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.