Trans Internet-Zeitschrift für Kulturwissenschaften 15. Nr. Sepember 2004

3.2. Sektion sozialverträgliche Wissenschaftskulturen
HerausgeberIn | Editors | Éditeurs: Michael Strähle (Wissenschaftsladen Wien)

Buch: Das Verbindende der Kulturen | Book: The Unifying Aspects of Cultures | Livre: Les points communs des cultures

The production of policy relevant knowledge on environment and health in Flanders

Hans Keune (Antwerp)



This paper deals with the question of how policy relevant knowledge on Health and Environment is developed within the framework of the Flemish Centre of Expertise for Health and Environment. Research into complex problems concerning environment and health, brings forward questions on the relation between policy, science and society. In this paper these questions will be articulated for further research. This will be done by means of an exploration of policy science literature. The research on these questions within the Centre of Expertise will be illustrated by describing the layout for social scientific research. A main goal in the daily practice of the Centre, is reaching a constructive and pragmatic process of development and learning in close cooperation with different relevant actors.

1 Introduction
2 Centre for Health and Environment
2.1 Centres for Policy Relevant Research
2.2 Complex relation Health & Environment on the societal agenda
2.3 Research on Health & Environment in Flanders: the Centre for Health & Environment
3 Policy relevant knowledge development: theory and research
3.1 Science and policy
3.2 Societal relevant knowledge development
3.3 Research on policy relevant knowledge development
4 Communication, interaction and reflection
4.1 Theoretical lessons
4.2 Research strategy
4.3 Research practice


1 Introduction

Scientific knowledge is socially constructed. This means that knowledge is connected to the actors that influence knowledge production, to the visions of these actors on the problems faced. Therefore the meaning of knowledge is not unequivocal. When knowledge has the purpose of being policy relevant, and policymakers are involved in the process of knowledge production, this leads to a complex process. When the research focus also concerns complex issues with great societal importance, this becomes even more complex. This is exactly what the Centre for Health and Environment in Flanders, the Dutch speaking part of Belgium, is working on.

The social scientist tries to contribute to this effort by focussing specifically on this knowledge production process, and by looking for ways to shape this process. Explicitly I do not say 'to better shape'. It is meant to be a search in cooperation with the other actors of the Centre, scientists and policymakers. The question of what is 'better' should be answered jointly. The social scientist offers reflective methods for looking at the functioning of the Centre and assists in looking for desirable forms of cooperative knowledge development.

The Centre for Health and Environment does not stand apart from the rest of society. When complex problems with great societal relevance are at stake, it is legitimate to look at the relevance of dialogue and cooperation with actors external to the Centre. So-called lay expertise can be a valuable contribution to the difficult scientific endeavour. Choices made during this research process can be of societal relevance. Therefore one can ask whether it is wise or legitimate to treat some actors as a blind spot. The social scientist in cooperation with the partners within the Centre for Health and Environment tries to develop constructive forms of cooperation with external actors.

This paper does not present end results of this search for reflection and cooperation for the Centre for Health and Environment. The main reason for this is the fact that this search only just started. Because this search wants to take into account scientific experience in other contexts, we look at relevant theory and literature. This will form the main part of this paper. Here again the reader should not expect conclusions. I hope to sketch a variety of visions and perspectives on knowledge production on the basis of which the reader can choose him or herself what is most appealing. I also hope to make the reader curious about the future results of our research in the Centre for Health and Environment.

First I will describe the origin of the Centre for Health and Environment and how it is organized. Next I will give an overview of different studies on knowledge development. Finally I will describe the social scientific research activities within the Centre for Health and Environment.


2 Centre for Health and Environment

2.1 Centres for Policy Relevant Research

In 2001 twelve Flemish Centres for policy relevant research were started (In Dutch: ). Their main task is scientific research on priority issues for government policy. This way the Flemish government hopes to build more stability in policy relevant research, and to broaden the knowledge base with regard to these priority issues. Some of these issues are: Administrative Organisation, Entrepreneurship, Traffic Safety, Environmental Policy Sciences and Health and Environment. A steering group, in which representatives of governmental institutions are seated, is attached to each Centre. In the steering group policymakers discuss the knowledge production and valorisation with the researchers.

