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How to create a new European science-policy-society interface for forests and forestry? Uncomfortable knowledge might help

Are scientists and policymakers getting too comfortable when generating and applying forest-related data and knowledge? What conditions can take them out of their comfort zones to generate more interdisciplinary research and policies that are both legitimate and representative? The politics of knowledge around forests was a topic of heated debate at this year’s International Forest Policy Meeting (27-29 April 2022), with the session on “Science-Policy-Society interactions within Europe ending with a provocative call for the production and use of so-called “uncomfortable knowledge”.

Moderated by Georg Winkel (Wageningen University and Research) and Agata Konczal (Governance Programme at EFI Bonn/Wageningen University and Research), the session was attended by over 100 participants, giving voice to an ample variety of experts from the natural and social sciences, academia, forestry agencies, activism and the European Parliament. The speakers’ main task was to tackle the thorny question of whether Europe needs a new science-policy-society interface for forests and forestry. Recent discussions on the topic have been fuelled by the climate and biodiversity crises, the publication of the new European Forest Strategy, and controversies involving contested knowledge, opposing interests and difficulties in finding compromise and consent.

Michael Pregernig (University of Freiburg) opened the debate by stating that a new science-policy interface is needed, but not because of a deficiency in knowledge transfer between academia and policymakers. “We need it because we haven’t found a proper place for forest-related expertise in democratic decision-making yet”, he said.

To him, multiple theoretical perspectives on policy processes are needed, which should include normative knowledge but also possibilities for experimentation, social learning, controversies, the politicisation of knowledge, as well as what he called “professional humility” to recognise what scientists don’t know. “There is a need for a science-policy-society ecosystem and various places in which consultations take place”.

Pregernig was followed by Esther Turnhout (University of Twente), who questioned the separation between science and policy – and between facts and values – by asserting that “knowledge does political work”. As an example, she mentioned the fact that the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) models include factors such as carbon-capture technologies that do not yet exist, shifting the debate from emission reductions to the concept of net-zero. “The urgent questions that we need to ask are: What is the political work that such bodies are expected to do? And who and what will benefit or be marginalised?… We need to remake the science-policy contract so scientists start asking whose interests they are supporting with their knowledge and how to change their practices”, she said.

Contributions from Gerben Janse (Swedish Forest Agency), Saskia Ozinga (FERN), Anna Deparnay-Grunenberg (Member of the European Parliament), Jürgen Bauhus (University of Freiburg) and Pierre Ibisch (Eberswalde University for Sustainable Development) followed, with speakers agreeing that forest science can play a positive role on society and forestry policies but that depends on certain framework conditions.

Among examples of best practices, Jürgen Bauhus mentioned the Scientific Advisory Board on Forest Policy of Germany’s Federal Ministry of Food and Agriculture as a model that could potentially be replicated at the EU level with support from advocacy coalitions. In turn, Pierre Ibisch suggested the use of digital tools to develop a knowledge base with living ecosystem assessments and live interactions that would allow for a wider representation of the overall scientific community.

Gerben Janse called for increased involvement of scientists and experts from National Forest Agencies in cross-country policy initiatives such as the EU Forest Strategy, referring to the collaboration between the International Boreal Forest Research Association and Forestry Ministries as a positive experience, while Saskia Ozinga highlighted the need to listen to the recommendations of citizen assemblies, as they represent voters and civil society but are often not heard by politicians.

Esther Turnhout concluded by stating that the idea of effectiveness as a criterion to evaluate science-polity-society relations needs to go out of the window. “A legitimate science-policy interface makes you feel uncomfortable. Because you hear what you don’t want to hear and don’t understand. That’s a moment to hang on to, not try to solve it quickly.”

Missed this #IFPM4 session? Interested in knowing more? Watch the session recording and check out the session’s graphic recording by visual artist Alex Giurca, which captures the essence of what’s been said in the panel.

The International Forest Policy Meeting (IFPM) is a biannual event bringing together scholars working on forest and forest-related policy issues. Its fourth edition took place between 27-29 April 2022 and was organised by the European Forest Institute’s Governance Programme in collaboration with Wageningen University & Research and EFI’s Forest Policy Research Network coordinated by the University of Life Sciences Vienna (BOKU). The programme and list of abstracts can be accessed here.

Featured image: Graphic recording of #IFPM4 Science-Policy Debate by Alex Giurca


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