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Scientific Mediation

by Curtis Moore, Todd Jarvis, Andrew Wentworth
September 2015

Scientific mediators attempt to tread the path between “Merchants of Doom” and “Merchants of Doubt” as “Merchants of Discourse” using multiple working hypotheses and multiple ways of knowing as their moral compass.

Conflicts over the management of water, timber, and grazing resources tear apart communities as well as have real impacts on local economies. Decision-makers resort to collaborative processes to form agreements on how to manage these resources (Daniels and Walker, 2001). The processes that produce these agreements are known under umbrella terms like “conflict resolution,” “conflict management,” “alternative dispute resolution,” and “appropriate dispute resolution.” Professionals who have been trained in how to use these processes effectively guide stakeholders through them, helping them increase their level of communication, discover their shared interests, and ultimately come to an agreement that hopefully has a wide base of support.

All conflicts carry with them a combination of interests that need to be met before any agreement can be made (Kovach, 2005). Conflicts over the management of natural resources are further complicated because any decision about how to manage these recourse has to operate within the relevant scientific realities (Ozawa, 1996). Unsurprisingly, stakeholders in these situations often disagree about the validity of the scientific evidence surrounding a certain issue or its implication. And when hired experts are invited to settle the matter, those experts become mired in their own conflict; these situation quickly spiral towards a dueling experts, sometimes due to the “eager, expensive, entrenched, expert egos” that escalate enmity, and sometimes by design of the conflict beneficiaries (Wade, 2004). And yet, disputes between scientific experts are not limited to debates over natural resources policy issues. Large multi-year, multidisciplinary projects undertaken by the academies can also become similarly entrenched leading to a “schism” among different factions within the research enterprise. As a solution to these wicked problems, practitioners have started to use scientific mediation (Abrams, 2013). The goal of scientific mediation is, according to Abrams (2013), to navigate around the biases of the experts interpreting the science and get to the science itself.

Scientific Conflict

Why is scientific conflict even an issue? To understand this it is necessary to understand the role science is supposed to play in natural resource management. Over the last few decades the trend in natural resource management law has been geared toward increasing the amount of public involvement and ensuring that the decisions managing agencies make are scientifically sound (Daniels and Walker, 2001). In the research enterprise, many funding agencies are requiring more engagement with “stakeholders” through the notion of “broader impacts”, thus setting the stage for conflict over scientific methods that are not only considered sound science between the principal investigators, but now are also scrutinized by the stakeholders. Put together, these goals can set the stage for costly intractable conflicts to appear if they aren’t managed tactfully. Without some form of scientific dispute prevention or conflict resolution system, the options for dealing with these conflicts are either aimed at trying to figure out whose expert is “right” or to fall back on the tired and overused cliché of “agreeing to disagree”.

These options are tempting because they either produce a clear winner or allow the parties to talk about other things while maintaining their respective views on the subject. What they don’t do, and what “scientific mediation” offers the parties the chance to do, is work together to discover why they disagree. This is valuable because often a stakeholder’s or a scientist’s views on the science surrounding a situation are a reflection of their deeper interests, and exploring how they came to the conclusions they came to is a way to begin peeling back the layers of positions and interests that lay at the heart of these conflicts.

Defining Scientific Mediation

The term “scientific mediation” can seem jarring because a common view of science is that it is empirical, unambiguous, and objective (Ozawa, 1996). Natural resource management professionals worry that mediating disagreements over scientific issues requires them to compromise their ideals in order to reach an agreement (Fraidenburg and Strever, 2011). But science can play several roles in conflicts involving natural resources (Ozawa, 1996). Science can act as a tool for discovery, a tool for holding decision-makers accountable, as a justification for decisions that have been made, and as a tool for persuading others to make or support a certain decision.

While Abrams (2013) introduction to scientific mediation intrigued us, there was little in the way of follow-up examples to analyze and learn from. As scientists who are also practitioners in law, mediation, and conflict transformation, we built upon Wade’s (2004) extensive work on “dueling experts” to Pielke’s (2007) framework outlined in his wonderful book “The Honest Broker: Making Sense of Science in Policy and Politics” and linked these tenets to the “Groan Zone” that Kaner (1996) described as part of any decision making process in his “Facilitator's Guide to Participatory Decision-making” to develop our conceptual model of scientific mediation depicted in Figure 1.  In our work, we found the first step out of the Groan Zone embedded within the scientific mediation process is a search conference where the stakeholders will work toward distilling the issues they agree on, disagree on, and need more information on. Then, if there are areas the group needs more information on, they can begin to collaboratively search for that information. If the group needs more information that isn’t available any other way, they can design a joint research project they all participate in. Finally, whether the group decides to pursue a joint research project or not, they will collaboratively work toward a shared interpretation of the science based on scientific opinions rather than personal or political biases.