2.2 Complex relation Health & Environment on the societal agenda

At the international level experts more and more come to the conclusion that environmental problems have serious consequences for public health (McCally 2002, Harremoës et al. 2002). The number of environmentally related cancers is rising, an increasing number of people suffer from respiratory problems, fertility problems are on the rise, and so on. In Flanders also the emergency bells have sounded (Van Larebeke et al. 2000, Milieu- en Natuurraad van Vlaanderen 2001, Vlaams Parlement 2001). The relation between environment and health is very complex and to a large extent unknown. In the European Union tens of thousands of chemical substances are on the market (Milieu- en Natuurraad van Vlaanderen 2001). For a number of individual toxic substances the health effects from high doses are well known. Unknown are the effects of small doses of different substances over a longer period. Also unknown are the combined effects of different substances. There are clues though about DNA-damage, hormone disruptions and loss of sperm quality.

It is not always possible to prove unambiguously that a relation exists between environmental pollution and certain health effects (McCally 2002, Harremoës et al., 2002, Ravetz J., 2002, Vlaams Parlement 2001). Moreover this does not only concern direct effects. Many scientific uncertainties exist. Furthermore scientists can differ in opinion about these issues. Recognising uncertainties and the limitations of science however does not mean that research up to now has not been able to make things more clear or that further research is useless. On the contrary.

The many forms of environmental pollution are good reasons to worry and to develop policy and research. The question how to organise research and policy on these topics is difficult to answer because of complexities. This does not only relate to the complex relationship between environment and health, but also to societal choices. Next to toxic substances, different societal perspectives and interests play an important role.

2.3 Research on Health & Environment in Flanders: the Centre for Health & Environment

In order to better map the knowledge on the complex relationship between environment and health in Flanders, the Centre for Health and Environment started at the end of 2001, for the period 2001-2007 ( ). By means of different forms of research one hopes to build up expertise with which policy on health risks and environmental problems can be supported.

All Flemish universities and one Dutch university together with two other Flemish research organisations form a research consortium. Different sorts of expertise work together within this framework: from medical - environmental to social scientific expertise. Some of the research activities are described here.


One of the central research activities concerns biomonitoring. In three campaigns with different target groups the health effects of environmental pollution are measured. This way early warnings can be spotted on which policymakers can act at an early stage. The biomonitoring investigates among other things blood and urine samples. The target groups are newborn babies, adolescents and adults.

Genetic research

To measure the health effects on human beings in biomonitoring, biomarkers are used. Two sorts are of importance here: markers for exposure and markers for effect. Exposure markers measure the amount of exposure to certain substances. Markers for effect measure the health consequences of these exposures.

By means of genomic technology, research is done on possibilities for the development of new biomarkers. The impact of toxic substances on the genetic material in human beings is central here. The research aims at markers for effect and for genetic sensitivity to certain substances.

Epidemiological maps

Data from different existing data sources are to be made accessible from the viewpoint of environment and health. This concerns, among other things, data on diseases, like e.g. hospital data, and environmental data. The main aim is to map health problems and possible environmental causes. The data are analysed and put on geographical maps. New is that this is done cartographically at the municipal level. This means that for the first time areas can be compared in Flanders, e.g. on disease data.

Social scientific research

Main research topics for the social scientific research within the Centre for Health and Environment are risk communication, risk perception and policy relevant knowledge development. Firstly, during the first year of the Centre, we worked on guidelines for external communication of the Centre (Goorden et al. 2002). This was done in close cooperation with other actors within the Centre, researchers and government representatives. These guidelines intend to involve in the work of the Centre all relevant persons or organisations: scientists, experts, policymakers, citizens and interest groups. In these guidelines the fact that every situation requires an adapted form of actor or stakeholder involvement is accounted for.

Secondly, a questionnaire on the perception of environmental and health issues was developed. This questionnaire was added to two other questionnaires (general personal data e.g. on health, and nutrition) that have to be filled in by participants in the biomonitoring study. Thirdly, a consultation of inhabitants of a neighbourhood next to a heavily polluting factory in Antwerp was organised (Keune et al. 2002).

