A research agenda for the science of actionable knowledge: Drawing from a review of the most misguided to the most enlightened claims in the science-policy interface literature

Jagannathan, N., Emmanuel, G., Arnott, J., J. Mach, K.J., Bamzai-Dodson, A., Goodrich, K., Meyer, R., Neff, M., Sjostrom, K.D.,  Timm, K.M.F., Turnhout, E.,  Wong-Parodi, G., Bednarek, A.T., Meadow, A., Dewulf, A.,  Kirchhoff, C.J., Moss, R.H., Nichols, L., Oldach, E., Lemos, M.C., Klenk, N. (2023) A research agenda for the science of actionable knowledge: Drawing from a review of the most misguided to the most enlightened claims in the science-policy interface literature. Environmental Science & Policy, 144 :174-186.  https://doi.org/10.1016/j.envsci.2023.03.004.


Linking science with action affords a prime opportunity to leverage greater societal impact from research and increase the use of evidence in decision-making. Success in these areas depends critically upon processes of producing and mobilizing knowledge, as well as supporting and making decisions. For decades, scholars have idealized and described these social processes in different ways, resulting in numerous assumptions that now variously guide engagements at the interface of science and society. We systematically catalog these assumptions based on prior research on the science-policy interface, and further distill them into a set of 26 claims. We then elicit expert perspectives (n = 16) about these claims to assess the extent to which they are accurate or merit further examination. Out of this process, we construct a research agenda to motivate future scientific research on actionable knowledge, prioritizing areas that experts identified as critical gaps in understanding of the science-society interface. The resulting agenda focuses on how to define success, support intermediaries, build trust, and evaluate the importance of consensus and its alternatives – all in the diverse contexts of science-society-decision-making interactions. We further raise questions about the centrality of knowledge in these interactions, discussing how a governance lens might be generative of efforts to support more equitable processes and outcomes. We offer these suggestions with hopes of furthering the science of actionable knowledge as a transdisciplinary area of inquiry.

Using a systematic review this paper produces a conceptual framework of the Science-Policy Interface (SPI) and 26 associated claims about the 5 characteristics of SPI: SPI assumptions, Meaning of SPI, SPI structure, Engagement processes in SPI, and SPI outcomes. Interviews with SPI experts identified the most misguided claims (=6), the most enlightened claims (=5) and those claims that warranted further research (=5).

This paper is useful for anyone working at the science to policy interface (i.e. some international research impact networks including UPEN in the UK, Vincula in Chile and ARIN on the African continent). While the most enlightened claims are not a surprise, what is surprising is some claims that we have heard to be true but deemed to be misguided. For example, the literature review identified evidence saying that researchers are apolitical actors in the SPI but this claim is deemed to be misguided by experts.

Scientists not being apolitical – shocker!

See below for five more misguided claims:

  1. The processes that take place within SPIs facilitate a linear flow of knowledge from scientists to policymakers.
  2. Science can often prevent policy failures.
  3. Science communication is the determining factor in the success of SPIs.
  4. Policymakers believe scientific knowledge is necessary for improved decisions.
  5. Policymakers are accepting recipients of scientific knowledge.

The one that draws my attention is about science communication. The paper speaks to co-production as being understood but also, “as the review of the SPI literature illustrates, power, tension, conflict, and difference are central concerns and dimensions of knowledge co-production.”

We know from knowledge mobilization literature that dissemination (=science communications) is necessary but not sufficient to inform change. Co-production/engagement methods which include communications/dissemination are more effective likely also at the SPI. But they are also subject to issues of power and conflict.

And finally, what I find interesting is that three of the five most enlightened claims are also claims that the experts identified as needing more research. These include:

  1. SPIs need intermediaries (i.e. boundary spanners) that bridge the functional divide between scientists and policy-makers.
  2. SPIs encourage collaborations and social learning across a range of knowledge and value systems.
  3. SPIs that are successful support the building of trust in science.

And finally (the final finally) the article identified four elements of an SPI research agenda and there are sub-questions under each of four priority areas:

  1. Evaluating success of actionable knowledge
  2. Supporting intermediaries in facilitating science-society engagements
  3. Examining whether and how trust about knowledge is built
  4. Exploring the role of consensus in science-society engagements

Questions for brokers:

  1. In your opinion which of the five misguided claims is most surprising and why?
  2. Who has the power in SPI: the policymaker who can fund research and use it or the researcher who can do the research and produce the evidence?
  3. Why are three of the most enlightened claims also three of the claims that need more research?

Research Impact Canada is producing this journal club series to make evidence on knowledge mobilization more accessible to knowledge brokers and to facilitate discussion about research on knowledge mobilization. It is designed for knowledge brokers and other parties interested in knowledge mobilization.