Research Summary

Understanding the research-policy relationship in ESE: insights from the critical policy and evidence use literatures

Three areas of improvement for relating environmental education research and policy

Environmental Education Research
2021

Environmental education (EE) researchers have begun to acknowledge the role of policy in developing effective and accessible EE; however, the interaction between EE research and policy has not been explicitly studied. Researchers tend to only collaborate with teaching professionals as opposed to including policymakers, which has led to this disconnect. The field is also politically sensitive and marked by competing values and ideologies. This paper examined the research to policy pathway in EE and identified three areas of improvement for EE research and policy: the types of evidence used by policymakers, the complexity of policy processes, and the role(s) played by research in policymaking.

Policymakers rely on a wide variety of evidence types, including raw data, professional reports, and opinion polls. They often prefer quantitative data to inform policy and assess policy performance on the basis that numbers are politically neutral. However, the act of quantifying social categories and outcomes is itself a political process. In many schools, curricula have shifted to suit standardized exams, and new “personalized learning” technologies are being proposed to manipulate classroom behavior. This is referred to as “digital education governance” and is typically designed by policymakers and carried out with the assistance of researchers and academics. Education researchers have argued that policymakers are not using this data to inform their policies, but instead to justify and carry them out.

Regarding complex policy processes, policymakers are not only influenced by evidence, but also their personal beliefs, systematic incentives, and policy trends. Education policy trends may be passed down from higher levels of government, between geographic regions, and/or altered by local laws. “Edu-business” organizations have also begun to influence policymaking with their economic capital. These processes of policy mobility have been accelerated by globalization, shifting power over education away from the regional/national level.

Research can play various roles in policymaking. Past studies have identified research of policy as the academic study of existing or former policies, and research for policy as the targeted studies for policy feasibility and implementation. In conducting either type of study, diverse and nontraditional research processes, such as collaborating with citizens affected by the relevant policy, can lead to meaningful changes. EE researchers have often focused on the inclusion of research in policy, but policymakers have additional uses for research, such as persuasive discussion with their peers and constituents.

EE research is already involved with these three areas of improvement, but could be expanded. EE has developed new types of evidence, such as certification schemes and monitoring methods, while policymakers have called for more quantitative research. With regards to complex policy processes, certain individual policy actors have been identified as influential, such as organization directors and academic professors. However, EE policy and research have frequently operated on mismatched time cycles, making it difficult to coordinate between them. To wed the roles that research can play in policy, EE researchers have proposed “engaged and interactive policy research” that works collaboratively alongside policymakers, as well as “civically-engaged policy research” that democratizes policy by including the public in research. This paper observed that little empirical research has been done on these points of EE research-policy connection, and that conceptual work in EE policy has dwelled largely on controversy.

Considering all these factors, the authors recommended more research on EE policy and engagement with policymakers. They suggested diversifying research-policy relations by studying the role of research, policymakers, and larger systems throughout the policy process, comparing new frameworks for collaborative policy and research, and considering the various uses policymakers have for research. Policymakers should seek data and research to inform policy as opposed to using it as justification after the fact, while researchers should acknowledge the complexities of policymaking and remain open to the many uses of research beyond directly informing policy.

The Bottom Line

There is a disconnect that exists between environmental education (EE), research, and EE research being implemented in policy. For example, policymakers typically use EE research as justification for their policies as opposed to using it for informing the policy altogether. This paper identified three areas of concern for EE research and policy: the types of evidence used by policymakers, the complexity of policy processes, and the role(s) played by research. Policymakers and researchers often rely on quantitative data but assembling this data is not politically neutral, and other types of evidence should be considered. The paper warns that researchers have often focused on the inclusion of research in policy; however, policymakers have many uses for research beyond directly informing policy. The paper observed that little empirical research has been done on these points of EE research-policy connection. Considering all these factors, the paper recommended more research on this linkage and for researchers to engage more willingly with policymakers.