Book chapter

Boundary Organizations: Intermediaries in Science–Policy Interactions (2020)

in: Oxford Research Encyclopedia of Politics


Scientific knowledge is often not used in policymaking, even when the aim of the research is to produce policy-relevant results and these are communicated clearly and timely. The problem of the discrepancy between scientific outcomes and usable knowledge for policymaking is often labeled "science–policy gap." Boundary organizations "bridge" this gap. Boundary organizations are intermediary organizations that produce information that is useful in policymaking and at the same time qualify as scientific (here this includes all academic research, including humanities and social sciences). However, boundary organizations are not just "knowledge brokers" that reconcile a demand (by policy makers) for knowledge with the supply (by academics) of knowledge. The knowledge-brokering perspective on science–policy interaction assumes that parcels of knowledge produced by academics are transmitted unchanged to policy makers, along a linear pathway of knowledge transfer from academia to policy makers.Several decades of close study of science–policy interactions has revealed that the production of policy advice cannot realistically be described in terms of clear boundaries between science and politics, nor can it be conceived as linear knowledge transfer leading to knowledge use. The production of policy-relevant information requires mutual engagement by scientists and policy makers in processes of knowledge co-production. Through the co-production process other concerns than purely scientific ones, such as political acceptability, are integrated in the result. Boundary organizations are sites where this co-production is institutionalized. Boundary organizations engage in quality and relevance assessments of existing scientific research and the production of policy advice reports, but also the design of innovative policy instruments and commissioning of new research and the evaluation of policy impacts of prior output. These activities are labeled "boundary work." They are inherently tricky because they require a balancing act between scientific credibility and policy usefulness. Science and politics are normally demarcated spheres with different procedures and quality criteria. Boundary organizations endeavor to coordinate these apparently incompatible demands through boundary work.Boundary organizations are often presented as "silver bullet" that will solve all frictions and frustrations in science–policy interactions. However, the extent to which boundary organizations can fulfill such expectations depends on several factors: the (inter)national political culture regarding the status and role of science in policymaking, the culture of the policy domain regarding the same, the characteristics of the policy problem itself, and the availability of boundary working skills. Conversely, in many cases the time-consuming and sensitive creation of boundary organizations is not necessary. By extension, it is not possible to define "best practice" on boundary organizations or boundary work. What works is highly context dependent, but also time-dependent, so changes with time.