Current social scientific research activities in the framework of the Centre for Health and Environment will be described at the end of this paper. First theory on policy relevant knowledge development will be focussed on.


3 Policy relevant knowledge development: theory and research

3.1 Science and policy

The role of science seems to have changed over the last years. This change bears a paradox inside. On the one hand faith in science appears to be in crisis, on the other hand science is more and more called upon (Hoppe 2002, Bal et al. 2002).

A recent Dutch example to illustrate the difficult relationship between policy and science is the case of 'De Kwaadsteniet' (Hoppe 2002). In 1999 this bell-ringer, a senior statistics expert at the Dutch National Institute of Public Health and the Environment (RIVM), announced publicly that the assessment methods used by RIVM were not adequate. This caused quite some uproar in the Dutch Parliament. Apparently the complexity of societal issues takes its toll. Probably though not only science and the complexity of issues are responsible here. Probably the policymakers also play a role. Rotmans (1999) complains that policymakers expect from the scientists a) transparent models that are easy to use and b) that they have to do justice to the complexity of the issues analysed in the models.

Social construction

According to new insights on knowledge, the meaning of facts is not unequivocal, but is attributed by people. This meaning is socially constructed by judging it in a certain way, thus is not value free. Concerning one fact, several views and meanings may exist. This social construction influences the factual developments. One example is the social construction of technological artefacts, which is described beautifully by Bijker (1995).

Bal (1998) gives a short overview of the roots of constructivist research on science. In 1934 Karl Popper was one of the first to knock on the gates of the objective, rational science that promised to describe reality unambiguously. According to Popper the maximum science can reach is accordance among scientists about theories, which can be tested and refuted. Hajer (1995) quotes Foucault in a way that connects well to this: science does not produce truth, but 'truth claims'. In the early nineteen sixties Thomas Kuhn extended the critique on what he called 'normal science'. He pointed at the role of paradigms in science. Paradigms are broadly accepted views on what is good science. These views may change when existing views prove to be insufficient for answering scientific questions. According to Kuhn the choice between competing paradigms is not based on ratio, but is influenced by psychological and social factors.

Since the last quarter of the twentieth century onwards, the development of knowledge has itself more and more become a subject of critical study. Knowledge is considered a social construction, and society itself is partly the result of such a scientific construct. The strict division between science and society disappears. This causes problems for the standard view on science for policy: here also the strict division between science and society vanishes.

Boundary work

The division between science and society perhaps disappears in the social constructivist view and analysis. This does not mean that this division disappears in daily life. Both in language and institutionally, this division is made (Bal 1998). An interesting concept for the dynamic relation between science and policy is 'boundary work' (Gieryn 1983, Jasanoff 1990, Bal 1998, Hoppe 2002). Hoppe sees the ivory tower of science as one of the myths being unmasked by new insights on science and society: the division is a social division and a temporary division. The criteria for distinguishing are 'temporary and local outcomes from successful boundary work'. The attribution of specific features to a scientific institution is meant to construct a social border between scientific and non-scientific intellectual activities (Gieryn 1983).

Because of its exclusive claim on knowledge about reality, science has become an important instrument for legitimising policy (Bal 1998). As such, boundary work becomes political. Bal stresses that boundary work is both a discursive and an institutional process, and as such can be studied at both levels. Hajer (1995) mentions similar mechanisms when he speaks about discourse analysis concerning the development of environmental policy. The social construction of environmental problems is translated in discourse coalitions between scientific and policy actors and in certain institutions.

Hisschemöller et al. (1998) sketch what they call the social-political construction of environmental problems. Environmental problems have physical characteristics that are not unambiguous. Apart from physical characteristics they are also typified by the way actors judge these problems. This may concern the scale on which a problem is analysed, or the policy phase in which it is situated. The way knowledge on environmental problems is judged, is coloured by the way actors see each other. An actor with certain interests in the matter is seen differently than an independent expert.

