Training the next generation at the science, society and policy interface

Posted on Thursday, January 27, 2022

Author: Hubert Brychczyński, Marie Franquin, Bipin Kumar, Sumedha Sachar, Ana Watson, Nadine L. Wellington

Content Writer, Centre for Systems Solutions

External Relations Officer, International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis (IIASA); Internal Director, Science & Policy Exchange

International Students’ Commissioner, the Canadian Federation of Students

Medical Writer; Treasurer, Science & Policy Exchange; Chair Grants Committee, Canadian Science Policy Centre (CSPC)

PhD candidate, Geography, University of Calgary

Public Forum Coordinator, Science Policy Exchange


The Paris Agreement, the Conference of the Parties, and the Sustainable Development Goals are just a few of the numerous international initiatives demonstrating an increasingly recognized need and global commitment to address emerging crises. These crises call for redoubled and orchestrated social efforts to achieve sustainability and address the claims of youth and vulnerable groups. There is a critical role for scientific evidence in order to accelerate these changes and lead to greater efficiency in decision and policy making

The governance of global issues calls for an inclusive and responsive science, which takes into account the variety of knowledge sources. For example, evidence on climate change and climate change responses is dominantly produced in the global North. Conversely, solutions proposed seldom succeed in receiving the support of local communities that are often the most impacted by climate change

We can define the science-policy-society interface as scientists and policy makers coming together to work and engage with local communities. This tripartite dialogue aims to understand on-the-ground realities that affect the local population and provide solutions that also address the concerns of the communities. Although the intrinsic and natural connection between science, policy and society has been largely documented, the implementation of socially supported evidence-informed decision-making remains weak and geographically uneven. This gap calls for developing innovative ways to build capacity, which elevates the central role of science-policy-society frameworks and create value and legitimacy along the decision and policy making processes.

Well-functioning science-policy-society interfaces are dynamic ecosystems of organizational arrangements and processes that serve to structure the relationships of diverse actors around difficult policy problems. They are complex interfaces that rely on the range of actors, plurality of perspectives and (sometimes opposing) social values rendering capacity building in the interface challenging.

Science-policy simulations consist in various activities or tasks through which participants experience and understand the complexities of negotiations and policy development between stakeholders of the science-policy-society interface. As such, they constitute an effective and flexible capacity building tool for both young researchers and policy makers. 

Science-policy simulations are moderated, interactive activities where a group of individuals meet to exchange ideas and perspectives between each other. At first glance, they resemble multiplayer games. Each participant selects a science-and-policy role from a predefined pool and enters a fictional world. The world is modeled after and informed by real places, events, and issues. There, the participants interact with one another in various ways. But science-policy simulations differ from games in one crucial aspect: there is no specified, final goal that concludes them. On the contrary - achieving a goal is made difficult by design. Often, the gameplay has a time limit and consists of a series of negotiations over a few contentious points. The points all concern a specific challenge, for example the future of the Arctic. Each participant enters the negotiations with their own agenda. But like in real life, not all of the agendas are in alignment. In these circumstances, everyone tries to work out the best deal for themselves. The time pressure, the conflicting agendas, and uncertainty combine to create a lifelike impression of the decision-making process. Social simulations allow participants to experience and practice this process from the inside. It is a novel and effective method that can be used to tackle various pressing challenges.

One example of science policy simulations is the Cascading Climate Impacts simulation, developed as part of the multidisciplinary CASCADES project, which combines systems analysis from the natural and social sciences to understand future challenges and opportunities linked to the global effects of climate change. Each simulation workshop immerses experts, policy-makers, trainees, and early career researchers in challenging fast-paced scenarios. The participants negotiate the complex political and socio-economic aspects of the cascading, cross-border challenges related to a changing climate, such as extreme weather events, supply chain disruptions and increasing trade volume in the Arctic. 

On July 22, 2021, the Science and Policy Exchange (SPE), the International Institute for Applied System Analysis (IIASA) and the Institute for Science, Society and Policy (ISSP), in partnership with the National Research Council (NRC) and Mitacs co-hosted the Raw Materials Challenge, a 4-hour interactive, online science diplomacy simulation set in the near future. Participants role-played as multinational governments, NGOs, industry and local stakeholder representatives. They negotiated policy propositions on the social, environmental and operational aspects of managing the increased demand for rare earth metals, needed for a global transition to electrified economies as nations reduce their reliance on fossil fuels. Considering their given role and briefing note, participants voted on a number of proposed policies to be applied on a global scale before entering into diplomatic negotiations with other delegates.

During a post-simulation debriefing, participants reflected on the difficulty of reaching a consensus on crucial issues, such as environmental and labour standards or financial transparency requirements, with limited time and multiple competing interests. Issues that seemed black and white in a Western context appeared highly complex when considered through a global lens and taking into account local stakeholders. Players were forced to challenge their personal biases and reconsider issues such as global mining standards and child labour prohibition from different perspectives. On the one hand, wealthy, powerful nations strongly supported the implementation of mining standards. However, they were faced with strong opposition from resource-rich nations; they perceived this proposition as a threat to their right to self-determination, and industry coalitions, who argued that increased legislation would raise costs and slow down production of metals. Similarly, policies banning child labour faced opposition from nations in which the economic consequences could be devastating for families highly reliant on these sources of income. 

Just like in a real-world scenario, participants did not reach a consensus on most of the policy proposals. However, they gained understanding of the stakes of policy and diplomacy, and fresh perspectives on challenges associated with a global transition to clean energy. Through the knowledgeable mix of global and local, government and civil society, scientific and industry stakeholders, the simulation illustrated both the complexity of the science-policy-society interface and the need for stakeholder dialogues and international cooperation.

Through this interface, participants experienced science diplomacy negotiations and the need to rethink the siloed approach to science and diplomacy. This type of exercise not only raises awareness in our next generation of researchers to better understand the role of science in society, but also serves as a capacity-building tool for better incorporation of science into the policy and diplomatic processes. 

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