Problem definition should include two different phases: problem selection and problem framing.

Icône de l'outil pédagogique Phase 1—Problem Selection

This phase involves deciding which problems, issues, or questions warrant an impact assessment approach. In many respects, the simplest step to do that is picking a topic, question, or issue on which to focus assessment efforts. It makes little difference if it is driven by policy or science concerns. There are many candidates, and priority-setting processes help identify the most important areas to pursue. Selecting issues for active consideration, which is the essence of agenda setting, must be clearly differentiated from the political process of problem definition. Problem selection is not selecting among issues on the agenda, but rather selecting among decision to be made, ends to be achieved, and means which may be chosen. In other words, problem selection consists of selecting among strategic representation of situations for a given organization (policy maker).

Problem selection is generally the responsibility of decision-makers (both management and funding organizations) who allocate people, money, and time to get work done. In other words, problem selection rests on several factors including strategic direction, the political environment, the budget outlook, and organizational capacity to respond to new work that might require significant new or redirected resources. The assessment and discussion of priorities, however, ought to in some way involve scientists to ensure that diverse perspectives and expertise are imbedded in decisions. In this sense, priority setting would be done at the top of the hierarchical organization, but would be grounded in bottom-up perspectives and insights. In other words, the assessment and discussion of priorities ought to in some way involve scientists to ensure that diverse perspectives and expertise are imbedded in decisions.


Icône de l'outil pédagogique Phase 2—Problem Framing

Problem framing emphasizes focusing on problem restricting and structuring. Problem framing requires first that the time span of the problem should be fixed (von Winterfeldt and Edwards, 1986). The geographic extent is also an important aspect that may complicate the picture – consequences on a local level could very well be different from consequences on the EU level.

Problem framing also requires the interpretation of the most important aspects of the issue and how they connect. The factors and causal relationships in this conceptual model will suggest possible interventions (policy options), external driving forces (outlook), and biophysical and agro-management contextual elements of impact assessment to consider and which alternatives do not have to be considered (MacRae and Whittington, 1997; Bardach, 2000). In doing so, problem framing makes possible the definition of different combinations between policy options, outlooks and contexts to be considered, which put together can be viewed as an “experiment plan”. Problem definitions that deemphasize or neglect important dimensions of an issue can “limit understanding and narrow analysts’ vision,” creating “blind spots” in which people will not see potentially valuable alternatives (Stern, 1986, p. 200). The extreme case is when a person “smuggl[es] an implicit solution into the problem definition” (Bardach, 2000, p. 7). Such problem definitions lead one to neglect other options, including no intervention (which is always an option, since resources are limited). Such problem definitions also encourage justifying recommendations using assumptions rather than evidence (Bardach, 2000). At best, this slants analyses or evaluations toward certain options; at worst, it makes them self-fulfilling exercises. Such problem definitions also fail to convince people with other points of view to support one’s recommendations.

Some basic principles for problem framing have emerged from the literature and our discussions with scientists and science managers. Since how one defines a problem determines one's understanding of and approach to that problem, being able to redefine or reframe a problem and to explore the “problem space” can help broaden the range of alternatives and solutions examined. Problem framing will reveal if an integrated approach is required or if narrowly defined work is needed to improve understanding of complex issues. Both may be needed; it is not necessarily an either-or choice. Even when a problem (or part of a problem) falls within a particular discipline, integration may be critical at the theory or methodological level. How far one needs to “back up” in the process to improve integration in ongoing efforts must be decided on a case-by-case basis. Learning by doing seems to be critical in processes of integration. Social scientists have often pointed to the importance of “self discovery” as an aid to learning. This all implies the importance of extensive documentation and ongoing feedback and evaluation so we do not forget or repeat ourselves later, and so that lessons can be shared.

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