Even though Hisschemöller et al. (1998) start from a constructivist analysis, according to Bal et al. (2002) they insufficiently take into account the dynamic and non-strict character of the boundaries between science and policy. The a priori division between both spheres is insufficiently taken into account as part of the social construction. The main lesson from this study is to take the context dependent role of the scientist into consideration.

Models of boundary traffic

Hoppe (2002) describes 8 models of boundary traffic between science and policy. Not only do these models carry lessons from theory and practice, they also entail different visions on policy relevant knowledge development. I will not present all models here separately. Rather I will describe the essential characteristics on which they are based and differentiated. These will clarify choices that can be made for the future when the relationship between science, policy and society is concerned.

Hoppe distinguishes three routes among which science may influence policy making. A rather direct route is the one of data-supplier. Examples are the almost routine production of data by planning bureaus or research institutions that monitor the environment. A route with a smaller extent of direct influence is the supply of ideas. This route is less visible. Moreover it concerns a route along which scientific analysis is lost largely: only the ideas are taken up, not the premises and nuances. A third route is the supply of ammunition: here nuance is even less taken into account. The user simply takes what is suitable for his or her agenda.

Two dimensions are central. The first entails influence and authority of science in relation to policy. Two extremes are the primacy of science (technocracy) and the primacy of politics. Hoppe calls a third middle of the road typology, being more dialogical, pragmatic. The second central dimension concerns the divergence or convergence between the way of working between science and politics. The division between the two domains has grown bigger and bigger over time: 'science and policy are social activities that have different aims and therefore are incompatible ways of life', according to Hoppe.

The eight models are distinguished by several criteria. They can be put on a scale between coincidental processes of learning up to designed processes of learning. To a large extent this scale runs parallel to a scale of mutual trust or distrust. Also these scales do run parallel to a scale between lack of institutional design of interaction up to institutional design of boundary traffic. Another issue relates to how the role of citizens and lay knowledge is looked at. A parallel scale here is the one between the view on lay knowledge as being deficient up to being equal knowledge, and little or extensive involvement of citizens.

3.2 Societal relevant knowledge development

Hisschemöller et al. (1998) and Hoppe (2002) already pointed to the question of societal relevant knowledge in extension of the issue of policy relevant knowledge. How does scientific knowledge relate to society, how does policy relevant knowledge relate to society? A next question may be what knowledge is relevant? Is lay knowledge relevant? When we assume that knowledge is socially constructed, one can ask whether it is wise or just to treat a large part of society as a blind spot.

Plead for the involvement of citizens and lay knowledge

Rotmans (1999) evaluates integrated assessment models on complex societal problems as follows: 'there are enough molecules in our models, but almost no human beings'. He does not only mean data about human beings. It is important to involve the different perspectives, visions, for example by cooperation with a diversity of actors when building a model. Ravetz (2002) stresses the importance of the involvement of non-experts in research and policy on complex societal problems. One example is 'community based research', that is increasingly becoming popular in the USA. An example concerning environment and health is the work of the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences (NIEHS) in the USA (O'Fallon and Dearry 2002). Main advantages of involving local communities in research according to NIEHS are the broadening of the knowledge base on complex problems and dealing with concern amongst the citizens on environmental and health problems.

Another advocate of the involvement of local knowledge is Fisher (2000). He sees three main goals for involving citizens in policy relevant research. Firstly, it is a way of implementing democracy. Secondly, it does support the legitimacy of development and implementation of policy. Thirdly, does it contribute to science: this new knowledge may be of added value. Fisher does not mean to refer to existing forms of deliberation with interest groups. The distance between representatives of these organisations and citizens is in many cases big.

A question brought forward many times when speaking about the involvement of non-experts, is whether they are capable of contributing in a constructive manner. According to Fisher it has been proven sufficiently in several experiments that there is no need for worries. For example Marris et al. (2001) prove in an extensive experiment that citizens are able to cope with a complex issue like biotechnology in agriculture. Fisher advocates a change in attitude from the experts towards lay people. He proposes to accept the citizen as an expert, and to look at the professional expert as a specialized citizen.

