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Cash, David W. 2000. "'In Order to Aid in Diffusing Useful and Practical Information...': Cross-scale Boundary Organizations and Agricultural Extension." Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs (BCSIA) Discussion Paper 2000-10. Cambridge, MA: Environment and Natural Resources Program, Kennedy School of Government, Harvard University.

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Agriculture is increasingly an information-dependent sector of the economy.  It constantly experiences technological shifts, operates in markets embedded in a global economy, and is extremely sensitive to changes in natural systems (e.g., climatic, hydrological, soil, etc.).  Making near- and long-term decisions in response to each of these factors requires an understanding of a wide range of scientific and technical information.  This context in the U.S., combined with 150-year historical patterns and policy of expansion and development, has provided a crucible for the evolution of a government-supported system of research, education, and extension that has attempted to produce and diffuse scientific and technical information for agricultural decision-making.

Investigation of this system sheds light on emerging notions of how science and decision-making are linked, specifically probing the utility of the concept of boundary organization.  Boundary organizations are conceived as institutions that “straddle the shifting divide between politics and science” (Guston 1999, p. 1), mediating between science and policy, and facilitating the interaction between actors on either side or who cross the boundary.

By exploring one aspect of agricultural decision-making – water management in the U.S. Great Plains – this research deepens the understanding of boundary organizations in two significant ways.

First, this research provides a preliminary test of the hypothesis that “the presence of boundary organizations facilitates the transfer of relevant and usable knowledge between science and policy.” (Guston 1999, p.1), finding that boundary organizations have been instrumental in creating and maintaining a system of assessment and decision-making which successfully addresses depletion of the High Plains Aquifer in some parts of the region.  Boundary organizations have contributed to effective management by: 1) helping negotiate the boundary between science and decision-making; 2) providing accountability on both sides of the boundary; 3) transferring information; 4) coordinating information production; 5) helping capitalize on scale-dependent comparative advantages (e.g., by coordinating modeling efforts); and 6) by encouraging adaptive management.

Second, this research extends the concept of boundary organization beyond the science-policy dimension to incorporate the dimension of levels of organization.  Boundary organizations are thus characterized as not only helping bridge science and policy, but linking science and policy across different levels (e.g., from the local to state to national level).


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