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Scientific opinion in policymaking: the case of climate change adaptation

Abstract

The urgent need for policy decisions often outpaces scientific discovery. At such times, policymakers must rely on scientific opinion. This is the case with many aspects of current climate policy, especially those involving untested but potentially necessary adaptations to reduce vulnerability to climate change. Unfortunately, scientific opinion is not currently defined, measured, or used in a standardized way, which often allows for the accidental or intentional dissemination of misinformation and the marginalization of science where science could be most beneficial. In this article, we argue that scientific opinion can be usefully measured by systematic surveys of scientists that employ standards similar to those that govern public opinion surveys, including systematic decisions about target populations, sampling frames, and sampling techniques. We demonstrate this approach with the methodology for a study of scientific opinion on a potential adaptation to climate change, the managed relocation of species. We show that survey results may be used to corroborate other types of information, refine or contradict other information, and offer novel insights into emerging issues, such as adaptations to climate change, that are currently not addressed with any other type of available information.

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Notes

  1. Adding “expert opinion” or “scientific consensus” to the search criteria along with “scientific opinion” produces slightly more results but clouds the issue even further.  These search terms are mostly undefined and used inconsistently to reference the opinions of all sorts of professionals, not just scientists, and the terms are used in passing, rather than as the central focus of the articles. Compare this lack of results in the scholarly literature to a keyword search on “scientific opinion” in the New York Times, which produces 107 results since 1969, 29 of them from 2000 through 2012.

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Acknowledgments

This work was supported by the University of Notre Dame’s Institute for Scholarship in the Liberal Arts, College of Science, Faculty Research Program, and Strategic Research Investment and by the National Science Foundation [Grant Number OCI-1029584]. The authors wish to thank Jessica Hellmann, Geoffrey Layman, Jason McLachlan, Dov Sax, and Richard Taylor for thoughtful feedback on earlier drafts.

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Correspondence to Debra Javeline.

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Javeline, D., Shufeldt, G. Scientific opinion in policymaking: the case of climate change adaptation. Policy Sci 47, 121–139 (2014). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11077-013-9187-9

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Keywords

  • Scientific opinion
  • Science policy
  • Climate change
  • Adaptation
  • Managed relocation