Boundary Studies: Science-Policy Interactions and Boundary Organizations


Research Activities
From its inception, DCDC was designed to implement, consistently evaluate, and re-conceptualize boundary organization theory for bridging science and policy for sustainability. Our goals are to understand and enhance the linkages between scientific knowledge production and public-policy deliberation and decision making under uncertainty. Also, this cross-cutting area seeks to improve basic understanding of the operation of complex water governance systems and to inform transitions toward sustainability.

In the past year, DCDC researchers continued to advance basic science of the co-production of knowledge and action for environmental decision making under uncertainty. In a pair of papers published this year, DCDC collaborators John Parker (National Center for Ecological Analysis and Synthesis, UCSB) and Beatrice Crona (Stockholm Resilience Center) synthesize theory, concepts and methods from literature on knowledge utilization, boundary organizations, and stakeholder theory (Crona and Parker 2012, Ecology and Society; Parker and Crona 2012, Social Studies of Science). This work develops a conceptual and methodological toolkit for conducting cross-case comparisons aimed at understanding the social environmental conditions under which learning in boundary organizations does and does not occur.

Also in the past year, DCDC PI Dave White examined the role of framing as a type of boundary work in the development of environmental decision support systems (White in review, Society & Natural Resources). As the use of these systems increases, it is critical to understand how framing embedded in decision tools structures discourse and action. This is important because framing impacts what types of questions are asked, what counts as knowledge, which actors are empowered, the forum where decisions are made, and ultimately the outcomes of these decisions. White analyzed the social processes in the development of WaterSim to reveal how modelers and researchers defined the water sustainability problem and implied solutions (i.e., the diagnostic and prognostic frames). Such self-reflexive research of DCDC boundary work is critical for the design (and redesign) of effective decision support tools that are legitimate, credible, and salient to both scientific and policy communities.

In another line of research aimed at expanding the range of boundary processes and objects studied and mapping greater diversity of stakeholder perceptions, sustainability scientist Arnim Wiek has been working in collaboration with geographer Kelli Larson and graduate student Lauren Withycombe Keeler to develop a systemic understanding and evaluation of regional water governance regimes. They developed an analytical framework that puts the focus on what people do with water (Wiek and Larson in review, Water Resources Management). More specifically, their framework 1) employs a systems-wide perspective on regional water systems; 2) focuses on social actors and investigates what people actually do with water and why, thereby building upon proposals to integrate systems and actors perspectives; 3) explicates values and preferences as they pertain to sustainability while specifying their relevance for all water activities; and 4) advances a comprehensive sustainability perspective, for instance, by expanding the discourse from safe yield to sustainability. Their proposed approach explicitly links and integrates natural science and engineering perspectives on water systems with social science studies of water governance. Moreover, it combines an analytical perspective (i.e., the current situation of the social-ecological system and the governance regime) with a normative perspective (i.e., the sustainability of the current situation, what needs to be changed, and which specific actor groups are implicated), to support policy makers and stakeholders in their efforts to achieve water resource sustainability.

Research Findings
Knowledge Systems, Learning, and Social Processes in Boundary Organizations
DCDC research generated several significant findings related to knowledge systems, learning and social processes in boundary organizations. Crona and Parker (2012, Ecology and Society) used social network analysis and a scale of knowledge utilization, to determine that different numbers and types of social interactions can have significant, independent effects on the use of scientific knowledge in governance systems. Policy makers with greater numbers of contacts with academics participating in the boundary organization were more likely to utilize information produced within DCDC to govern water resources, as were policy makers who discussed DCDC research with other policy makers. Furthermore, the fact that greater numbers of contacts among policy makers had an independent positive effect on knowledge utilization also suggests that in discussing the DCDC research with their peers, policy makers may become aware of salient research projects and these discussions may also enhance perceptions of the legitimacy, saliency, and credibility of the information provided. Such peer-to-peer contacts may thus be vital for the external reputation of an organization and may be an important factor in its success or failure. Finally, they concluded that depoliticized arenas created by DCDC appeared to have contributed to both lowering cultural barriers between stakeholder groups and aligning their interests, while significantly fostering the growth of social networks and increasing interaction among stakeholders. Boundary objects also helped to align stakeholder interests and enhance learning, but only via active facilitation by key liaisons brokering between the divergent interests of bridging organization stakeholder groups.