Fisher stresses that this does not mean that scientific expertise is not important. Given the complexity of for example environmental problems, such knowledge is very important. Practical insights from citizens can be of great help to the scientists, who themselves have to cope with uncertainties and ignorance on complex issues. Fisher refers to Ulrich Beck who points at the societal dependence on the scientific method, which no longer provides us with satisfying answers to current problems. To achieve robust knowledge, involvement of societal groups is essential. Kissling-Näf et al. (2002) underline that the involvement of societal groups means that the research agenda will be influenced by society's needs for knowledge.

The analytical-deliberative approach

According to Fisher the report for the National Research Council (NRC) in the USA by Stern and Fineberg (1996) contributes well to the development of ideas on public involvement with environmental issues. The analytical-deliberative approach of Stern and Fineberg pleads for a combination a) assessment methods, and b) deliberation and the exchange of visions among several participants in the risk assessment. A combination of both experts and citizens runs through all steps of the analytical process, from problem definition to interpretation of data and the attribution of meaning to the analysis. Often heard critique to such an approach is that it is very time consuming. In the long run though this may pay off because the process is better informed and gains broader support. Of course careful attention is needed for a right balance between further research and discussion on the one hand, and decision making on the other.

According to Fisher (2000) the experts' role is one of support to the process of gaining insight and consideration of citizens. Knowledge as such becomes the product of negotiation between participants with expert knowledge and other participants. The social scientist has the role of facilitator. Innovative methods for the coordination of different discursive processes and different institutions have to be developed. This does not mean to place science on a sidetrack. It is important to place science in a more comprehensive framework.

Some nuances to the urge for participation

The ideal of participation as proposed by Fisher (2000) and the NRC (Stern and Fineberg 1996) may be looked at critically for several reasons. According to Klinke and Renn (2002) some practical drawbacks can be seen for the analytical-deliberative approach. They agree that there is no unequivocal receipt for assessing risks, especially when different interests and values are involved. At the same time they warn for a high workload when if this has to be implemented for each risk situation. They propose a classification of types of risk on the basis of physical and social indicators. They couple this with diverse management strategies. Social indicators are for example an unequal distribution of costs and benefits of a risk activity, the risk of psychological stress, the possibility for social conflicts and indirect risks for societal areas like financial markets or the trust in institutions. The extent of both analysis and deliberation should depend thereon.

Public participation receives attention not only concerning health and the environment. Since a few decades the call for bridging the gap between government policy and citizens has become stronger. Castenmiller and Reynaert (2003) interpret this mainly as a challenge for local government. And not without problems: 'In practice it does not appear to be simple. Many communication advisors earn a good living, rich lunches and expensive lease cars with permanently training (local) politicians in the implementation of interactive governance. In many editions of policy journals several contributions about bold experiments, unfortunately not entirely successful, are published, of which much could be learned. On to the next experiment!'.

Castenmiller and Reynaert ask themselves some questions on the urge for participation. They ask themselves whether the citizen is really eager to participate. Furthermore they conclude that although many participation rituals are being organized, not much is being done with the outcomes. These initiatives die young when there is no more than 'drinking coffee together' without really knowing what to do with the interaction.

The separation between interactive experiments and the practice of research and policy can also be noted internationally with regard to issues on environmental and health risks. Where it is hoped that participation will restore trust in risk managers, the reverse is the case because in policy making nothing is done with the results of the participation. The (real) willingness to change is essential for exercises like this; otherwise they will be counterproductive.

Bal et al. (2002) also question the promises of public participation. A strategy well known from management literature may be partly hidden behind participation: neutralizing public opposition. This means that influence from the participants is not really the main goal. Moreover when participants do have influence in some cases, the question is what the legitimacy of this particular selection of participants is. Do they represent the voice of the majority? Do they represent the diversity in views in society? Does everyone have an equal chance to participate?

3.3 Research on policy relevant knowledge development

Policy scientific research on policy relevant knowledge development seems to have gained attention during the past years. Nevertheless according to Hoppe (2002) theory and model development still stand at the beginning.

