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Karcher and Shellock on trust at the science-policy interface, how can you build trust when working with decision-makers and what can you do when it has been compromised or lost.

What is trust and why is it important at the science-policy interface? How can you build trust when working with decision-makers? And what can you do when trust has been compromised or lost? This and more will be covered in the present article, featuring our recent publication by Chris Cvitanovic et al.

Trust is key, for any productive relationship

Any communication, any participation of stakeholders in research, and any consultation of scientific advice in decision-making comes down to an interaction between individuals. While each of these individuals bring their own assumptions, expectations, perceptions, and beliefs, trust is a precondition for such interactions to be productive. In its broadest sense, trust is defined as a psychological state in which an entity (i.e. a trustor) accepts some level of vulnerability based on a positive expectation of another entity (i.e. a trustee; condensed from Cook and Wall 1980, McAllister 1995, and Rousseau et al. 1998). Trust underpins successful collaboration and is associated with a range of benefits. For example, in business management, trust is positively related with organisational innovation as well as the capacities for problem solving. Trust also contributes to other organisational benefits such as reduced transaction costs and increased social capital.

Denis Karcher

The definition of trust can be exemplified for interactions at the interface of science and policy. When there is insufficient information or understanding of a particular problem, policy-makers rely on experts, who, vice versa, depend on policy-makers to realise their ambitions to have a broader impact. This creates a degree of vulnerability for the policy-makers, as well as for the researchers. Following the definition, this vulnerability can be accepted if a trustee (i.e. their advice or use thereof) are believed to be relevant to the problem (i.e. salience), reliable (i.e. credibility), free from any bias or bad will (i.e. legitimacy). Therefore, trust is key to establishing effective relationships between researchers, their research and policy-makers,  and has been described as a critical pre-condition for achieving evidence-informed policy (Reed et al. 2014; Balvanera et al. 2017). While the importance of trust is often talked about, specific approaches to building, managing, and maintaining trust at the interface of science and policy are lacking. Therefore, we used a case study approach to generate guidance on how to build (and re-build) trust at the science-policy interface.

Case study approach

Rebecca Shellock

We examined trust through an in-depth analysis of the International Council for the Exploration of the Sea (ICES). Formed in 1902, ICES is arguably one of the world’s oldest and most established boundary organisations, drawing from a network of thousands of scientists from over 700 marine institutes and engaging more than 2000 scientists annually. It focuses on improving knowledge exchange among marine science and policy to support evidence-informed decision-making processes. We interviewed participants who were directly involved in the translation of ICES science into advice. This included (i) employees at the ICES secretariat and (ii) active members of the ICES community. The aim of the study was to better understand the importance of trust and to identify practical and implementable strategies that can be used by scientists and/or research institutions to help foster trust with decision-makers.

Three dimensions of trust

Through interviews, we identified three distinct levels of trust that were crucial for the work of the boundary organisation.

  • Trust between individuals: In our case, this referred to trust between individual ICES employees and individual policy-makers. Trust between individuals was important for creating good relationships and space for open dialogue.
  • Trust in the organisation: Trust in ICES as an organisation related to organisational credibility and legitimacy and included ICES being seen as a brand of independent advice.
  • Trust in the process: This means that it is believed that ICES are providing the best available advice through processes that are transparent, open, and accessible to stakeholders.

Building and maintaining trust requires significant investment of time and effort

Previous research has shown that the formation of trust requires a significant investment of time and energy. For example, Moser (2016) stated that “a 6-month collaboration period was often not long enough to establish solid, trustful working relationships” (p.109). To date, however, there has been a paucity of advice on how to build trust. Pulling together lessons and experiences from the case study of ICES, we generated 14 strategies for building trust at the interface of environmental science and policy (see Figure 1). The top seven of them are described below.

Be transparent

To begin with, it is of utmost importance to ensure transparency. As one participant phrased it: “Transparency is hugely important, and it will become more and more so. In this time of populist politicians and fake news, if you cannot demonstrate transparency throughout all parts of the process you will be considered untrustworthy….and it’s not just about perceived transparency, but actual transparency.” We found that transparency in the processes can be actively supported by organisational arrangements and frameworks. Besides that, our study participants clarified that achieving transparency takes more than stakeholders having access to content and processes. For example, one participant stated: “…, transparency in a general sense is good. But there is a misconception that if you open the door to everyone and any time you have transparency. That’s not the case, the people participating also need to understand the context and what is happening”.

Be independent, and do not advocate

Another strategy was to avoid bias in the interpretation and presentation of data, to not advocate for a specific outcome, and to be able to demonstrate independence. Such impartiality was seen as key for building trust and maintaining credibility and legitimacy. We would like to note that there are ongoing debates on the independence of research and advice to decision-making, some of which is reflected in the works by Pielke (2007) and Gläser et al. (2021). While this goes beyond the scope of this article, in the case of ICES, independence and unbiased advice was of foremost importance. This is exemplified by a quote from one participant: “Our job is not to say what they should do, but to present them with an unbiased summary from the evidence base, explain the potential consequences of any actions they may take based on that evidence, and then let them deal with it as they want”.

