Trust at the science-policy interface

By Chris Cvitanovic and Rebecca Shellock

1. Chris Cvitanovic (biography)
2. Rebecca Shellock (biography)

How important is trust at the science-policy interface? How can you build trust when working with decision-makers? And how can trust be repaired after a break-down?

How important is trust when working at the science-policy interface?

Trust is important at 3 levels:

  1. Trust in individuals (eg., an individual researcher and an individual policy-maker), which is important for providing space for open dialogue;
  2. Trust in the research organisation, which focuses on organisational legitimacy and credibility, and acting in a way that is free of bias;
  3. Trust in the process by which knowledge is generated and exchanged.

What strategies can be used to build trust at the science-policy interface?

There are 14 practical and implementable strategies or considerations that can be used by scientists and/or research institutions to help foster trust with decision-makers (also shown in the figure below).

1. Ensure process transparency, especially:

  • Have a clearly documented process for how advice will be generated;
  • Ensure data are open, traceable and accessible;
  • Invite external stakeholders into the process;
  • Establish a code of conduct for all participants.

2. Do not advocate for a specific outcome, especially:

  • Present an unbiased summary and potential consequences;
  • Refrain from applying individual values and worldviews;
  • Ensure impartiality at all times.

3. Have regular contact, especially:

  • Where possible, utilise face-to-face engagement;
  • Create opportunities for both formal and informal interactions.

4. Be able to demonstrate independence, especially:

  • Engage equally with all relevant stakeholders;
  • Do not favour the perspectives of a specific group of stakeholders;
  • Declare any potential or perceived conflict of interests;
  • Where possible, have scientific advice independently reviewed.

5. Acknowledge any risks or limitations:

  • Clearly articulate any limitations associated with processes of knowledge generation or exchange;
  • Be explicit about potential uncertainty within the data and associated risks and limitations.

6. Ensure data quality control:

  • Ensure mechanisms are in place to ensure data quality;
  • Be explicit about which data were used;
  • Ensure data are open access, traceable, version controlled and accessible.

7. Have advice independently reviewed:

  • Establish a formal process for having advice independently peer-reviewed;
  • Ensure peer reviewers have suitable and recognised expertise for the content;
  • Establish mechanisms to ensure peer-review comments are adequately accounted for and addressed.

8. Do not defend advice:

  • Remain impartial at all times;
  • Explain the advice and all risks/limitations, but do not defend the advice;
  • Listen and accept feedback about the process of knowledge generation and exchange from stakeholders.

9. Allow time for trust to form:

  • Trusted relationships are founded upon mutual respect;
  • Ensure relationships are not just transactional;
  • Allow sufficient time to build trusted relationships;
  • Ensure regular contact over time to maintain trusted relationships once established;
  • Do not take trusted relationships for granted.

10. Ensure those generating advice have expertise:

  • Build broad teams with relevant disciplinary expertise;
  • Ensure diversity within teams in terms of career stage, gender and nationality;
  • Be open to new collaborations and the inclusion of different knowledge systems, where appropriate.

11. Listen to stakeholders and accept feedback:

  • Engage with stakeholders early in the process;
  • If possible, co-create questions together;
  • Ensure mechanisms are in place to mitigate potential power imbalances between those generating and ‘using’ the advice;
  • Include specific mechanisms to receive feedback from stakeholders throughout the process.

12. Communicate organisational success:

  • Document ‘successes’ as they occur;
  • Share successes among stakeholders;
  • Whilst sharing success remain humble, and recognise that there is always room for improvement.

13. Provide the advice that was requested:

  • Ensure that a clear question is in place to guide the process of generation of knowledge and advice (co-develop this question where possible);
  • Set joint expectations about what can feasibly be delivered against these questions based on available knowledge and resources;
  • Ensure regular contact throughout the process regarding progress, limitations and potential risks;
  • Ensure that the knowledge generated directly answers the question that was originally asked.