Natural resource conflicts are rarely just over science, even though science should and does play a large role in managing these resources (Fraidenburg and Strever, 2011). Scientific conflicts arise over specific material related to the management of the resource in question, scientific methods employed by researchers, and broken relationships between scientists and the stakeholders they report to. There are several ways to tell if you have a scientific conflict on your hands. One of them is the presence of dueling experts who spend time presenting their own research and attacking the research of competing experts (Wade, 2004). In the absence of experts, scientific conflict can be diagnosed when group members spend time appealing to different research as authorities on the matter to support their view of how the resource currently exists (Ozawa, 1996).  The increasingly large number of researchers required to respond to multi-million dollar, multi-year research proposals also pose an organizational challenge. Research teams by design now require diverse disciplinary backgrounds that make it more difficult to build a cohesive vision. Simply put, scientific conflicts are conflicts over the parameters the decision must be made within, regardless if the decision focuses on policy or the scientific process.

The goals of scientific mediation processes are to help the stakeholders provide themselves with as large a breadth of options as is possible while also improving communication between them (Fraidenburg and Strever, 2011). Much of the scientific mediation process revolves around social learning, which occurs “when participants commit to a process where individually they agree they do not have all the answers” (Selin and others, 2007). This part of the process allows the stakeholders to collaboratively find the gaps in knowledge and then begin to work together to try and find a way to fill those gaps. Social learning allows the stakeholders to act as a group to pursue knowledge they all had a hand in gathering, which increases the perceived trustworthiness of the data in addition to increasing the amount of scientific research into the problem. It also allows each stakeholder to participate and share their expertise, which helps satisfy their individual needs to be recognized as competent professionals (Fraidenburg and Strever, 2011). Perhaps most importantly, social learning provides an opportunity for trust building to occur because it opens the door for smaller constructive conflicts to start and be resolved (Selin and others, 2007). These small conflicts that don’t revolve around the main issue are generally low-risk and provide an opportunity for the stakeholders to engage with each other in ways that don’t threaten their preferred solution to the overarching problem.

The Search Conference

The search conference used in the scientific mediation process is designed to collaboratively form a clear idea of what knowledge the group has or wants and where precisely the disagreements are (Selin and others, 2007). Although they may differ in size, scope, and design, search conferences are meant to gather stakeholders and begin to assess where the science is clear, where there is conflicting science, and where there is no science. In other words, the goals of this search conference are to “(i) isolate disagreements; (ii) clarify what, for purposes of settlement, need not be contested, and (iii) search for areas of agreement” (Adler and others, 2011). In addition to the practical benefit of increasing the amount of information the group has and shares, the search conference also allows the stakeholders to gather and work collaboratively toward a goal other than a solution to the overarching problem. The search conference should produce these two things: 1) the aggregation of as much relevant knowledge about the issues at hand as possible, and 2) the production of a work product that clearly defines what the participants at the conference agree the science says, where their interpretations of the science disagree, and what information they agree is missing.

Moore (2014) provides an example of a search conference designed to address scientific mediation for an endangered species issue in Scotland - capercaillie predation. The process focused specifically on the effect pine marten predation had on the capercaillie population instead of capercaillie conservation in general.

The search conference process is straightforward with Stage 1 focusing on housekeeping items like ground rules, schedules, and other practical considerations. This is also a good time to set up ground rules for communication and to discuss how to deal with allegations of bad faith.

Stage 2 is where the participants make presentations. These presentations should focus on the most basic components of the issue the group is working with. For example, Moore (2014) provided the group would start with a presentation on the capercaillie’s diet, then moved on to the bird’s nesting requirements, then finally to predation pressures on the capercaillie. During this time the participants will listen to the presentations given by their colleagues and then at the end they would indicate whether they are satisfied with the information they’ve been given or if they have more questions. These questions should be recorded or captured in a way that the group agrees on.

Stage 3 will come after all the topics have been presented on and the participants have all had a chance to record their questions and concerns. The goals of this stage are to get a clear idea of where there is broad agreement among the group and where members of the group feel like there is conflicting science or insufficient information. This idea should take the form of a list that will be made available to all the participants. When there is a consensus on this list it is time to start designing the next steps the group will take to fill in the gaps in information and resolve the conflicting scientific questions.

After the list of agreements, disagreements, and gaps in knowledge has been created and agreed on, the next step is to decide what the group should do going forward. As the agenda for the search conference explains, the members can choose to go ahead with the information they have, search as a group for more information that already exists, or design and carry out a research project themselves. A good example of implementing the outcomes of a search conference that we have also worked on include exempt wells (small capacity wells that do not require water rights or permits in many western US states and Canadian provinces) where the subsequent research focused solely on the wells and not on water allocation as a whole. The exempt wells conference began with legal issues, economic issues, and conflicts. In this particular instance, the outcomes were theme issues in academic and trade journals (Vinett and Jarvis, 2012; Jarvis and Stebbins, 2012).