Beautiful practice

A beautiful example of research on the development of policy relevant knowledge is a study concerning 100 years of Dutch Health Council (Bal et al. 2002). The reason for this is not only an obvious link to the work of the Flemish Centre for Health and Environment. The way the study is designed is very inspiring. Contrary to Hisschemöller et al. (1998) they do not choose a specific theoretical framework at the start of their research. They choose a radical actor perspective, which for example means they do not start from a preliminary division between science and non-science. Not the researcher speaks, but the actors. One of the outcomes of the study for example was that actors within the context of the Health Council could not be typified unequivocally, but should be seen as a hybrid mixture of science and non-science.

Next the concept of boundary work seemed to have limitations. First the structural aspects in the relation science - non-science are not taken into account sufficiently. Structural contextual aspects can have a limiting influence. Moreover it is not only a matter of boundary work, sometimes also bridges are built. Additionally boundaries may be opened for societal discourse. Furthermore it does not always concern a single boundary: the gap between for example government and science may be small, while at the same time the gap between science and the rest of society may be big. Bal et al. introduce the concept of coordination work. This relates to mixing and distinguishing different spheres. Thus boundaries can be drawn between science and non-science, but also hybrid forms may be developed where science and non-science cooperate.

Bal et al. do not have the ambition to identify or prescribe 'best practices'. They stress that general rules make no sense given the context dependency: the rules of the game are part of the process of construction. This does not exclude lessons from the research practice, but at the same time no instant recipes are to be expected.

Bal et al. did not participate in the process they studied. In that sense this is a different form of social scientific research compared to what is needed within the Flemish Centre for Health and Environment. The social scientists of this Centre are part of the group of scientists and cooperate in the knowledge development process. It concerns action or interactive research.

Fisher (2000) also uses the concept of coordination when describing the role of social scientists. He speaks of the necessity of developing innovative methods for coordinating between different discursive processes and institutions.

Action research, interactive research

Research in which researcher and research subject work together on for example knowledge development is called action or interactive research. I will describe some characteristics taken from literature (Boog 2002, Boog et al. 2001, Coenen 1987, Pastille Consortium 2002). Diversity seems to be a characteristic of this field: we find both many different approaches, and many different contexts where they are applied.

The main characteristic has already been mentioned: researcher and research subjects work together, do not stand distant from each other, nor in any hierarchical relation. Interaction and participation are central concepts. In the case of the Flemish Centre for Health and Environment it concerns two-layered interactive research. Firstly, the cooperation of the social scientists with other actors in the Centre can be noticed. Secondly, one of the goals of the Centre is to involve external actors in the work. The social scientists support this process. In action research also direct intervention into practice is part of the process: the research is action-oriented. After Giddens (1976, 1984) this entails a double hermeneutic. The first type of hermeneutic the researcher comes across when he or she approaches the research practice: interpretations, attribution of meaning in the form of opinions and in the form of material constructions. The researcher is responsible for the second type of hermeneutic and concerns the researchers' interpretation of the research data.

Two kinds of lessons may be learned during the process of action research. On the one hand context specific lessons, related to the practical situation of the research. On the other hand lessons that go beyond the specific context, that are exemplary for other situations or contexts, or even society in general. It is a constant process of research and learning: new knowledge is introduced directly into the research context, and on the basis of this practical experience the knowledge may be improved. Together with the participants the social scientist reflects on this process, on their situation and practice. This reflection leads to an action strategy that will be tested in practice, and evaluated afterwards which leads again to reflection. A lesson from the Pastille Consortium (2002) is that no best practices are available. Researchers and research subjects are free to choose the approach they think is best suitable for the research context.

The Pastille Consortium points out that in action research a number of factors influence the interaction between actors from science and policymakers. The extent to which policymakers are familiar with social sciences, by education or experience, may make the interaction easier. The pressure for results is yet another factor. This is valid for both researchers and policymakers.

The Pastille Consortium emphasizes the need for usable knowledge. This will never be objective knowledge because the researchers take part in the (hermeneutic) creation process. A main quality criterion for interactive research relates to the knowledge being based on many knowings. The question of the influence of the created knowledge on practice is difficult to answer. According to the Pastille Consortium this entails mainly indirect influence. The main result of the research process of the Pastille Consortium was not the list of policy recommendations, but the mutual learning of the participants.


