different research domains—catalyzes changes to program foci, structures, and activities. As U.S. non-defense discretionary research funding is spread increasingly thin, studies of efforts to advance usable, end-to-end science in large-scale federally coordinated research programs offer science policy makers improved means of dispelling myths and building bridges between science and society grounded in reality.