Honest Brokers versus Science Panels

While the outcomes of search conferences typically lead to a mix of honest brokers and issue advocates, the process will provide an opportunity for more focused discussions. Personal and political biases will persist. Scientific mediation should, if possible, be convened by a conflict resolution professional with expertise in both the “science” in dispute as well as process to begin the process of focusing on the merits of the disagreements between the parties regardless if the issue is a natural resources policy issue or to improve the working relationships of a research team by defining participants’ roles more clearly. A group of science professionals committed to being an honest broker of policy alternatives could serve as an alternative as long as they declared their personal biases on the topic that does not conflict with the set the rules and boundaries of the field in which the game is played as opposed to deciding the outcome of the game itself (Pielke, 2007).

Other processes, like science panels, separate the stakeholders from the scientific analysis that needs to be done. Pielke argues that it “is naïve to think that science advisory panels deal purely with science. Such panels are convened to provide guidance on policy, or on scientific information that is directly relevant to policy.” These science panels also can also serve as a forum for the “politicization of science”, catering more to media coverage as opposed to the science. Science panels can also serve as a cloak for issue advocates who may try to further their agenda by “cherry picking” scientific research that supports their worldview and ignoring science that conflicts with it or by bringing junk science to the group’s attention (Pielke, 2007). But if all the science brought forward is rigorously scrutinized by stakeholders with divergent viewpoints the possibility of junk science making it through the process will be greatly reduced (Daniels and Walker, 2001).

Once the group makes the decision to convene a scientific mediation process they will have to decide what the focus of the process will be (Adler, 2014). In this stage of the process the stakeholders, or research teams, will have to decide what areas the process will delve into. The scope should be narrow enough to efficiently isolate the issues that need to be analyzed, but broad enough to ensure the product the group generates is thorough enough to ground a science-based decision in. For teams of research scientists, the absence of a shared project vision results in researchers trying to pull in different directions without a clear approach to resolving disagreements. Numerous meetings may be held throughout the process to create opportunities for researchers to exchange ideas with one another as well as with “stakeholders” engaged in the broader impacts of the research enterprise. The absence of a shared vision leads to colleagues that are not fully engaged with the process, either by choosing not to attend project meetings or dismissing the views of others—especially stakeholders that underpin the increasingly important metric of broader impacts required by large science-based research proposals.

Scientific mediation assumes that stakeholders are all at the table in good faith. But the prospect of bad faith negotiating is a real one, though it is hard to define and counter with any degree of certainty. Bad faith negotiating is when a party comes to the table and appears outwardly to be negotiating but in reality has no intention of coming to an agreement (Rainsberger, 2008; Moore, 2013). It can be difficult to spot, but some indicators of bad faith negotiation include (i) delaying tactics, (ii) withdrawal of terms after a tentative agreement has been made, and (iii) not sending an agent with the authority to make decisions. But not all stakeholders who are being difficult to get along with are acting in bad faith. In some cases their interests just may not be met. The courts’ approach in this context is to look at the totality of the circumstances surrounding the group’s failure to come to an agreement to decide if the defendant came to the table in bad faith (Rainsberger, 2008). With this in mind, it would be a good idea for the participants in the scientific mediation process to agree when setting up the ground rules for the process how to deal with alleged cases of bad faith in addition to the other ground rules about the conduct of the participants.

Agreeing on Merits of Disagreement

Once the group has all the information the members need to go forward it is time to engage in what may be the most contentious part of the whole process: interpreting the research, or developing a shared agreement such as a “collaboration compact” among the principal investigators to prevent conflicts from becoming entrenched by clarifying procedures regarding contributions and project budgets. Much like the advice in the section on the design of the research process, this article’s advice regarding the interpretation part of the scientific mediation process will be vague because of the many possible outcomes the research process could produce. How parties interpret data is likely to be a reflection of their interests (Kyllönen et al., 2006). And the most reliable way to isolate and frame the interests of the parties is through a facilitative dialog (Kovach, 2005). So, if through a facilitative process the group’s members can come to a shared interpretation of the data that meets the interests of all the participants, the resulting agreement will provide a more solid basis for natural resource management than it would have otherwise (Margerum, 2011). To reach this shared interpretation of data, or in the instance of developing a research proposal to collect and share the data, the stakeholders and principal investigators need to effectively present the data to each other, share interpretations freely and creatively, and bring their individual experience and expertise to bear and share it in their interpretation (Margerum, 2011). Although some stakeholders may worry that the scientific integrity of the data might be compromised by this negotiation process, the scientific integrity of the decision is one of their interests and they will be able to pursue that interest within the negotiations. (Fraidenburg and Strever, 2011). So an interpretation that reflects the interests of all of the parties will reflect their interest in scientific integrity. Once this last step is completed the group should have a universally trusted body of science that the group can base its decision regarding the management of the resource in question on, or at the minimum, an informal agreement that is used to highlight the group’s commitment to transparency and cooperation in the research enterprise.