4 Communication, interaction and reflection

4.1 Theoretical lessons

In which way is policy relevant knowledge developed in a context like the Flemish Centre for Health and Environment, and how does this knowledge relate to policy and society? What can be said about the meaning of knowledge that is developed? What are possible consequences of this knowledge? In a report attached to the 'Societal Policy Paper Environment and Health of the Flemish Parliament' (Vlaams Parlement 2002) it is stated that policy should be focussed on the most vulnerable groups of the population. The Social Economic Council of Flanders among other supports this view. What does this mean for policy?

What are the main factors that influence the interaction between science - policy - society? The Flemish Centre for Health and Environment can be situated in a triangle Science - Policymakers - Society. This counts for actors with different background and different activities.

Of the different actors and activities two are present in the Centre for Health and Environment: policymakers and science, policy and scientific knowledge. Next to the interface science - policymakers within the Centre for Health and Environment, one can imagine an external interface with science and policymakers. The importance of involving societal actors for research and policy concerning complex problems related to environment and health opens the door for the interfaces science - society and policymakers - society. These interfaces can also be viewed as one interface: the Centre for Health and Environment - Society.

A main focus is reflection on the way development of policy relevant knowledge in dialogue between science and policy functions and may function. Within the context of the Centre for Health and Environment it is obvious that action research is suitable since the social scientists work closely together with other actors of the Centre. The latter are both partners and research subjects. Next to this, one of the main goals is to look for possibilities for cooperation with actors external to the Centre. First there is a need for a close look at what is really wanted from external participation. Over the last years internationally a lot of experiments have been undertaken that lacked this careful consideration of possible linkages to or influence on research or policy. Participation, openness and transparency thus remain too much on a 'Ten Commandments-level': easy to under scribe, difficult to really implement.

4.2 Research strategy

We developed a strategy of different tracks at the same time in order to take into account the focus points mentioned above. The main research questions are as follows. First the question of reflection: how to create reflection on the functioning of the Centre and the development of policy relevant knowledge in the Centre? Second the question on external interaction: what sorts of interaction can be useful and how must they be organized? Finally the question on the role of the social scientist: how can he or she contribute via action research? Although these only concern analytically differentiated tracks, this differentiation is important in order to reconcile theory and practice. The practice of the Centre can be thought of train on the move. This means for example that noble thoughts about involving societal actors in the early stages of the research, the phase of problem definition, are not attainable any more: the train is already underway. During the design of the work of the Centre already a lot of construction has been done.

Before implementing modern approaches to communication on research and policy for the sake of openness and the involvement of societal actors, it is important first to think carefully, internally, backstage (Bal et al. 2002) about what one hopes to achieve with the communication. To keep both the doors and windows of the Centre closed for the outside world until the wise men and women of the Centre have made up their mind is unwise. The Centre is no longer anonymous. The Centre has been introduced in Flanders and does research in several regions. Questions rise as well as expectations that ask for answers. It would also contradict with the guidelines for external communication of the Centre (Goorden et al. 2002). To make a long story short: we have chosen for a combined strategy of communication, interaction and reflection.

4.3 Research practice

The several focus points are mirrored in the different research initiatives. A few of them are introduced.


As communication tools for a wider audience a digital magazine (the Biomonitor) and connected to this a website are developed. At first this concerns rather traditional forms of communication in the sense that only few interactive possibilities exist. The advantage nevertheless is that a form of communication is quickly started. In the longer run these tools can be transformed into more interactive tools. The strive for openness, transparency and interaction needs closer internal reflection in the Centre because of the inherent complexity. These potential interactive tools so to speak lie waiting after this reflection is crystallized into clear, specific goals.

In the framework of the Centre an educational tool is developed for secondary education. In due time an interactive use of the website becomes one of the possibilities. Schools may for example start to use the website for finding research information from the Centre or exchanging results of their own efforts with other schools.