Have regular contact and acknowledge risks

Regarding the direct interactions between the advising and the advised, study participants highlighted the importance of regular, and when possible face-to-face, contact. Relationships and trust are most easily built through direct contact in both formal and informal settings. Beyond having contact regularly and face-to-face, participants also outlined the importance of clearly identifying and articulating potential risks and limitations of knowledge generation and exchange. Those may result from uncertainties that need to be acknowledged, as well as the implications such uncertainties (or lack of data) may have for data interpretation and advice.

Ensure quality of data and advice

Strategies to build trust also included formal processes to peer-review advice and have mechanisms to ensure data quality. In the context of ICES, their independence and peer-review process are key to their mission and brand. Thereby, they largely follow the recommendations by Rice et al. (2011) (i) having advice peer-reviewed by diverse experts, (ii) integrating advice on ecological, economic, and social outcomes, and (iii) focusing advice on risks, costs, and trade-offs of different types of management error.

Figure 1: Strategies for building trust at the interface of environmental research and policy identified through the ICES case study published in Cvitanovic et al. (2021).

Too much trust can have adverse consequences

Too much trust can hinder effective knowledge exchange at the science-policy interface. It can even be a risk to the functioning of a relationship, for example, between a researcher and decision-maker. Studies by Stevens et al. (2015) and Lacey et al. (2018) have outlined the existence of an optimal level of trust which provides maximum benefits for both the trustor and the trustee. Optimal development of trust is envisioned as a fast increase in the early phases of an interaction followed by a more or less stable plateau of high, but not excessive mutual trust. Excessive trust, however, can raise unrealistic expectations and create ‘blind faith’; for example, decision-makers returning to the same person for advice without searching for more suitable sources. This may lead to a tolerance of less satisfactory, less relevant, or less credible advice while overly relying on, and heavily exploiting, one single trusted source. Excessive trust can have negative consequences for all parties, including damaging to the personal reputation or credibility of a singularly trusted researcher, as well as the legitimacy of a policy decision. Overall, this can lead to the relationship breaking down and result in suboptimal policy outcomes.

Trust is dynamic and fragile

The study of ICES highlighted that trust is dynamic and fragile. While trust may fluctuate naturally over time, due to different contexts and rates of interaction, there are various ways in which trust can be compromised or lost forever. This is exemplified by one participant who stated “ICES might be in a trusted position now, but don’t forget, one huge mistake and you can lose it, or one small mistake that grows into a bigger mistake, and you will lose it.” Lacey and colleagues provide an overview of the various trust scenarios in which trust may be lost. The first is ‘crash and burn’, which describes a major breach of trust which can never be restored, like intentional misbehaviour. The second is described as ‘churn’, which involves fluctuating drawbacks resulting from institutional reasons like staff turnover, short-term contracts, or short funding periods. The third scenario is ‘one big mistake’ which could be the miscommunication of advice or a misuse of advice, after which trust can be restored, but likely not to pre-mistake levels. Drawing on our case study, we identified strategies for rebuilding trust, after trust has been lost.

Restoring trust is possible but needs time and a clear process

The case study of ICES is an ideal opportunity to study the rebuilding of trust, given the organisation has lost and regained trust several times over its 120 year old history. From this case study, we have identified five stages of trust repair, which are outlined below (see Figure 2).

Step 1

Transparency is not only key to the initial building of trust but is also imperative to initiating the restoration of trust. One participant said: “When you make a mistake you need to be honest about it….you have to be open to [your stakeholders]….and let them know as soon as possible.” Participants also recommended not getting defensive and not blaming anyone else when a mistake has happened.

Step 2

In addition, it is important to find out what has gone wrong, how the mistake happened, and to communicate the cause to those affected, as quickly as possible. One participant said: “We need to be absolutely sure what the mistake was, why it happened, and that it’s not going to happen again.” The participants suggested that it was important to communicate the cause as quickly as possible to partners and stakeholders, to do it in person when possible, to be honest, and to avoid any kind of salami tactics.

Step 3

In the next step, it is, again, key to be transparent and to identify what can be done to prevent such a mistake from happening again. The respective changes also need to be communicated and explained to the stakeholders. This step includes monitoring the specific component or change to ensure the effectiveness of preventive measures.

Step 4

When the breach of trust was due to a mistake in the advice given, the next step is to correct this advice. Depending on the issue at hand, some data might need to be changed, some implications may be different. It is key to fix such issues, to make sure they are correct this time, and to reissue the advice – but also to explain what has changed and what those changes mean practically. Our study aligns with findings from the business sector, where comparable stages (stages 1-4) have been described, namely immediate response, accurate diagnosis, apology, and action, as well as accurate and transparent evaluation.

Step 5

Beyond those steps, our study participants highlighted the need to accept that trust repair takes time and effort. It might not be clear initially if, or how much, trust can be regained. During this time, interviewees recommended regular follow-up with respective stakeholders and keeping face-to-face contact in two-way exchanges. This temporal component and strategy resemble the general recommendation for interactions and exchanges with stakeholders or policy-makers – to be humble, transparent, and patient.

Figure 2: Five steps of trust repair at the interface of environmental research and policy identified through the ICES case study published in Cvitanovic et al. (2021).