In his analysis of framing processes in the development of WaterSim, White (in review, Society and Natural Resources) identified a prognostic frame alluding to resource management and efficiency, which defined the “sustainability problem” as an unpredictable and long-term water supply shortage caused by prolonged drought, climate change impacts, and population growth. The diagnostic frame implies the solutions to achieve sustainable groundwater management as residential demand management and retirement of agricultural lands and conversion of agricultural water to municipal uses. The analysis finds that while such framing touches on issues that are directly relevant to the primary policy framework, it does not necessarily open up the discourse to novel or innovative sustainability solutions. Findings demonstrate that framing in a decision support system reflects the perspectives of those involved in the initial design of the tool. Thus, designers that aim to develop robust tools that engage a wide spectrum of stakeholders should make strides to involve diverse perspectives early and often or risk particular views being reified and “hard coded” into their systems.


Research Activities
From the outset, we structured DCDC as a boundary organization designed to understand and enhance the linkages between scientific knowledge production and public-policy deliberation and decision making. Led by Dave White, our efforts have contributed to basic understanding of the co-production of knowledge and action for environmental decision making under uncertainty. Research activities explore three interconnected domains:

  • boundary work – boundary-ordering devices, processes, and methods linking science and policy
  • boundary organizations – institutional forms overlapping scientific research and political decision making and public action
  • boundary objects – hybrid constructs, integrating scientific and political elements to facilitate the exchange of knowledge and action.

In the past year, we have advanced scientific understanding of science-policy interactions by:

  1. collaborating to a greater extent with stakeholders to co-produce knowledge
  2. expanding the range of boundary processes and objects studied
  3. mapping diversity of stakeholder perceptions
  4. fostering international collaborations
  5. transferring lessons from DCDC to other boundary organizations.

In June 2011, White presented a paper to the International Symposium on Society and Resource Management summarizing the state of knowledge for boundary-organization research and addressing major epistemological and methodological issues in the field.

DCDC postdoc Bethany Cutts, Dave White, and Ann Kinzig published an article in Environmental Science and Policy (Cutts et al. 2011) that integrates concepts from boundary organization theory with a participatory geographic information systems framework. Using a participatory action research approach, the researchers analyzed water information maps as a boundary object and assessed changes in the saliency, legitimacy, and credibility of the maps through a stakeholder engagement process. This research not only refined boundary organization theory but met our goal of more active co-production of knowledge and action.

In a continuing effort to examine boundary work through scenario construction and sustainability assessments, Arnim Wiek, Kelli Larson, and DCDC doctoral student Lauren Withycombe conducted an appraisal of the Phoenix water system using a layered conceptual model. The model specified principles of water sustainability in order to assess long-term sustainability. The goals of this research are to: 1) analyze the regional water system in Phoenix, including roles and activities for all relevant stakeholders; 2) define where stakeholders engage; 3) document why stakeholders take the actions they do; and 4) identify the impacts of the first three on water sustainability and urban climate adaptation.

This year, we began collaborating with Colin Polsky and Clark University PhD student Katherine Foo, who traveled to Phoenix August 2010 for the DCDC II strategic-planning retreat. This summer, the Clark team, which also includes seven undergraduate and four graduate students funded through Polsky’s other existing projects, is producing a set of stakeholder-led scenarios of near-term future (coming two to three decades) of socioecological landscape interactions. This effort is divided into two groups of activities, one grounded in Geographic Information Science (GISci) and one in social science. These activities will cement relationships with Boston-area stakeholders, expanding the analytical scope of scenario production and assessment beyond water and climate. These activities parallel scenario construction and assessment efforts in Phoenix led by DCDC researchers Arnim Wiek, George Basile, Grady Gammage, Jr., Dave White, and others, which will enable comparisons between Boston and Phoenix.

DCDC Researchers: