Project overview

Launched in April 2021, EDS’s Science for Policy project examines the dynamics operating at the crucial science-policy interface.

Many environmental problems facing the country (indeed the world) today are highly complex. There is widespread consensus that if effective solutions are to be found, we need to ‘follow the science’: that science is key to identifying problems, understanding causation, identifying potential solutions, determining the probability of success, and monitoring responses to gauge whether progress is being made. However, the application of science to policy, and the role and weight accorded to science within the policy process, is not straightforward. Science is seldom able to provide absolute answers and governments must make decisions in an environment of scientific uncertainty or where the advice may be actively evolving. How scientific input is incorporated into policy alongside economic, legal and other technical inputs, and how it is balanced against a raft of other social, economic and cultural considerations, is often unclear.

Mātauranga Māori is also increasingly referenced in policy making and provides important, highly contextualised, place based knowledge. Its incorporation additionally helps to ensure Māori values and priorities are reflected in decision making. The Science for Policy project is also exploring the relationship between contemporary science and mātauranga Māori, and its role in the policy process.

The overarching objective of the Science for Policy Project is to identify how the scientific basis underpinning policy might be strengthened and our systems better configured to support a robust evidence informed approach to environmental decision-making.

Science for Policy case study: Freshwater management

Freshwater policy has been described as the quintessential ‘wicked’ policy problem, for the complex social, cultural, economic and scientific matters it must grapple with. These complexities also make freshwater reform an ideal candidate for study of the science-policy interface.

Supported by funding from the Our Land and Water National Science Challenge, through Challenge contractor AgResearch, EDS undertook an in-depth case study of the role of science in the development of the National Policy Statement for Freshwater Management (NPS-FM) 2020. Published in August 2022, the report found that current regulatory direction and the regulatory impact assessment process prioritise economic considerations over scientific ones, greatly elevating the evidentiary burden and creating systemic inertia against environmental reform. It also identifies a wide disjunct between the science funding system and the science needs of policy makers, making a number of recommendations for reform.