There’s an old saw that likens public policy-making to the inside of a sausage factory. What happens there is messy and apt to be unappealing, yet it has the potential to produce healthy results. And that’s just what two professors from the College of Charleston are intent on examining in a new study that is being underwritten by a grant of $260,000 from the National Academy of Sciences’ Gulf Research Program.
Matt Nowlin, who teaches in the Department of Political Science, and Susan Lovelace, an adjunct professor in the Master’s of Environmental Studies Program and assistant director for development and extension at the South Carolina Sea Grant Consortium, are two of the principal investigators. They will study ways that deliberations between experts, decision makers and citizens on certain environmental issues can lead to consensus and avoid the kind of gridlock that has hampered governance at so many levels across the U.S. Nowlin and Lovelace will be working on this project with Justin Reedy, a professor at the University of Oklahoma.
“The purpose of our study,” explains Nowlin, “is to measure public opinion in South Carolina regarding some coastal resource management issues such as sea level rise, environmental health and biodiversity. We then want to see if the deliberative process can lead to some potential ways that the public and policymakers can work together to address these issues.”
The researchers’ work will start with a statewide survey on the relevant issues, says Lovelace. “That will give us a baseline regarding the outlook on these issues,” she says. “Then, out of that statewide sample of respondents, we’ll recruit a large group of individuals from the eight coastal counties to come to Charleston and participate in a two-day, deliberative event.”
At that event, the participants will hear from experts on these specific issues. These participants will be private citizens as well as decision makers from both the municipal and state levels, such as town administrators and state agency directors. They will subsequently break up into smaller groups and spend time discussing ways of addressing these issues.
According to Nowlin, “We’re very curious to see whether some kind of consensus can be achieved that will take the discussions beyond the ideology of partisan-driven disagreements that tend to exist around things like sea level rise or climate change.” A big part of this, he says, is cultural cognition, which involves measuring normative values.
“In this area of social science,” explains Nowlin, “there are two dimensions of values that we measure. Most respondents fall into one of two principal categories, they’re either hierarchical and individualistic, or they’re egalitarian and communitarian. Hierarchical individuals are generally concerned about adherence to societal rules whereas egalitarian individuals are more concerned about equality than rules. In the same way, those who fall into the individualistic category put a strong emphasis on self-reliance whereas communitarians are those who consider first what’s best for the whole of society or the community. In most places across the country, hierarchical-individualistic folks are less concerned with or dismissive of climate change. And the opposite is true of egalitarian-communitarian folks. Our study will test that assumption.”
On this project, Nowlin and Lovelace will be working closely with the College’s Joseph P. Riley, Jr. Center for Livable Communities and will be assisted by several graduate students.
“Our primary goal is the research,” says Lovelace, “but we’d definitely like the process to have an impact. Ultimately, we’ll learn how we can do policymaking in a more productive way. If the decision makers who attend feel like they’ve been supported in the process, they’ll go back to their respective offices and say ‘this is what the citizens say that they want, and this is what the scientists say will work, so this is what we should try to do.’ And if that’s how it works out, then maybe it’s a process that needs to be replicated in other areas to address other issues, particularly those that are contentious and need to be solved in a short amount of time.”
“Either way,” she says, “I think just getting these individuals together and having them talk, if we accomplish that, we’ll have done a lot of good.”