The Nexus Observatory is a flagship initiative of the United Nations University Institute for Integrated Management of Material Fluxes and of Resources (UNU-FLORES) that strives to bridge the science-policy divide. The science-policy divide is at the heart of the disconnect between scientific research output and the apparently ad hoc nature of decision-making. We have argued in Governing the Nexus (Springer, 2015) that the science-policy divide in environmental governance is apparent in five distinct forms:
- (a) a focus on infrastructure versus services;
- (b) centralised versus decentralised planning and governance;
- (c) public versus private management models;
- (d) short-term versus long-term planning perspectives and
- (e) efficiency versus equity goals.
The persistence of this divide in environmental governance results in fragmented decision-making, which in turn leads to an inability on the part of decision makers to respond effectively to environmental risks, such as droughts or floods, that could have devastating impacts on human well-being and livelihood security. The Nexus Observatory is driven by the desire to enable governments at national and regional levels to better understand the causes of the science-policy divide and provide them with necessary tools that support integrated management of environmental resources, services and associated risks.
The Nexus Observatory is premised on the idea that an improved “evidence base” will help bridge the gap between science and policy. One of the prerequisites for evidence-based decision-making is access to disaggregated, reliable, and frequent information at appropriate scales on the incidence and quantum of environmental risks and the potential impact on human well-being and livelihood security. Furthermore, poor feedback loops between those who collect and analyse data and those who have to make critical decisions with regard to the allocation of financial and human resources may make it challenging to respond effectively to environmental risks.
The Nexus Observatory advances the think tank function of the United Nations University (UNU) by seeking to establish seamless links between research, teaching, and policy advocacy to effectively address the science-policy divide in environmental governance. The online medium offers an opportunity to quickly respond to the ever-changing demands of nexus practitioners. Nexus practitioners include decision makers and scholars who are confronted with challenges of sustainable development, the resolution of which in many instances necessitates addressing trade-offs and the rebound effects of development interventions.
The teaching component of the Nexus Observatory is supported by the blended learning function. The blended learning function is advanced by an online platform (Moodle) and content (curriculum, teaching material, and videos). The first Advisory Committee meeting of UNU-FLORES pointed to some of the pitfalls of already existing online courses that included issues of quality, lack of a research focus and high investment of staff time in delivering courses and responding to the queries of course participants. The first round of online courses, developed as part of the blended learning function of the Nexus Observatory, took serious note of the advice offered by the Advisory Committee and focused on testing the technical and didactic features of the blended learning function of the Observatory. This report highlights lessons learnt with regard to the design and delivery of online courses, and offers specific recommendations on how the links to research and policy advocacy may be strengthened in the future.
To respond to the guidance of the Advisory Committee, the utmost care was taken to develop curricula based on state-of-the-art research undertaken by leading experts covering nexus-relevant topics of life cycle costs, multiple-use water services, and intergovernmental fiscal relations. The curricula were peer reviewed and published successfully as SpringerBriefs. With regard to delivery of the online courses themselves, we introduced several important innovations to increase the policy-relevance of courses and reduce the teaching load of UNU-FLORES staff.
First, we experimented with the use of portfolios as a form of course assessment. Second, we developed effective partnerships with German partners in Saxony – Technische Universität Dresden (TU Dresden) and Leibniz Institute of Ecological Urban and Regional Development (IOER) – to deliver the actual course lectures and respond to student queries every week during the three months during which the courses ran. These innovations offer us lessons that can help us to strengthen the links between the Blended Learning Platform (Window 2)1 of the Nexus Observatory and Windows 1, 3, and 4 of the Nexus Observatory, and to enhance the capacity of the mechanism to bridge the science-policy divide.