Policy Sciences Process for Problem Solving: An Aha Moment

While talking to a young scientist, keen to continue building her career specializing in carnivore conservation, I was reminded that today is an exciting day for a bunch of professionals that I know who are interested in solving complex and challenging problems. The Society of Policy Scientists is launching the 2014 Annual Institute at Brown University in Providence, Rhode Island. This event is a gathering of individuals who are dedicated to helping others to resolve problems that negatively affect public interests, at local, regional, national, and even global levels. I intended to be there but I couldn’t make it, a huge disappointment for me. Instead, I’m going to fill the gap by celebrating their endeavours with today’s post to tell you a bit about a major aha moment in my career: my discovery of The Policy Sciences Process: a Practical Guide for Natural Resource Professionals, the Society of Policy Scientists, and the Policy Sciences Annual Institute.


Sometimes, problem solving for grizzly bear conservation could be likened to finding one's way through a labyrinth. The policy sciences process provides a useful tool for navigating the big picture.
Sometimes, problem solving for grizzly bear conservation could be likened to finding one’s way through a labyrinth. The policy sciences process provides a useful tool for navigating the big picture.


First a bit about the Annual Institute

The Annual Institute is held in the fall. The theme this year is Policy Science in Action. For two and a half days, the participants—a diverse group of academics, practitioners, and others representing a wide range of disciplines—will immerse themselves in the research and application of the policy sciences process. This process provides a framework for observing and exploring variables that are common to all political and policy related problem solving to better understand one’s own standpoint in the process, the problem at hand, and the social and decision-making processes involved. While the problems that they present and discuss are remarkably variable in content and context, participants are guided and supported by the framework and bonded by a fundamental interest in helping others to clarify and secure common interests.

I have attended two Policy Sciences institutes and I hope to get to many more. My first, in 2012, was at the University of Saskatchewan in Saskatoon where the theme was Human Rights in World Public Order: Freedom, Equality and Dignity. My second, in 2013, was at Ursinus College in Collegville, Pennsylvania where the theme was Policy Thinking in a Complex World. For me, they were both career and life changing.

Based on my experiences and the enthusiastic comments that I’ve heard from many others at the institutes, people attend these events for support, inspiration, restoration, and more. This year, organizers have dedicated a session to continuing education in the policy sciences, in addition to sessions for presentations with time for participants to give and gather feedback for research and application of the policy sciences process. People from around the world have benefited, directly and indirectly, from the Annual Institutes. It’s an outstanding event that inclusively and collaboratively brings people together to find better ways of moving forward in their areas of focus.


When I started working with bears, I spent most of my time focusing on science and bears. Since then I have traveled a path connecting people with bears and then science with policy. On my journey, I have learned a lot; on the path ahead, I see that there’s much left to be learned.



As soon as I left the junction, I knew I had discovered an exciting trail to follow.

This quote by Albert Einstein stands upfront in Clark’s book The Policy Sciences Process: a Practical Guide for Natural Resource Professionals and in my mind when I think about the types of problem solving that I’ve been involved in:

The significant problems we face cannot be solved at the same level of thinking we were at when we created them.

My path to the policy sciences was not as direct as it could have been. “The Policy Sciences Process: a Practical Guide for Natural Resource Professionals” was published in 2002. However, it wasn’t until 2011 that I finally realized that I had to read it. This was after seeing it cited numerous published articles, some of which I was indirectly connected to through my work. I ordered it. Several weeks later it arrived. And then I read it, word for word, cover to cover. I think profound best describes the experience I had that night. Through seismic reorganization in thinking, many of the problems that I had poured my mind, heart, and soul into solving (or rather working with others to solve) throughout the course of my career, suddenly made considerably more sense. Finally, I found a better way of moving forward in a number of areas that I had been struggling; while I had already discovered and used many of the important concepts and components of problem solving, I was clearly missing some important ones. Now I have a logical and holistic framework to work from.

In my naivety, I was counting too much on science to solve problems and not enough on other important parts of the equation. Now, I know better because I have integrated my knowledge and experience in carnivore research and management with that of those who developed and contributed to the problem solving process. Interestingly, the framework is much older than I am. The Policy Sciences Center, a non-profit foundation, was founded in 1948 by Harold Lasswell, who had envisioned the framework from the start; Myres McDougal, a major contributor to the process; and George Dession, also a contributor. They were all members of the Yale Law School Faculty. Mike Gibeau, a bear specialist, did a wonderful job of summarizing the policy process, within the context his own transformation in approach to apply the policy sciences process, in Of Bears, Chess, and Checkers: Moving Away from Pure Science to Solve Problems.

The irony in my story is that there were at least two major points in my career where I very nearly discovered (as in truly engaging with) the Policy Sciences, a decade or earlier than I did. But, perhaps, I’ve learned more in the long run by taking the path that I did. I plan on blogging more about the policy sciences approach to problem solving and how it relates to my work. For now, I’ll just say that I greatly appreciate the welcome that people involved in the Policy Sciences institutes have given me. Many of these people have been a major source of inspiration and support, including Susan Clark, Dave Mattson, Doug Clark, Murray Rutherford, David Pelletier, Jorge Riviera, and others. Thanks for helping me to find my way! I endeavor to learn more about the policy sciences process and share what I’ve learned with others.



I Love Fall
I think it would be great to have a Policy Sciences Institute held in the beautiful Bulkley Valley, Smithers, British Columbia. Hmm…an idea for me to work on…

Watch for more Policy Sciences posts to come!

If you are interested in learning more about the policy sciences approach to problem solving, I have posted a list of policy sciences resources (in progress) focusing on natural resource management and conservation of grizzly bears and other carnivore species. Click here to find the Policy Sciences website for more information.

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