Blog Post
by Ryan Meyer / California Ocean Science Trust

What is a ‘boundary organization’ and why should you care? -- Part 1

February 21, 2014

This post is the first of a two-part series on the roles that boundary organizations play in linking science with decision making. Click here to view part two.

There’s so much that scientists can do to connect their work with users! Look no further than the pages of this blog for evidence of that. On the other hand, there’s only so much that scientists can do to connect their work with users!

A scientist working at a university needs to teach, get grants, publish papers, mentor students, and serve her department, among other things. Linking science with decision making requires working across the cultural and institutional boundaries that divide academia from potential users of academic knowledge. While it is critical for scientists to make time to engage, the reality is that making your science useful is a full-time job on its own. Also, why should we place this burden entirely on scientists?

This is where “boundary organizations” come in. These are organizations whose central purpose is to create and sustain meaningful and mutually beneficial links between knowledge producers and users. They are, we believe, an extremely important component of the complex picture of science and policy that swirls around any natural resource issue. (Full disclosure… we work at one!)

What exactly is a boundary organization, and what does it do? The term is thrown around more and more these days, and there’s no end-all definition. Researchers investigating the links between science and decision making have looked at boundary organizations in different ways, and are constantly tinkering with criteria, terminology, and theory about best practices.

Here are some robust and, we think, useful research findings about the roles boundary organizations play:

1) Translation

Boundary organizations speak multiple languages. They might be conversant in, for example, minutiae of water management bureaucracy and the cutting edge of dynamic and statistical approaches to modeling inter-annual climate variability. Knowing these languages allows for more than just effective communication. It can help to create and sustain relationships, or get the right people in the room at the right time, with the right agenda.

2) Participation and Co-production

When producers and users of knowledge collaborate, the product is often much more useful and valuable than when knowledge is produced in isolation. Boundary organizations excel at creating and sustaining the space–physical, temporal, institutional, political, etc.–where co-production can occur. At the Ocean Science Trust, we often describe this as “process expertise.” We work to understand what would be a good outcome from multiple perspectives, and then design a process than can get us to that co-produced outcome.

3) Dual Accountability

In cultivating and sustaining relationships with both producers and users of knowledge, boundary organizations become accountable to these different worlds. Both rely on the boundary organization in different ways. For example, scientists might be looking to see that their work is represented effectively and accurately. Users might be watching to see that their needs are being met, and trusting that the information presented to them is credible, legitimate and salient. This dual–or multiple–accountability circumstance is both precarious and a source of power. It can also be very hard to establish and maintain (see the case study by Parker and Crona, listed below).

In our next post we’ll discuss some of these activities in practice using examples from Ocean Science Trust. That said, there are a variety of boundary organizations out there–independent institutions, affiliated with universities, and more. If you work with a boundary organization, or have questions about them, tell us about it in the comments!


Senior Scientist Ryan Meyer and Program Manager Emily Knight work for the California Ocean Science Trust, a boundary organization that advances a constructive role for science in decision-making by promoting collaboration and mutual understanding among scientists, citizens, managers, and policy-makers.

Further Reading

Dilling, L., & Lemos, M. C. (2011). Creating usable science: Opportunities and constraints for climate knowledge use and their implications for science policy. Global Environmental Change, 21(2). doi:10.1016/j.gloenvcha.2010.11.006

Guston, D. H. (2001). Boundary Organizations in Environmental Policy and Science: An Introduction. Science, Technology, & Human Values, 26(4), 399–408. Retrieved from<399:BOIEPA>2.0.CO;2-D

Parker, J. N., & Crona, B. I. (2012). On Being All Things to All People: Boundary Organizations and the Contemporary Research University. Social Studies Of Science, 42(2).

SPARC. (2005). Climate Science Policy: Lessons from the RISAs. (E. C. McNie, R. A. Pielke Jr, & D. Sarewitz, Eds.). Honolulu, HI: Workshop Report from the Science Policy Assessment and Research on Climate Project. Retrieved from

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