“Bridging science and policy in the Mekong Region”

SUMERNET researchers shared their perspectives at a panel on “Bridging Science and Policy in the Mekong Region” during the seminar held to commemorate SEI Asia’s 10th Anniversary on 17th November in Bangkok. Other participants included Thailand’s Ministry of Natural Resources and Environment, Chulalongkorn University and other institutions. 

The seminar event bringing together many prominent policy makers, donors, researchers and colleagues from SEI Asia and other Centres was held as a retrospective of the Asia Centre’s achievements and to share ideas and perspectives on the Centre’s current and future work.

Moderated by Dr. Louis Lebel (SEI Associate), the panelists discussed three key questions: 1. What do policy-advisors and decision-makers, need and expect from scientists/researchers? 2. What do scientists/researchers need and want from policy-advisors and decision-makers? and 3. What are effective ways to support constructive, two-way, interactions between scientists and decision-makers?

One of the strong messages that emerged was that policy makers want the researchers to better understand the policy “medium”. So researchers should pay closer attention to the  policy context to ensure their research messages are understood by or fit the needs of policy makers. The messages moreover, must be straightforward and highlight the key social and economic consequences of particular policy options.

Working with policy makers is difficult,” admitted Dr. Wijarn Simachaya, Ministry of Natural Resources and Environment, Thailand. “But researchers can try to identify and work with the policy makers who have a scientific interest or background, this can help your work go further,” he advised.

 “The power of understanding”

 “Knowledge needs to be meaningful to society as a whole,” said Prof. Surichai Wun’gaeo, Director, Center for Peace and Conflict Studies, Chulalongkorn University. He reflected that “The power of [people’s] understanding cannot be underestimated.”

 “We need to move away from ‘command and control’ science to co-production of knowledge. But the mainstream policy is more familiar with the command and control aspects of science, so policy makers need to be further encouraged to shift into a learning mode,” Prof Surichair said.  

 A similar sentiment about knowledge and society was reflected by Dr. Kanokwan Manorom, Co-­Chair, Mekong Program on Water Governance (M-­POWER). She has been long involved in co-researching with the members of the local community to seek their local knowledge and perspcectives especially on government infrastructure projects like hydropower.

 “Researchers need to identify who the knowledge users are. Only then can we make our research relevant to many sectors of society,” Prof. Kanokwan said.

 “Is ‘bridging science and policy’ even the right term to describe what we do?” asked Dr. Oliver Johnson of SEI’s Africa Centre. “Given the complex relationship between science and policy, we need to better explore both the science and policy-making processes,” Dr. Oliver said.

 Using policy spaces

 A lot of decision and policy-making actually occurs through back channels and informal networks that are not completely evident to the public. This makes it difficult especially in highly charged political environments. “It is a challenging question for researchers to make use of informal channels and networks in policy-making” said Dr. Bernadette Resurreccion of SEI.

Researchers need to use every opportunity to inform policy makers. Most often it is not possible to prepare in advance, so the key is to be ready and prepared, to anticipate options in policy spaces. Timing and advance preparation are vital, said most of the panelists.

“Co-production of knowledge is a long-term process,” said SEI Asia’s Centre Director Dr. Eric Kemp-Benedict. “Its important to not try to push people together. We need to provide periodic spaces. We need to get used to how people dance,” Dr. Eric said.

SEI’s Asia Centre has hosted the Secretariat of SUMERNET since the network was launched in 2005.  Now in its third phase (2013-2017), SUMERNET continues to be a key area of the Asia Centre’s work.

The full list of panelists were:

- Dr. Wijarn Simachaya, Ministry of Natural Resources and Environment, Thailand

-­ Dr. Win Htut Aung, Executive Director of Asia Development Research Institute (ADRI)

-­ Dr. Rainer Asse, Director, Lower Mekong Public Policy Initiative (LMPPI)

-­ Mr. Hans Guttman, CEO, Mekong River Commission (MRC)

-­ Prof. Surichai Wun’gaeo, Director, Center for Peace and Conflict Studies, Chulalongkorn University

- Dr. Kanokwan Manorom, Co-­Chair, Mekong Program on Water Governance (M-­POWER)

-­ Dr. Chu Thai Hoanh, Chair of Steering Committee for Sustainable Mekong Research Network (SUMERNET), and SEI Associate