My CIFOR visit

Maria Ojanen, A PhD student in the international forest policy group visited CIFOR, the Center for International Forestry Research for her research related to challenges of science policy interactions. She spent 4 weeks in CIFOR interviewing scientists regarding their experiences from the science-policy interface and in this post, shares some insights from the visit and from her ongoing research

I was visiting CIFOR, the Center for International Forestry Research in April 2019. But it wasn’t my first visit to their lovely headquarters in Indonesia. I had the opportunity to work in CIFOR/Bogor office in 2012-2017 as a Finnish funded junior expert. My background is in forestry and for me, CIFOR presented an excellent learning opportunity to gain multidisciplinary, international research experience related to forests. Further, CIFOR research does not only focus on improving how forests are managed and used but also on improving the welfare of the people in and around forests in developing countries.

The topics of CIFOR research are very diverse, as forests are important in very different ways. CIFOR research topics include for instance climate change, oil palm, wildlife trade, REDD+, value chains, land-use planning and forest governance. The multidisciplinarity means that CIFOR scientists are not only foresters, but have backgrounds such as anthropology, public policy, economics and ecology. In addition to Indonesia, where CIFOR headquarters are, CIFOR has offices in Kenya, Cameroon, Lima and Germany and they carry out research across the tropical forest belt in Africa, Latin America and Asia.

During my time as Finnish junior expert at CIFOR, I was involved in the Evidence Based Forestry Initiative. This initiative introduced me to the concept of evidence-based policy making and I became so fascinated by it, that it is now the topic of my Phd thesis. The evidence-based forestry initiative promoted systematic approaches to evidence gathering with the objective that decision makers can be then informed by best available evidence. The initiative introduced systematic literature reviews to CIFOR researchers and also my team conducted such a review on a topical governance topic related to the environmental impacts of different property rights regimes. The debate about the impacts of different property rights regimes (e.g. community, state, private) goes back decades and scholarship has produced vast amount of evidence on the topic. We applied the systematic review method in order to understand how different contextual factors affect the success and failures of property rights regimes.

Our systematic review wasn’t the ground-breaker we hoped it would be. Our result was that it’s actually difficult to say, because there is not adequate, comparable data across different studies. So yes, I was somewhat disappointed by the review result, but it made me want to understand evidence. What is evidence? How is it generated? And if there is evidence, does it make a difference?

CIFOR has a strong commitment to conduct research that has impacts on society and policy. This means that CIFOR scientists are experienced science communicators, and they are involved in various science-policy interactions with the aim to transfer knowledge (evidence) into policy and practice. Policymaking however includes multiple societal actors, meaning there are different agendas and interests involved what policies should look like. Different actors also have different ideas what is good evidence for decision making. And of course, some of the policy makers are not at all interested in what science has to say.

Given the complexity and the messiness of policy making, how does science make an impact? CIFOR scientists have been quite successful in translating knowledge into policy and practice, so I started to wonder, how do they do it? What kind of challenges are they facing in the science policy interactions, and most importantly, how do they overcome these challenges? So this April, I spent all together 4 weeks in CIFOR interviewing my former colleagues about this topic. I had very fascinating conversations regarding the challenges, and it was also really interesting to talk to people from a new perspective and understand their research work through the science policy lens.

In addition to Indonesia based scientists, I’ve also interviewed scientists based in Africa and Latin America. I’m currently starting to transcribe and analyze my interviews, but I can already share that similar to what previous studies have shown (e.g. Oliver et al 2014), timing is considered to be a major challenge. Research is typically carried out when funding becomes available and so matching the research with national legislative cycles for instance, requires additional work. Strategic timing of research can help but is not a guarantee! Perhaps the most surprising thing to me was that relatively few scientists talked about challenges relating to contestation of science. Similar to other highly charged debates, such as climate change or health and vaccinations, scientific information is suffering from devaluation and I was expecting to see it also related to forest issues. Maybe the answer is trust and good relationships between scientists and other societal actors… but I can tell you more after my data analysis, so you will have to wait for my research article!