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Editorial: A look behind the screen

Editorial: A look behind the screen

Sandra G.F. Bukkens

During the past three years, MAGIC has critically examined prevailing narratives and proposed innovations in EU policy spheres involving one or more elements of the resource nexus: water, energy, food and the environment. To this end, MAGIC researchers have employed quantitative story-telling, a novel approach that involves a predominantly quantitative exploration of multiple narratives in a given policy domain. Rather than trying to compile evidence in support of a given narrative, or determine the ‘best course of action’, researchers explored whether or not the examined narratives were congruent with quantitative analytical checks.  Previous issues of the Nexus Times have focused on the outcomes and policy relevance of this research. In this issue, we take a look behind the screen and show how these quantitative analytical checks are obtained in what we call the MAGIC ‘Nexus Structuring Space’.

In our first article, Mario Giampietro briefly explains the challenges involved in a quantitative analysis of the resource nexus and sets out how these challenges have been overcome in MAGIC’s Nexus Structuring Space. He does so by drawing an analogy with Harry Potter’s Marauder’s Map.

Ansel Renner and Juan Cadillo-Benalcazar then illustrate how the nexus structuring space has been used to characterize the current EU’s food system and to assess the changes that would be required to achieve self-sufficiency in food.

In our third article, Louisa Di Felice describes the energy sector as a multi-scale network to answer questions such as: which functions of the energy sector emit most greenhouse gases? What would happen to the nexus elements across scales if the energy sector were to be electrified?

Laura Pérez-Sánchez, Raúl Velasco-Fernandez, Michele Manfroni, Sandra Bukkens and Mario Giampietro’s article focuses on the key role of time use in MuSIASEM and explains how the use of labour is intricately linked with the natural resource nexus in the societal metabolic pattern.          

Our last article, by Maddalena Ripa, focuses on a particularly ‘wicked’ case study in MAGIC, that of biofuels. It shows how the nexus structuring space and quantitative story-telling have been used to debunk the idea that biofuels represent a sustainable use of biomass to produce liquid fuels and a way out of a nexus policy impasse.


Post-Normal Policy Interactions: Paradoxes for Science-Policy teams

Post-Normal Policy Interactions: Paradoxes for Science-Policy teams

Kirsty Blackstock, Kerry Waylen & Keith Matthews

The premise of Post-Normal Science (PNS) is to focus on how knowledge is (co)-produced and used by different actors in different contexts. One activity within MAGIC has explored use of the Quantitative Story Telling (QST) methodology within European policy domains, working with actors from EU policy institutions in ‘mixed science-policy teams’.  During the QST cycle exploring the progress of the EU towards Sustainable Development Goal 2 (Zero Hunger), we engaged with actors in 13 European policy organisations. Most of these individuals worked within the Directorate Generals (DGs) of the European Commission.  Although we were warned that transdisciplinary working in such settings would be difficult, we persisted and made some useful contacts who helped deepen our understanding of how the SDGs and sustainable agriculture are understood and operationalised within different DGs. However, reflecting on our experiences of trying to complete the full QST cycle (outlined in Figure 1 below) has led us to identify several paradoxes regarding working in mixed teams. We present a selection of these paradoxes below.


Figure 1: Steps in Quantitative Story Telling Cycle


Engage many versus engage few

We received advice to engage with more actors or other groups beyond the EU institutions, to raise their awareness amongst the many other stakeholders of the agri-food system. This advice emphasised the distributed nature of the responsibility to achieve change for sustainability. Yet at the same time, we were encouraged to engage with targeted stakeholders in a more in-depth way to build interpersonal trust and confidence.  Whilst both responses are understandable, it was impossible to engage with every possible relevant group and also build in-depth relationships with strategic individuals.

Focus on specific problems or highlight systemic issues

Some stakeholders expressed desires for more specific and targeted advice that would help inform current policy questions and processes. These stakeholders suggest that awareness of current policy context is important. We had contextualised the quantified metrics in light of current policy objectives, but some expected more specific policy recommendations. In parallel, other stakeholders commented that the value of new approaches such as MAGIC is to highlight aspects of the system that are not currently well-considered by policy-making. PNS also encourages us to avoid reducing systemic problems to single aspects. However, a detailed evaluation of specific policy instruments is more constructive and salient to individual bureaucrats than a systemic diagnosis of (un)sustainability.

Provoke reactions versus build relationships

Most advice on science-policy interactions advises building interpersonal relationships. This was mirrored by the instinctive approach of some MAGIC team members when attempting to make contacts or when reacting to questions from participants, i.e. giving emollient responses to questions and making enquiries about participants’ own work. However, the QST cycle is premised on questioning the robustness of current framings that shape policy responses to sustainability challenges, with the normative goal of questioning the status quo. Such a critical stance can make building relationships more difficult.

These tensions suggest QST is not easily implemented to satisfy all expectations and interpretations. Our work’s contribution to PNS is to illustrate the tensions and challenges inherent when working with actors working on processes and in institutions that do not (yet) reflect the post-normal ethos. One potential solution is to find a policy entrepreneur to champion a post-normal approach within the existing institutional arrangements. Such interactions require significant scientist investments of time and energy to locate and engage such champions, and the use of science to support transformation from the inside, potentially at short notice. Putting PNS into practice may first depend on adapting to prevailing norms and expectations – as well as responding to policy cycles and opportunities – before science-policy relationships are sufficient to allow its more provocative and challenging ways of working.

Image credit: DG Regio Communication Unit