In June 2003 the Research Centre on Technology, Energy & Environment (STEM) of the University of Antwerp(1) in cooperation with the Joint Research Centre of the European Commission (Ispra, Italy), the universities of Amsterdam and Utrecht and the Dutch National Institute of Public Health and the Environment (RIVM) organized a workshop 'Uncertainty in science and policy on environmental and health risks'. In this workshop testing the so-called NUSAP methodology for discussing scientific uncertainties was central. The NUSAP method unravels the way scientific knowledge is constructed and the choices that are made during this process. The method was applied to a pilot study that was done before the starting up of the Centre for Health and Environment. This study looked among other things at the possible use of biomonitoring. Participants in the workshop were researchers of the Centre for Health and Environment that were also involved in the pilot study on the agenda, representatives of the Flemish administration, fellow researchers from Flanders and the Netherlands, and representatives of societal organisations like a citizens' group or industry. The workshop investigated how different scientific, societal actors and policymakers can exchange views on the development of policy relevant knowledge.

During the workshop one of the main obstacles for a transparent discussion between experts and non-experts on technically complex research was exactly this technical complexity. A non-toxicologist for example has little interest in discussing techniques that he or she does not know. On the other hand opening the research is relevant once it concerns issues that relate to choices with societal meaning or implications. If for example the choice for a certain method for measurement is of influence to the expected outcomes of the research, this has more societal relevance than if it only relates to the question of what is technically the most efficient method for generating likewise outcomes.

In close consultation with the Group Biomonitoring of the Centre for Health and Environment we choose to make an inventory of all choices and kinds of choices being made during the course of the research process, and those to come. Also the considerations behind the choices as well as the alternative options that were considered during the process, as well as the pros and cons, possibilities and limitations, uncertainties etcetera will be listed. The Guidance for dealing with uncertainties (RIVM 2002) that is also partly based on the NUSAP-method can be a source of inspiration here. This logbook (BIOLOG) first will be used for internal reflection on transparency and interaction. Next this can be used as a form of information leaflet for communication about the research and for the starting up of interaction or cooperation with for example local actors. The challenge will be to discuss the societal relevant choices and interpretations made during the research process and the incorporation of local experience and knowledge in the research.


The incorporation of local knowledge also plays an important role for the epidemiological research where data on disease, health and environment among other things will be visualized geographically for each municipality. One of the main problems is that the data are not always unambiguous, comparable or reliable. An example is the registration of certain health complaints through the numbers of intake of patients in hospitals or medical examinations. These are not necessarily good indicators for comparing regions. It is necessary to look behind the figures in dialogue with for example local doctors. Such a cooperative approach also may prevent that local experts feel passed over, not involved or scrutinized. Moreover this will start up a dialogue that may be of use once research result must be translated in local policy. We can thus learn lessons about cooperation on research with external actors.

Genetic backcasting

As an exercise regarding policy relevant research a workshop has been prepared on the genetic research that is part of the Centre for Health and Environment. The workshop will be prepared on the basis of interviews with all scientific promoters as well as policymakers of the Centre. Questions are how policy relevant research is or may be developed. How was the research designed? What are important issues for reflection? Which actors are relevant for involvement? What is the main future purpose of the use of genetic screening for biomonitoring?

One of the possible methods for the workshop may be backcasting, although this mainly depends on the outcomes of the interviews. STEM recently used this method in regard to the future of the Belgian electricity production (Keune and Goorden 2002). Backcasting contrasts to the more traditional forecasting approach. Backcasting does not predict the future, but looks for a route towards a desirable future: how can the future we envision as desirable, be realized by actions starting today. What are the opportunities and what are the barriers? It is a good approach for structuring discussion on complex issues.

Final remark

In this paper I hope to have given some insights into the scientific research concerning the development of policy relevant knowledge: a theoretical and practical insight in the fascinating domain of social scientific research within the Flemish Centre for Health and Environment. The contours of this social research are sketched here. May they prove to be beautiful growth diamonds.

© Hans Keune (Antwerp)


(1) Hans Keune works for STEM. STEM is part of the group of social scientists working within the Flemish Centre for Health and Environment.


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3.2. Sektion sozialverträgliche Wissenschaftskulturen

Sektionsgruppen | Section Groups | Groupes de sections

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