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Complexity and Scientific Advice

Complexity and Scientific Advice

Why do we need a complexity revolution when dealing with the production and use of scientific information for and by a process of decision making? This Uncomfortable Knowledge Hub (UKH) series consists of one teaser video and two video lectures illustrating the need for that revolution. The first video addresses the epistemological predicament of the use of scientific information (especially quantitative scientific information) to inform policy, from a conceptual angle. The second video presents the lessons learned in a four-year project—the EU MAGIC project—in relation to the actual problems experienced in the EU with the use of scientific information to inform sustainability policies.

What is uncomfortable knowledge?

Uncomfortable knowledge is a concept introduced by Steve Rayner*. As Rayner puts it: “to make sense of the complexity of the world so that they can act, individuals and institutions need to develop simplified, self-consistent versions of that world”. The chosen, self-consistent narratives and explanations necessarily leave out some relevant aspects of the issue in order to remain simple and useful. In this situation “knowledge which is in tension or outright contradiction with those versions must be expunged. This is uncomfortable knowledge which is excluded from policy debates, especially when dealing with ‘wicked problems’”.

*Steve Rayner, 2012. Uncomfortable knowledge: the social construction of ignorance in science and environmental policy discourses. Economy and Society 41(1): 107-125.

What is quantitative storytelling?

Quantitative storytelling (QST), the systematic approach used to present material on the Uncomfortable Knowledge Hub, does not claim to present the “truth” about a given issue, nor that all the numbers used in the story are uncontested. When dealing with wicked issues, all numbers can always be calculated in a different way and narratives are always contested. QST simply presents alternative stories useful to check the quality of existing narratives and to enrich the diversity of insights about a given issue.


Complexity in sustainability​ (1 min 55 sec)

What are the implications of complexity in quantifying sustainability challenges, and what do they mean in terms of scientific advice to policy? When we deal with problems that require a complex perception and representation—i.e. the simultaneous adoption of non-equivalent descriptive domains across dimensions and scales—the adoption of reductionism translates into the adoption of simplistic models.

Complexity and the problem with scientific evidence​ (19 min 53 sec)

This video illustrates with practical examples the implications of four epistemological challenges faced when trying to check the quality of scientific advice: (i) social incommensurability—the coexistence of difference priorities over concerns found in society; (ii) technical incommensurability—the coexistence of non-equivalent descriptive domains useful to represent a given situation; (iii) the need of situating the policy deliberation—the definition of the best thing to do changes depending on the context; and (iv) the unavoidable generation of hypocognition—hypocognition (the missing of relevant aspects of the issue) is determined by the definition of an epistemic box (the formalization of the problem structuring).

Post-normal science: Lessons from the MAGIC project (27 min 40 sec)

This video is based on the lessons learned in the activities of the MAGIC project, which in turn are based on an understanding of the insights of Post-Normal Science grounded on complexity. Three sets of results are illustrated: (i) the first sustainability predicament to be overcome is not determined by biophysical constraints, but by the refusal to acknowledge the implications of uncomfortable knowledge, existing in society; (ii) it is possible to avoid the hypocognition determined by the adoption of simplistic narratives by using analytical frameworks based on complexity. However, the creation of new and better analytical tools by themselves is insufficient; we also need (iii) to use the Post-Normal Science perspective to improve the quality of governance. This entails acknowledging that: (i) when dealing with sustainability analysis, it is impossible to decouple passion from reason; (ii) quality control, in sustainability science, requires an extended peer community; and (iii) sustainability is about learning how to update the identity of the society while remaining operational—i.e. how to deal with the “tragedy of change”.


Teams Involved

WHERE do we govern the Nexus?

WHERE do we govern the Nexus?

Kirsty Blackstock, Kerry Waylen, Alba Juarez-Bourke and Keith Matthews

In Europe and beyond there is a growing interest in how we might manage and govern the water-energy-food nexus. The nexus is complex, contested, and difficult to resolve with existing solutions. Therefore, understanding and intervening in the nexus not only requires new diagnostic methods and combinations of technical innovations, but also needs decisions to take account of its many interconnections.  This is a challenge, as most policies deal separately with different aspects of the nexus.

To address this challenge, within the Horizon 2020 MAGIC-Nexus Project, we are assessing how policy-making at the level of the European Union may create opportunities to allow people to ‘govern the nexus’. Policies made by the European Union are a central influence on how we first perceive and then govern the nexus. In MAGIC we focus on five policies which have a direct link to the nexus: the Circular Economy, the Common Agricultural Policy, Energy Efficiency Directive, Natura 2000 – the Habitats and Birds Directives, and Water Framework Directive. These provide the greatest opportunity to ensure that ‘nexus-thinking’ shapes how land and waters are managed across Europe in the context of climate change and delivering sustainability.

Based on initial analysis of policy documents and interviews with those in the European Commission, it is clear that there is interest in the nexus approach. Yet, the nexus is a concept that no single entity has a direct mandate to deliver.  Therefore, coordination will be needed. There are several structures set up to encourage cross-fertilisation of ideas between Directorate General (DGs), to ensure that policies are coherent (in other words, there are no direct conflicts or unintended consequences that prevent policy objectives being met). These include the ‘Inter-Service Steering Groups’ (ISSGs), which ensure internal consultation across the Directorate-Generals within the Commission and these ISSG consultations inform the impact assessment of any policy proposal.  Furthermore, the role of Vice Presidents has also been created to encourage working across DGs at the highest level. There are also other potential venues for promoting a nexus approach, such as the Commission’s in-house think tank – the European Policy Strategy Centre, whose mission is to “innovate and disrupt”.

The policy formation and revision involves organisations outside of the Commission.  Could these help introduce the nexus concept into policy? Unfortunately, again, the nexus is relevant to many, yet central to none of them. Policies proposed by the European Commission are scrutinised by the European Parliament and Council of the European Union as co-legislators; and the Committee of the Regions, and European Economic and Social Committee as consultees. Within each of these structures, there are multiple committees, councils or sections, which tend to mirror the division of policy between agricultural, environment and development, so issues related to the nexus might be split across several committees. Likewise, these bodies are informed by Civil Dialogue Groups (CDGs) and at least three of these (CAP, Rural Development, Environment and Climate Change) are relevant to the nexus but there is no specific CDG with a focus on the nexus. Finally, the European Environment Agency (EEA) has an important role in informing policy making across the nexus through its European Environment - State and Outlook reporting. However, the EEA does not initiate policy and can only advise and support.

Overall, our initial analysis reveals that the space for governing the nexus is ‘everywhere and nowhere’. The formal procedures for development, evaluation and revision of policies at the EU level do ensure some coordination and a cross-fertilisation of views. However, at present no existing formal procedures drive a nexus-first approach to policy making. There is resilience in having multiple spaces from which interconnections can be considered, but there is also the danger of fragmentation and marginalisation especially if there is no influential body or formal process to which the nexus is central.

As previous editions have noted (see Nexus and the CAP) the policy process offers opportunities for both change and maintaining the status quo. Further research with those working within the European Commission will be required to understand under what circumstances we can shift to taking a nexus perspective. Would it be useful to create a new process that starts from a nexus perspective, with direct link to existing policy processes that shape our environment? Or would this become confusing given the already complex and crowded landscape of policy processes? As the project moves forward, and we start to discuss the results of the Quantitative Story-Telling approach with those responsible for the five main policies of interest, we will also explore strategies for using existing spaces, or developing new spaces, to help ‘govern the nexus’.

The idea of governing the nexus is still quite new, so it is exciting to be at the forefront of trying to overcoming these challenges.