14. Be mindful of local politics and political sensitivities:

  • Be informed of regional and relevant politics;
  • Be respectful of how local politics and political sensitivities might hinder the ability of stakeholders to use the knowledge that has been generated.
Fourteen strategies for building trust at the interface of science and policy (from Cvitanovic et al., 2021)

What strategies can be used to rebuild trust at the science-policy interface?

Trust is highly dynamic and fragile. Considerable time and effort is required to build trust. However, trust can be lost far more quickly, in only a matter of days as a result of intentional or unintentional actions.

There are five key steps to repair trust, and specific considerations for each step, shown in the figure below.

Five stages of trust repair, and accompanying actions (from Cvitanovic et al., 2021)


These insights are based on an in-depth analysis using the International Council for the Exploration of the Sea (ICES) as a case study (Cvitanovic et al., 2021).

How have you built and repaired trust at the science-policy interface? Have you used similar strategies? Do you have others to suggest? And how have you adapted strategies to successfully fit within your specific circumstance or context?

To find out more:
Cvitanovic, C., Shellock, R. J., Mackay, M., van Putten E. I., Karcher, D.B., Dickey-Collas, M. and Ballesteros, M. (2021). Strategies for building and managing ‘trust’ to enable knowledge exchange at the interface of environmental science and policy. Environmental Science and Policy, 123: 179-189. (Online) (DOI):

Biography: Chris Cvitanovic PhD is a transdisciplinary marine scientist in the Centre for the Public Awareness of Science at The Australian National University in Canberra. His research is focused on improving the relationship between science, policy and practice to enable evidence-informed decision-making for sustainable ocean futures.

Biography: Rebecca Shellock PhD is a marine social scientist in the Centre for the Public Awareness of Science at The Australian National University in Canberra. Her research is focused on ocean literacy, knowledge exchange, marine governance and Marine Protected Areas, to aid the delivery of effective and equitable ocean governance.

6 thoughts on “Trust at the science-policy interface”

  1. Hi Rebecca. I think it would be difficult to add to what your piece already covered; it’s quite thorough. But, you wish to explore ways to better emphasize the points already made. That would be difficult; there’s a sense in which this whole psycho-social space is always a bit like herding cats; everything is, um, squishy.

    But, I am somewhat motivated to talk about a process known as Bohmian Dialogue. David Bohm – the great physicist – penned a book On Dialogue, in which he spoke of terms and rhymes; he points out that discussion rhymes with percussion, and offers that a conversation should not be a game of winning points. He avoids “discussion” in favor of “dialogue”. He suggests spending time together with agendas checked at the doors; get to know one another before entering an agenda-laden conversation. If anything, that’s an approach to trust building. There are many ways in which trust can be earned; that’s one of them.

    • Hi Jack. Thank you for your comment and feedback. It is much appreciated. I will have a look into this evidence base.

  2. Thanks to Rebecca and Chris. Very useful contribution and some great advice. Your advice to refrain from applying individual values and world views is important, but also difficult. The reality is that public policy is a game of evidence, values and politics. All but the most abstract evidence is viewed through a values lens, and all policy is decided in a values construct. Understanding your values and being open to understanding the values of others is key to being an effective and trusted policy adviser. Easier said than done in my experience.

    • Hi Sean. Thank you for your comment and engagement with our post and article! Your observations mesh well with ours.

  3. The first thought I had when I saw the email notice of this piece was to recall the day I walked out of a hotel lobby in a town in Europe and saw a headline which told of a major publishing house being caught publishing fake journals. The very same publishing house I was to visit that day. I lost a number of brain cycles trying to imagine how they could sacrifice the trust they had built while becoming a major provider of scientific research over something like that.

    In my view, the three levels of Trust importance here say it all, just not strongly enough.
    This is a critical issue, especially if we are to get past the lack of trust which is preventing the planet from getting past the current pandemic.

    • Hi Jack. Thank you for your comments and engagement with our post and article. We completely agree, trust is critical and is a precondition underpinning successful knowledge exchange among scientists and decision-makers, and thus, evidence-informed decision-making processes.
      We would be interested to hear your thoughts on how we could better emphasise the importance and levels of trust and whether you had any recommended reading?


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