Mediating Scientific Conflicts

Todd Jarvis
Todd Jarvis

Conflicts over the management of water, timber, climate change, endangered species and grazing can tear apart communities and have real impacts on local economies. And when scientists are invited to settle the issues, experts can become mired in their own conflicts.

Even large multidisciplinary research projects can fall into divisions that threaten the scientific process itself. Driven by funding agency calls for “broader impacts,” science teams require diverse disciplinary backgrounds that can make it more difficult to build a cohesive vision. Without some form of scientific dispute prevention or conflict resolution, the options for dealing with these conflicts are limited. They can come down to deciding whose expert is “right” or to falling back on the tired cliché of “agreeing to disagree.”

Scientific mediation offers another course. To broaden their options and improve communication, scientists and people with a stake in the issue can work together to discover why they disagree and to peel back the positions and interests that lie at the heart of conflicts.

While such conflicts can be complex, the scientific mediation process proceeds through a series of well-defined stages. First, participants determine the focus of the topic and set the ground rules for meetings. It is critical at this stage to achieve a shared vision for the outcome, so that participants don’t divert the process by steering the discussion in different directions.

Second, members of the group conduct presentations to identify areas of agreement and disagreement and to distinguish what is well-known from issues that are poorly understood.

Third, they work toward a shared interpretation of the science. They may even decide to pursue a joint research project to answer unresolved questions.

When complete, this process results in focused discussions about alternatives. It assumes that all participants are at the table in good faith, although as mediators know, bad-faith negotiating is always a possibility. It can be difficult to spot, but some indicators include: delaying tactics, withdrawal of terms after a tentative agreement has been made and not sending an agent with the authority to make decisions. It can be useful for the participants to agree, when setting up the ground rules, on how to deal with alleged cases of bad faith.

The goal of the process is to isolate the scientific issues separately from personal or political biases of the users of scientific information. Even after the group comes to a consensus on what the science means, overarching conflicts will still exist. Resolving the broad conflict, or reaching an agreement on the merits of a disagreement, will take more deliberation on the part of the participants, but hopefully the scientific mediation process will provide a firm scientific basis on which to make a decision. It will succeed if it increases the quality of communication and trust group members have in each other, the group’s capacity for conflict resolution as a whole and the public’s trust in the research enterprise and scientific opinions.

In addition to leading the IWW at Oregon State, Todd Jarvis is an adjunct professor at the University of Oregon School of Law. He co-authored an article on on this subject with Curtis Moore, deputy district attorney in Elko County, Nevada, and a 2014 graduate of the UO law school, and with Andrew Wentworth, who earned his master’s in water resources science from Oregon State in 2015.