Knowledge and Environmental Policy: Re-Imagining the Boundaries of Science and Politics – By William Ascher, Toddi Steelman, and Robert Healy


Knowledge and Environmental Policy: Re-Imagining the Boundaries of Science and Politics . Cambridge, MA : MIT Press . xv + 260 pages . ISBN 978-0262514378 , $23.00, paper . William Ascher, Toddi Steelman, and Robert Healy . 2010 .

Knowledge is often held to be a way to bring order to the unruly process of making environmental policy. But what if the process of making and using knowledge is just as fraught and tangled as the policy process it promises to tame? How would policy makers sift sound from unsound science, or decide when the science on their desks speaks fully to the issues at hand? In Knowledge and Environmental Policy, WilliamAscher, Toddi Steelman, and Robert Healy raise just such questions. They charge that policy institutions are built on simplistic and outdated assumptions ill-equipped to handle the complexities of environmental knowledge. The result, they argue, is a system where dysfunction permeates the relationship between knowledge and policy making. To address this problem, Ascher, Steelman, and Healy develop a systematic framework to diagnose why knowledge failures occur and propose new ways to structure knowledge into the policy process that better serve the common good.

Knowledge and Environmental Policy offers three important twists to the typical take on knowledge in policy analysis. First, the book sees the common notion of knowledge as an input into the policy process as far too blunt to do justice to its dynamic relationship with decision making. By replacing the simple notion of knowledge as an input with their more sophisticated three-step process of knowledge generation, transmission, and use, the authors place the complexities of the knowledge process front and center. Second, the text draws on the rich literature of science and technology studies (STS) to conceive of formal science as a subset of knowledge that extends to local environmental knowledge and knowledge of public preferences as well. Third, the book recognizes that policy making asks many things of knowledge beyond factual input. The authors distill these needs into eight criteria that different kinds of knowledge meet more or less well in different decision-making contexts: comprehensiveness, selectivity, dependability, relevance, timeliness, efficiency, openness, and creativity.

The early chapters ground the text and depict the growing number of actors who have the motivation, means, and ability to claim knowledge about environmental problems. Chapters 2 and 3 show that decision-making routines, rules, and regulations, however, privilege the generation, transmission, and use of benefit–cost analysis and other narrow forms of expertise. This bias tends to exclude potentially valuable contributions from practitioners, local people, qualitative sciences, and the general public. The authors diagnose a variety of failures that result from this exclusion in each of the three stages of the knowledge process, such as a lack of public input, an inability to cope with complexity, and a tendency for scientists to downplay uncertainty. Chapter 4 expands the framework to show that decision making not only shapes knowledge generation, transmission, and use, but that knowledge, in turn, shapes the process of decision making. Here, the diagnosis centers on the political failures that result when biases in the knowledge process allow certain actors to capture policy by shifting it into select arenas and privileging particular knowledge holders over others.

The book's last and longest chapter concludes with a suite of insights and recommendations for restructuring the relationship between knowledge and policy. Having diagnosed the various problems that arise during the knowledge process and its impact on decision making, the authors see two possible paths forward. One would shore up the existing structure with sounder science, tighter evidentiary standards, fewer dissenting voices and, in general, higher and better walls between science and policy. This, to no surprise, is also the path they conclude to be brittle at best and, at worst, profoundly undemocratic. The other path would recognize knowledge's inevitably political character. To re-imagine what this would mean in practice, the authors offer eight specific recommendations. Chief among these is a call for “knowledge hybrid” collaborations between scientists and nonscientists to be instituted through all stages of the knowledge process. At the same time, they recognize the value of formal science and recommend renewed efforts to defend the integrity of federal research against political manipulation.

One of the book's main limitations is its predominantly U.S. focus. Although its lessons will carry to other Western liberal democracies, they may gain less purchase in either international or developing country contexts. In the end, however, Knowledge and Environmental Policy hits its targets. Scientists, practitioners, and decision makers will discover an insightful and clearly written guide to reconceptualize their work, and academics will find a sturdy bridge between policy analysis and STS. The book's core caution against the unreflective privileging of quantitative, predictive science is one that STS scholars will recognize, but its novel framework offers an important advance in the conversation among all scholars working at the interface of knowledge, politics, and policy making.