Bringing Experts and Legislators Together

William C. Clark's Social Learning Project

To William C. Clark, assistant director of the Center for Science and International Affairs, developing a policy on the environment is like trying to act in a play with unprepared actors.

There are a multitude of roles--elected officials, expert advisors and a bevy of bureaucrats--and all know their lines. But halfway through the play, he says, the actors realize they do not understand anyone else's part.

In the world of policy planning, Clark says, officials and scientists often have trouble communicating. Policy makers cannot understand why scientists are so uncertain of their findings, and scientists cannot see why policies take so long to implement. As a result, he concludes, debates often end in stalemate.

"I was disturbed by how badly burned...some of my colleagues were when trying to be citizens and good scientists, says Clark. "We all on the scientific side are more or less naive about how complex the policy-making process can be."

In an effort to understand the nature of governmental decision-making, Clark has launched a research project into the way in which legislators formulate environmental policy and how they use expert advice.

The project, which began two years ago, is one of the most expansive undertakings at the Kennedy School of Government--involving about 50 researchers in six countries and specialists in several different academic disciplines, as well as politicians, businessmen and other policy makers.

Evolution of Debates

As part of the study, researchers are looking at how nations and international organizations have dealt with long-term environmental problems over the past 30 years.

In these empirical studies, all of which focus on the industrialized world, researchers are trying to trace the evolution of government debates about acid rain, global climate change and ozone depletion. Besides looking at the scientific terms in which the debates are framed, researchers are looking at how politicians decide which course of action to take in response to environmental problems, and what role experts play in the process.

The second part of the study is to build some theoretical understanding of how nations learn to deal with environmental difficulties.

"The big question is whether nations or societies get better at coping with environmental problems," says Edward A. Parson, a doctoral candidate at the Kennedy School and close associate of Clark for the past several months. "If they do, it makes sense to speak of them as learning."

Researchers say they are not only interested in which kinds of facts and skills are learned, but also whether norms, expectations, values and theories are learned in the process.

The final step of the project is to create practical guidelines on how policy makers should go about solving environmental problems, Clark says.

`Science Not Yet Done'

The research project under Clark's direction is unique in a number of ways. For one, Clark and other researchers at the Kennedy School have been trying to explore the connections between science and policy making.

"One of the things about the [Center for Science and International Affairs] faculty is that they really think that the science and technology matters," says Vicki L. Norberg-Bohm, a doctoral fellow at the Kennedy School. "You can't treat them like black boxes."

The project's researchers say that people often forget that policy makers often have to weigh scientific information against political and economic considerations, and that they must also decide whose advice to believe when there is a lack of consensus among the scientific community.

"So much of the policy problems come from the uncertainties from the science not yet done," says Branscomb.

Another thing that makes the Social Learning project unique among policy research is that it brings together specialists from many different fields, the researchers say.

"[The project draws on] a confluence of conceptual skills--dealing with negotiation, valuing environmental policy, fostering international cooperation and dealing with uncertainties...that sort of infuse the Kennedy School over the past 10 years," says Richard J. Zeckhauser, Ramsey professor of political economy.

The project requires input from people who study law, negotiation, the environment, politics and the press, the researchers say.

"It's the kind of study that can only be done in a school of public policy," says Clark. "Its focus is clearly not natural science, but it's also not a project of theory building."

Straddling the fence between the natural and social science, the project is sometimes criticized for doing neither one well. "On a bad day [natural and social scientists] look on [our research] as something that real scholars do not do," Clark says. "[We are trying to find] the middle ground between critical knowledge and responsible action, and that is a very rare thing in this country or anywhere around the world."

Clark and his colleagues agree that environmental research, in order to be effective, must take more than just one approach.

"One of the things that environmental research is, is interdisciplinary," says Geraldine Kaye, administrative assistant to the University Working Group on Environment, a Harvard group that advises President Derek C. Bok about environmental curriculum and research. "We're identifying the intersections between traditional disciplines...in individual people's work and we are seeing that this is the way environmental studies will have to go."

Particularly, it is a study well suited to Harvard, Clark says, pointing to the large number of professors and students involved in similar investigations. "There is a critical mass of people working on related issues and that is the crucial factor."

A Balancing Act

And while Clark is trying on one hand to integrate the natural and social sciences, he is also trying to strike a balance between the worlds of thought and action. With this project, Clark says, he is trying to put together a theory that academics will find useful in understanding how societies cope with environmental problems, and to generate viable policy alternatives for bureaucrats.

"Bill Clark is trying to do policy design, not just analysis," says Lewis M. Branscomb, Pratt public service professor and director of the Kennedy School's Science, Technology and Public Policy Program.

Connections to Action

Clark says he hopes that the process of interviewing people involved in managing environmental problems will get them to reflect critically on their experiences and think about ways to be more effective.

"Our whole point is that this interaction will generate ideas," Clark says.

And while researchers say they plan to target their findings at government agencies, others can benefit from their results.

"Corporate boardrooms, the National Academy of Sciences, new environmental research organizations" will all be contacted, says Clark.

"It is not that you will fix these problems," Clark says. "But maybe let other [policy makers and scientists] enter into these [debates] with their eyes a little more wide open and with a little less naivete."