BOZEMAN, Mont.--Decision-making can seem straight forward to a scientist, says a Montana State University-Bozeman researcher who has studied decision-making as it relates to natural resources and ecosystems.
"As scientists, we like to think that if we tackle an environmental or natural resources problem, define the problem, do good research and find the answer and solutions, that we have done our job and somebody will take our solution and go out and do good things," says Rick Lawrence, assistant professor of remote sensing. He works in the Mountain Research Center and the Department of Land Resources and Environmental Sciences at MSU.
"The concept is pretty straight forward," Lawrence said. "You do good work and make a difference."
But two factors figure in the mix and make it more complicated: public values and the way that decision-makers deal with the public.
"You spend a lot of time coming up with the most scientifically defensible answer, throw it out there and sometimes nobody's happy," Lawrence said. "Our research shows us why this is. How we make the decision can be at least as important to people as what decisions we make."
Although Lawrence and others did this research in Oregon, he said the need to deal with public involvement in a proper way applies to natural resource topics in other regions as well.
"What we have learned regarding how to involve the public is certainly important for issues facing us in this area, such as bison/brucellosis and wolf reintroduction," he said.
His studies show that people want to be heard. They want to have a voice.
"Most people don't expect that their position will always be accepted, but they want the opportunity to express their opinions," Lawrence said. "At least as important, they want a sense that decision-makers are considering their opinions. They need feedback."
Pretending to be interested in public comments won't work.
"Research shows that when it's just a sham, the public tends to see that," Lawrence said. "... When you let people have their say, but don't listen in a meaningful way, they are less happy than if you never involved them at all."
Meaningful input is hard to define, and Lawrence has no top-10 list for how to ensure it.
"There's no magic bullet," he said. "It really depends on the issues and the interest groups involved."
One method Lawrence recommends is "collaborative learning." It calls for managers, researchers and the public to be involved from the beginning in a learning process. Instead of following the typical procedure that includes public meetings, giving speeches to the public, accepting letters and making decisions behind closed doors, managers start by learning what's important to the public. The public learns the legal limitations of the decision-makers. Everyone learns what scientists have found in their studies. From that point, they all move forward together until the managers finally make their decision.
"Three-way communication between scientists, management and the public can be very effective," Lawrence said.
Collaborative learning is more difficult if 10,000 people want to have input, but it can be done with small working groups and key groups, he noted.
The idea is to exchange information, not educate the public, Lawrence continued. The public is smart enough to understand good research and the results of that research. They can understand managers who explain the limitations of the law and why decisions are made the way they are. Through quality feedback, they can tell if their input was seriously considered even if they don't get what they wanted.
"People realize they are not going to get everything they ask for, but if you involve them in this way, they respond," Lawrence said.