There are a few big ideas – or metaphors for them – that tend to resurface time and time again in my mind. Admittedly, these are usually provided by the likes of Shakespeare, Samuel Beckett or Bob Dylan. But more frequently than you might think, the world of science policy offers up its own memorable metaphors too. During my brief foray into the research and innovation (‘policy for science’) sphere, the metaphors were plentiful and unavoidable. In previous blog posts I’ve marvelled at the ubiquity of the ‘seed corn’, and my colleague has alluded to the infamous ‘sausage machine’. But more recently, working on environment and sustainable development policy, a particular metaphor just won’t budge from my mind: the Two-Row Wampum.
I first encountered the Two-Row Wampum as a Masters student interested in the role of Traditional Ecological Knowledge (TEK) in conservation. Academics and practitioners in this field often use the metaphor to characterise the optimum relationship between scientific knowledge and TEK. The Two-Row Wampum is a beaded belt describing a friendship treaty between the Dutch (representatives of scientific knowledge) and the Iroquois (representatives of TEK). The rows of beads on the belt symbolise Dutch vessels and Iroquois canoes, drifting alongside one another down the ‘river of life’. Their paths remain separate, but the people on the two types of boats are intended to interact and assist one another as necessary.
The interplay between different types of knowledge has fascinated me ever since. And at last week’s STEPS symposium entitled ‘Credibility across cultures: expertise, uncertainty and the global politics of scientific advice’, the Two-Row Wampum once again struck me as relevant. This excellent event explored ways of building and maintaining robust, open and accountable processes of expert advice that can operate effectively across disciplines, sectors, social contexts and national boundaries. The discussions ranged from ways of breaking down social constructs, to ways of redefining ‘policymakers’ (should we be referring to ‘decision making communities’?) and ‘expertise’ (is ‘any knowledge that is relevant to the topic under discussion’ a more accurate and inclusive description?).
Such rhetoric is all very well. But are there any real signs of progress in better integrating ‘traditional’ or ‘lay’ knowledge into sustainability policy? Well, tangible evidence may be hard to come by, but there are at least some encouraging signs. As Bob Watson outlined at the STEPS event, Future Earth (ICSU’s flagship initiative to align existing global environmental research programmes) is organised with not only a Science Committee but also an Engagement Committee below its Governing Council. Moreover, the newly established IPBES (the catchily-named Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform for Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services) is also professed to be placing much greater emphasis on capacity building than its older cousin, the IPCC.
These are small but significant steps. The real test will come in embedding traditional knowledge within institutions and operating bodies that are inherently biased away from it – not least by their adherence to the norm of isolating, documenting and storing knowledge, and their view of knowledge as a product rather than a process. This is a persistent and non-trivial challenge, and one which I fear no memorable metaphor (as yet) holds the answer to.