B2: The Structure of Science-Policy Revolution: Lessons from the Arctic

Describing the structure of scientific revolutions, Thomas Kuhn contrasted abrupt paradigm shifts and the more incremental advances that characterize science in between those shifts. This session will explore the proposition that we need a revolution at the science-policy interface. We start by observing that increasingly rapid and pronounced environmental changes challenge traditional modes of informing policy with scientific knowledge. Using the case of environmental change in the Arctic--a region warming 2 - 3 times faster than the planet as a whole--we will explore promising approaches to more quickly and effectively informing policy making with scientific understanding.

Kuhn pointed out that originators of paradigm shifts have to write and speak in broadly accessible terms, and specialized vocabulary--shared among a narrow subset of scholars--only evolves as the ramifications of the paradigm shift are explored and refined. Thus, the dominant mode of science communication is narrow and not readily available to the non-specialist policy makers. The necessary translation further slows communication and distances experts from policy makers.

In September 2019, the Study of Environmental Arctic Change (SEARCH) will convene Arctic scientists, Indigenous Peoples, and policymakers to collaboratively envision the information that will be needed to inform Arctic policy in the coming decades. The Arctic Futures 2050 conference will focus on information needed, on how that information could best be conveyed, and on how to work collaboratively to more effectively inform decisions with science. SEARCH expects some challenges to conveying what we know to be predictable. For example, the communication challenge is exacerbated by the information explosion leaving specialists in the sciences with limited ability to effectively communicate across disciplinary boundaries. Thus, specialists often answer big-picture questions from policymakers with detailed depictions of limited aspects of the problem but rarely with answers at a scale that is useful for policy considerations.

Another predictable challenge involves the mismatch in the pace and flow of policy versus science. Policy changes typically happen in abrupt and discontinuous episodes (staccato) while science tends to proceed through more-or-less continuous accretion (legato). Other predictable challenges have been identified elsewhere, and we hope that new insights will emerge in the Arctic Futures 2050 conference. Inevitably, the challenge will be to sustain conversations concerning those emerging insights, and we propose to continue discussion of the most promising insights in this NCSE session. Bringing the Arctic conversation from the Arctic Futures 2050 conference to the broader network of NCSE will produce additional insights and examples of lessons learned in other arenas.


  • Brendan Kelly, Ph.D., Exec. Dir., Study of Environmental Arctic Change, University of Alaska Fairbanks
  • Francis Wiese, Senior Principal, Stantec
  • Gifford Wong, Analyst, Institute for Defense Analyses
  • Merritt Turetsky, Associate Professor the Canada Research Chair, University of Guelph