Research design essay planning


in Oxford, Politics, Science, The environment

Having seen the distinction-earning research design essay written by Lee Jones last year, I am now thoroughly fearful about the whole project. The extent of research he seems to have done, and the clarity with which he seems to have understood his question both stand in marked contrast to my present situation.

As such, it is perfectly clear that I really need to get cracking. The essay is due on May 29th.

Research Design Essay Planning

My Approximate Structure:

Note that this listing will not necessarily conform to the page-by-page ordering of the research design essay or the thesis itself. This is more a breakdown of areas I need to cover, sorted categorically.

1) The Question:

The purpose of this thesis is to examine the connections between science and environmental policy making, on both the practical and theoretical level. That will involve assessing, in the first instance, the ways in which environmental science has contributed to the development and nature of global environmental policies. Secondly, it will involve the examination of the role envisioned for science by both policy makers and environmental scientists themselves: with a focus on issues like credibility.

2) Background, history and relevance of the question:

Narrative style introduction

I will probably begin with a discussion of what might be termed the standard model of science-policy interaction. That is to say: either scientists or the public at large identify the existence of some environmental problem. Consider, for example, the discovery of high levels of persistent organic pollutants (POPs) in the Arctic in the mid-1980s. Scientists then investigate the problem to the point where it is well understood. In this case, that happened through the Nothern Contaminants Program in Canada, as coordinated by Indian and Northern Affairs Canada. A treaty was then drawn up through international negotiation to address the problem, with provisions included for further study and the fine-tuning of the instrument in response to new information and understanding.

Interrogating the narrative

I will then try attacking both the general model and the specific example, raising questions about which issues get investigated and why: the importance of funding and bureaucratic interests in such affairs being a key consideration.

Having opened the thesis in what I hope might be an interesting way, I will provide general background on the importance of the question and circumstances in which it has arisen. As with the question overall, this will include both discussion of the practical issues of dealing with scientific data and approaches when generating environmental policy and with the theoretical considerations involved.

Justification and central argument

The last portion of this section will address the matter that Lee terms: “What’s new? Who cares?” Also, it will establish any overall argument that I want to adopt for the thesis. Possibilities for such an argument include:

  • The representation of science as objective is hopelessly indefensible and should be rejected.
  • The monolithic understanding of ‘science’ as a single body that can provide a single answer is outdated. A new and more complex understanding of science must emerge to replace it.
  • The flaws within the science-policy relationship have largely been on the basis of relatively basic, practical considerations. With appropriate safeguards in place, the standard model sketched out in the introduction can form the basis for good policy making.

One good possibility is to list a number of viable explanations, explaining that I will evaluate each on the basis of sources and analysis. Of course, it would be good to state at this point which of the explanations I find most convincing, though this probably doesn’t need to be done in the design essay.

3) Sources:

Documentary sources:

In order to access the connections between science and policy making, I will engage with two case studies: the Stockholm Convention on Persistent Organic Pollutants and the Kyoto Protocol on Climate Change. The first seems initially to be a clear example of science identifying a problem, then producing a comprehensive understanding that formed the basis of political action. The second is a case wherein various forms of conflict and uncertainty have paralyzed action.

The second component of the thesis will be the aforementioned theoretical examination. One example through which this will be investigated will be the response in the scientific community to Bjorn Lomborg’s controversial book The Skeptical Environmentalist. By challenging what he calls the ‘litany’ of environmental science, Lomborg provokes the scientific community into dialogue about what their role is, as an epistemic community and as a body capable of political action.


I will propose interviews with both environmental scientists and negotiators with the aim of better understanding how the influence of the different groups manifested itself in the immediate case of the negotiations. In the case of the Stockholm Convention, it seems quite probable that some form of interviewing would be possible, since many of the people involved were Canadian and are likely to be sympathetic to the project.

Interviewing John Buccini, who chaired the Stockholm negotiations, might be particularly valuable. I wrote my qualitative methods take-home exam on interviewing in the form of an introductory letter to him and list of possible questions.

4) Literature review

My literature review will include both primary sources relating to the two agreements discussed above and the various articles, editorials, and documents related to the Lomborg controversy. There will also be secondary sources about Stockholm and Kyoto, as well as general secondary sources about the relation of science to policy. These will likely include sources from related fields such as global health. Hopefully, Peter Dauvergne will be able to send me at least a few source ideas for this initial bibliography.

This will probably consist of little more than a list of titles, sorted categorically.

Potentially relevant prior M.Phil theses

R.K. McMahon, Nuffield
‘An examination of bureaucratic motivation in the US Environmental Protection Agency and the Environment Agency for England and Wales’ (1999/2000)

L.R. Rodriguez, St Antony’s
‘The political economy of state-oil relations: Institutional case studies of Venezuela and Norway’ (2000/2001)

J.W. Cyhn, Green
‘The political economy of technology development’ (2000/2001)

Micah Schwartzman, Balliol
‘Towards a Defence of Public Reason’ (2002/2003)

Jonathan Quong, Nuffield
‘Deliberation and Diversity: An Essay on Public Reason and Identity Politics’ (2003/2004)

Other relevant theses

Lindsay Johnson, University of British Columbia (MA)
‘Advocates, Experts or Collaborative Epistemic Communities?’ (2006)

Last tinkered with: 15 May 2006

{ 13 comments… read them below or add one }

Anonymous May 15, 2006 at 4:37 pm

That’s a fifth of the minimum length right there. You should be fine, with another two weeks of ‘cracking.’