Scientific mediation is still an emerging process, but one that offers an alternative to the pattern of dueling experts that has emerged in the field of collaborative natural resource management and plagues the best intentions of large multi-disciplinary research teams. The goals of the process are to isolate the scientific issues separate from the personal or political biases of the generators and users of scientific information. Scientific mediation encourages the stakeholders to work with the information themselves and to come to a consensus on what parameters they have to work within. Scientific conflicts can derail a collaborative process if they aren’t managed well. This article provides the outline of a scientific mediation process that is adaptable. However, even after the group comes to a consensus on researcher collaboration  and accountability, as well as what the “science” means, the overarching conflict will still exist. Resolving the overarching conflict, or reaching an agreement on the merits of a disagreement, will still take more deliberation and work on the part of the participants, but hopefully the scientific mediation process will provide a firm scientific basis on which to make their decision, increase the quality of communication and trust the group members have in each other, increase the group’s capacity for conflict resolution as a whole, and increase the public’s trust in the research enterprise and concomitant scientific opinions.



Abrams, N. (2015, August 5). What is scientific mediation? Retrieved from

Adler, P. S. (2014). A user's guide to effective joint fact finding. Honolulu, HA: The ACCORD3.0 Network.

Adler, P. S., Bryan, T., Mulica, M., and Shapiro, J. (2011). Humble Inquiry: The practice of joint fact finding as a strategy for bringing science, policy and the public together. Tokyo, Japan.

Daniels, S. E., and Walker, G. B. (2001). Working Through Environmental Conflict: The collaborative learning approach. Westport, CT: Praeger.

Fraidenburg, M., and Strever, L. (2004). Diagnosing conflict. Fisheries, 29(11), 20-29. 

Jarvis, W.T., and Stebbins, A. (2012). Examining Exempt Wells: Care for exempt wells provides opportunities for the water well industry, Water Well Journal, Sept. 2012, p. 23-27.

Kaner, S., and Lind, L. (1996). Facilitator's Guide to Participatory Decision-making. Philadelphia, PA: New Society.

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Margerum, R. D. (2011). Beyond Consensus: Improving collaborative planning and management. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Moore, L. (2013). Common Ground on Hostile Turf: Stories from an environmental mediator. Washington, DC: Island Press.

Moore, C. (2014). Removing dueling experts from the battlefield: Guidelines for designing a scientific mediation process. (Unpublished master’s thesis). University of Oregon, Eugene, OR.

Ozawa, C. P. (1996). Science in environmental conflicts. Sociological Perspectives, 39(2), 219-230.

Pielke, R. A., Jr. (2007). The Honest Broker: Making sense of science in policy and politics. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Rainsberger, P. K. (2008). Federal Labor Laws. In Labor Education Program (pp. XVIII-1-XVIII-7). MO: University of Missouri.

Selin, S. W., Pierskalla, C., Smaldone, D., and Robinson, K. (2007). Social learning and building trust through a participatory design for natural resource planning. Journal of Forestry, 421-425.

Vinett, M., and Jarvis, T. (2012) Conflicts Associated with Exempt Wells: A Spaghetti Western Water War, Journal of Contemporary Water Research & Education, Issue 148, p. 10-16.

Wade, J. H. (2004). Dueling experts in mediation and negotiation: How to respond when eager expensive entrenched expert egos escalate enmity. Conflict Resolution Quarterly, 21(4), 419-436.


ScientificMediation.jpg  (ScientificMediation.jpg)


Curtis Moore is a 2014 graduate of the University of Oregon’s School of Law and Master Conflict and Dispute Resolution program. Curtis is currently a Deputy District Attorney for Elko County, Nevada. He is a member of the Nevada Bar Association and his interests include natural resource law, water law, and alternative dispute resolution in those fields.

Todd Jarvis is a Certified Mediator and faculty member at Oregon State University and the University of Oregon.

Andrew Wentworth earned a MS in Water Resources Science and a Graduate Certificate in Water Conflict Management and Transformation from the Water Resources Graduate Program at Oregon State University in 2015. His interests include groundwater governance, participatory hydrologic modeling, and science communication.