A new study argues that tensions between university-based boundary organisations and policy makers can be overcome through more flexible management and closer dialogue between the stakeholders. The people on the picture is not linked to the study. Photo: USACE/Flickr

When to be what and to whom

Science-to-policy organisations struggle to please divergent stakeholder needs

U.S President Abraham Lincoln once said "you can please some of the people all the time, you can please all of the people some of the time, but you can't please all of the people all of the time." Hard to argue with that. In several new studies on university-based organisations aimed at promoting science-policy integration - often referred to as boundary organisations, centre researcher Beatrice Crona and John Parker from Barrett's Honors College, Arizona State University, take a scientific twist to it.

One of the studies, published in Social Studies of Science, shows that boundary organisations struggle to reconcile the differing needs of policy makers, funding agencies and academics. But these struggles can be overcome through more flexible management and closer dialogue between the stakeholders.

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Crona and Parker have looked at the tensions often found in university-based boundary organisations. These organisations are designed to facilitate collaboration and information flows between research and public policy communities.

Stuck in the middle
There are often conflicting views on what university-based boundary organisations should focus on. Should it be long-term academic research or applied, context-specific policy consulting?

In their study, Crona and Parker conducted in-depth interviews with staff, policy makers and other stakeholders linked to Arizona State University's Decision Center for a Desert City (DCDC). The interviews centred around their perspectives on DCDC and its interaction with the water policy community.

Founded in 2004, DCDC was explicitly designed to provide basic research on decision making under uncertain conditions while also working closely with water resource managers and policy makers. However, until recently the centre was struggling to meet their mandates.
To consult or not consult
One of the major tensions was between academic autonomy and requested consultancy.
As one researcher interviewed in the study puts it: "They [the policy community] keep telling us 'what you're doing, we're not really interested in it', they keep telling us that we should be doing a 'needs assessment'. We ought to go out and ask them all what they need and then meet their needs. That's what consultants do".

Crona and Parker argue that such tensions leave organisations at the interphase between science and policy vulnerable to critique from both sides. This can hinder positive exchange of perspectives which in turn curbs policy development.
Learning to live with tensions
Over time, DCDC has reconciled with the inevitable tensions of multiple stakeholders through more flexible and dynamic management. This allows the organisation to attend to multiple demands by adapting its activities over time.

"It is unrealistic to view boundary management as an act of achieving stability between science and policy. Instead, boundary management should be seen as a process of reconciling multiple tensions among the demands of stakeholders whose actions, expectations and orientations often defy this simplistic dichotomy", says John Parker.

Together with Crona, he presents a set of guiding principles for how boundary organisations can deal with the various challenges and tensions:

- Boundary management is not a static achievement but should be viewed as an on-going process of negotiation between stakeholders.

- Identifying tensions arising from multiple conflicting demands is crucial, as well as working to managing these in relation to changing circumstances.

- Developing fora in which stakeholder groups can meet and learn about differing perspectives, is likely to enhance awareness of the divergent demands placed on the organization and the tensions they engender. It may also lower cultural boundaries between stakeholders, allowing them to identify mutually beneficial issues or activities.

Risk of being nothing to no one
Finally, the authors point out that university-based organisations which aim to integrate science and policy are likely to be more effective if universities implement reward systems that specifically recognize applied research. This will lessen concerns that such research is less important for career advancement of their academic staff.

"Timing and adaptability are important to successfully accomplish the difficult but important task of science-policy integration. In attempting to be all things to all people all of the time there is a risk of being nothing to no one. As we have shown, effective boundary management is about knowing when to be what and to whom," Crona concludes.

Source: Parker, J. and Crona, B.I (2012) On Being All Things to All People: Boundary Organizations & the Contemporary Research University. Social Studies of Science XX:xx-xx. doi:10.1177/0306312711435833

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Parker, J. and Crona, B.I (2012) On Being All Things to All People: Boundary Organizations & the Contemporary Research University. Social Studies of Science XX:xx-xx. doi:10.1177/0306312711435833

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Related publications
Crona, B.I. and Parker, J.N. (2011) Network Determinants of Knowledge Utilization: Preliminary Lessons from a Boundary Organization. Science Communication 33(4):448—471. doi: 10.1177/1075547011408116

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Crona, B.I. and Parker, J. (in press) Learning to Govern: Theories, Methods and a Framework to assess how bridging organizations contribute to adaptive resource governance. Ecology and Society.

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Beatrice Crona is an Assistant Professor at the centre with a PhD in Marine Ecotoxicology /Natural Resource Management.


Stockholm Resilience Centre is a collaboration between Stockholm University and the Beijer Institute of Ecological Economics at the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences

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