Anonymous May 15, 2006 at 8:27 pm

Some explicit discussion of the philosophy of science is probably required. No doubt, Tristan can suggest rafts of readings. Good for filling out the bibliography, at the very least.

tristan.laing May 15, 2006 at 8:31 pm

I would wonder what representation of science we could have other than as “objective”. Science is that which inquires into nature as object, as that which stands-over-against the subject. For the Greeks, nature was subject, that which stands-forth. Science understood as the representation of nature through standard models only becomes comprehensible when nature turns into object and the human turns into subject.

So, if science is not that which inquires into the object-sphere, that which takes its matter (whether rock or human) as an object, what is it?

Milan May 15, 2006 at 8:34 pm


It could just be one form of observation, among others, empowered and constrained in certain ways.

It’s good, for instance, at dealing with phenomenon that you can break apart, isolate, and understand the whole from the sum of the parts of. It’s a lot less good at stock markets, tornados, and cognition – all of which are complex dynamic systems that can’t be readily broken down into little bits you can test one at a time.

tristan.laing May 15, 2006 at 11:29 pm

That sounds awfully good at first, but I’m afraid we’re at a loss for forms of observation which don’t take the real to be object. In our society, isn’t the only alternative the religious one? (Which doesn’t take the real as object, but as the finished work of God)

Milan May 15, 2006 at 11:52 pm


Perhaps ‘science’ as an ideal is distinct from ‘science’ as a thing people do. It’s entirely possible that the latter is not objective, in many important ways.

I am taking objective here to mean, basically, that what science tells you about the world is valid to an extent that other kinds of observations about the world are not. And by ‘valid,’ I basically mean universally verifiable. It’s a bit like a hashing algorithm: relatively easy to check if it is correct or not, but much more difficult to create in the first place.

R.K, May 16, 2006 at 1:59 am

Speaking of Kyoto and the failure of states to address climate change, you should have a look at the mess that is the EU’s emissions trading scheme. Giving away permits to pollute, at levels in excess of quotas, achieves the perverse outcome of paying firms to pollute at the same time as not reducing emissions at all.

tristan.laing May 16, 2006 at 8:00 pm

I think I understand your meaning of objective. I would agree, if this is really what you mean, that no mode of inquiry can make judgements that are universally verifiable – because the modes of verification are specific to perticular modes of inquiry.

If you are interested in the objectivity of science, I would highly recommend some reading in Philosophy of Science, specifically Thomas Kuhn’s “Structure of Scientific Revolutions”. That would be a place to start, at least. The other good place to look would be the Edinborough School, which basically spear headed the discipline of SSK (the Sociology of Scientific Knolwedge).

Milan May 16, 2006 at 8:04 pm


Thanks a lot. I will try to at least skim Kuhn before I write the final version of my research design essay.

If you can recommend other titles to include in my provisional bibliography, they would be most welcome.

Lee July 22, 2006 at 6:32 pm

Just saw this. Sorry the RDE scared you! That really wasn’t the intention. And it wasn’t that good. And I never did that research in the end anyway. And it was boring. How did you do in the end?

Milan July 22, 2006 at 7:52 pm

“How did you do in the end?”

Quite badly. See this post.

Lee July 27, 2006 at 6:49 pm

Ah, I’m sorry to hear that. I wouldn’t worry too much though. I know it’s a big knock when people slate your stuff. Particularly when you’re more used to praise. Hopefully you can take it on the chin and recognise that good criticism is what spurs us on to greatness. Oxford’s standards are extremely exacting and occasionally arbitrary. Andy is probably right that it is a good start, and he knows better than the examiners whether your project is viable and on track. Trust him, because he is one of the best supervisors in the dept and you are lucky to have him.

I don’t know anything about science policy or anything like that but if you think it would be helpful I am always happy to have a look at anything you write and offer comments.

Finally, it may not be helpful and it is certainly boring (to my mind), but Dennis Ho wrote his MPhil thesis on the role of scientists in the development of Chinese energy policy in 2005. I proof-read it for him so I’m familiar with it. His basic line is that epistemic communities of scientists are able to virtually dictate policy when politicians are paralysed by uncertainty, i.e., scientific influence depends on social and political circumstances. That seems to me to be absolutely right as a general law: technocrats rule when politicians drool. (You must cite me if you ever use this fabulous line.) If interested, can be found in the Bod.

Milan August 2, 2006 at 9:22 pm


“Trust him, because he is one of the best supervisors in the dept and you are lucky to have him.”

I agree completely.

Regarding Dennis Ho’s thesis, I have added it to my list of sources to give a look-over to.

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