Case Studies of Designing Social Learning Systems

The following account of the various case studies is not intended to be an extensive and detailed description of the individual case studies. Instead the aim is to draw out those aspects which shed light on the design of social learning systems. As noted above, not all of this work involves social science, but the general principles and experiences are of direct relevance to the inquiry about social science integration into policy.

Integrating Environment Agency Catchment Science into Policy

The first case study, which took place after the SLIM research mentioned above, centred on co-research beginning in 2006 with the Catchment Science group of the Environment Agency (EA) of England and Wales. The aim was to facilitate integration of a range of physical sciences with policy imperatives to progress implementation of the EU Water Framework Directive within the EA's science activities. Recognising the disparity between the different sciences, the aim of the research was to design a social learning system for the catchments scientists within the EA to enable them to integrate their different disciplinary perspectives and to contribute to the effective design of policy.

The work began by focussing upon clarification of purpose. This was done using a range of systems diagramming techniques to explore context and different conceptual models of catchment science (relating to epistemology in the SLIM heuristic). During the first workshop with the catchment scientists, it quickly became apparent that there was no shared conceptual framing of integrated catchment management or catchment science within the Science Group or across the EA as a whole or indeed the wider literature. It was also apparent that there were marked differences between scientists and policy makers as to defining their various roles and responsibilities: each thought the other should follow them.

A learning system was designed to work through the issues with the Science Group centred on a series of workshops over 18 months in which the nature of integrated science and the relationship between policy and science was explored in some detail. The research is described in more detail elsewhere (see Collins and Ison 2010).

Despite best intentions and commitment to learning, the scientists found it difficult to find ways to integrate their different sciences. Debates continued on which particular scientific discipline was the most important to understand catchments. Significant progress on integrating the sciences was only really achieved when it was realised by some members of the group that the science needed to be discussed in relation to policy. Policy-makers were then invited into the process and the social learning started anew, this time exploring how different framings of science and catchments were constraining or enabling integration of science and policy.

The research ended earlier than anticipated for a variety of institutional reasons, including organisational changes and personnel shifts. Even so, a key finding was that integration of the different scientific disciplines only really became possible at the level of, and in relation to, policy objectives rather than the level of scientific disciplines themselves. This is consistent with understanding integration as an emergent property of a system – in this case a system to develop integrated catchment science and policy. It also highlights the futility of expecting the sciences (whether physical or social) to be able to provide or pre-specify integration as a precursor or 'ingredient to' policy. Instead, for integration into policy to occur, sciences need to be reconceptualised not as the determinant of policy or receiver of policy, but as part of the system of managing for emergence of integration in natural resource managing.

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