Sarah Michaels

University of Nebraska
Political Science/Public Policy Center

Department of Political Science
533 Oldfather Hall
Lincoln, NE
68588-0328 |  Visit Personal Website

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Dr. Sarah Michaels' research interests are in water resources policy and governance, uncertainty and knowledge uptake in public policy decision making, the interfaces between science and policy, comparative environmental policy and regional governance. Her research agenda pivots around a central question key to appreciating, anticipating and responding to challenges stemming from the dynamics between society and nature: How do decision makers acquire, use and disseminate knowledge to make policy? In her current work she considers how uncertainty and actionable science come to be considered in and to influence policies affecting socio-environmental systems, notably water resources management and governance.

Michaels, S. 2015. "Probabilistic Forecasting and the Reshaping of Flood Risk Management." Journal of Natural Resources Policy Research 7 (1):41-51.
Abstract: Advances in probabilistic forecasting, notably based on ensemble prediction systems, are transforming flood risk management. Four trends shaping the assimilation of probabilistic flood forecasting into flood risk management are longer forecasting lead times, advances in decision-making aids, inclusion of probabilistic forecasting in hazard mitigation and collaboration between researchers and managers. Confronting how to use probabilistic flood forecasts to make binary management decisions for reducing flood losses requires developing institutional capacity while acknowledging flood risk estimation is one component of decision making under uncertainty in an evolving policy landscape.
DOI: 10.1080/19390459.2014.970800
Gruszczynski, M.W. and Michaels, S. 2014. “Localized Concerns, Scientific Argumentation, Framing and Federalism.” Journal of Natural Resources Policy Research 6 (2-3):173-193.
Abstract: A federal government system creates opportunities for proponents and opponents of environmental policy change to shift the institutional home where a policy decision is made and then invoke reasoning tailored for the new venue and to retry or reframe arguments. Content analysis of North Dakota state legislative and US Congressional committee hearings preceding authorization of an outlet connecting Devils Lake, North Dakota to the binational Hudson Bay drainage basin revealed: (1) State and federal legislators were equally likely to invoke constituents’ localized concerns in framing arguments, and (2) Scientific evidence did not hold sway in either state or federal hearings.
DOI: 10.1080/19390459.2014.910912
Michaels, S., Holmes, J. and Shaxson, L. 2014. “Science Communication and the Tension Between Evidence-Based and Inclusive Features of Policy Making.” New Trends in Earth Science Outreach and Engagement: The Nature of Communication 38:83-92. Drake, J. L., Kontar, Y. Y. and Rife, G., eds. New York: Advances in Natural and Technological Hazards Research, Springer.
Abstract: Communicating science in the public policy domain requires navigating the tension between two features of good practice in modern policy making: developing evidence based approaches and inclusive deliberative processes. Results of policy-making processes that have sought to maximize these different perspectives in parallel have been and will continue to be disappointing. Ensuring the “quality” of evidence and of supporting the integration of the different kinds of inputs in the decision-making process requires nimble and astute tension brokers who undertake knowledge brokering, reconcile different ways of knowing, and recognize when reconciliation is not achievable and/or not desirable.
URL: http://
Gruszczynski, M.W. and Michaels, S. 2012. "The Evolution of Elite Framing Following Enactment of Legislation." Policy Sciences 45 (4):359-384.
Abstract: The study of policy framing enables the investigation of how elites conceptualize policy issues. While the dominant investigative work on elite framing has been within the mass media, we demonstrate the utility of an elite framing approach in a political institution, the U.S. Congress. We argue for moving to a ‘‘life-cycle’’ approach to policy framing that recognizes the evolution of elite framing attempts as implementation of a law deviates from its legislative intent, basing our approach out of the issue-attention cycle theory put forth by Downs (Public Interest 28:38–50, 1972). Framing efforts by policy advocates do not end after legislation has been enacted or policy changed. Elites who have been unsuccessful in achieving their policy aims continue to advocate for their preferred outcomes by altering their framing strategies. We demonstrate this by applying evolutionary factor analysis to investigate 10 Congressional committee hearings held between 1957 and 2006 pertaining to federal funding for the Garrison Diversion Unit in North Dakota. From the perspective of proponents of diverting water from the Missouri River, how the Congressional debate over the Unit progressed constituted policy regression. This is reflected in the evolution of elite framing over the period studied. Our analysis uncovers the emergence of four evolutionary frames. Initial frames emphasized the benefits to be derived from water diversion, while subsequent frames reflected a more defensive posture emphasizing the limited harm that water diversion would cause. This research demonstrates the consequences of legislative implementation delay for elite framing attempts.
Michaels, S. and Tyre, A.J. 2012. "How Indeterminism Shapes Ecologists’ Contributions to Managing Socio-Ecological Systems." Conservation Letters 5 (4):289-295.
Abstract: To make a difference in policy making about socio-ecological systems, ecologists must grasp when decision makers are amenable to acting on ecological expertise and when they are not. To enable them to do so we present a matrix for classifying a socio-ecological system by the extent of what we don’t know about its natural components and the social interactions that affects them. We use four examples, Midcontinent Mallards, Laysan Ducks, Pallid Sturgeon and Rocky Mountain Grey Wolves to illustrate how the combination of natural and social source of indeterminism matters. Where social indeterminism is high, ecologists can expand the range of possible science-based options decision makers might consider even while recognizing societal-based concerns rather than science will dominate decision making. In contrast, where natural indeterminism is low, ecologists can offer reasonably accurate predictions that may well serve as inputs into decision making. Depending on the combination of natural and social indeterminism characterizing a particular circumstance, ecologists have different roles to play in informing socio-ecological system management.
DOI: 10.1111/j.1755-263X.2012.00241.x
Michaels, S. 2009. "Matching Knowledge Brokering Strategies to Environmental Policy Problems and Settings." Environmental Science and Policy 12 (7):994-1011.
Abstract: The benefits of utilizing intermediaries to broker understanding between environmental scientists and policy makers have become widely touted. Yet little is known about the tasks boundary spanners undertake to develop environmental policy solutions and how these tasks fit into frameworks intended to advance public policy decision making. Such frameworks may be constructed to aid decision makers in differentiating between the types of environmental policy issues that confront them or the policy settings in which they are operating. Consequently, this paper examines how six different knowledge brokering strategies; informing, consulting, matchmaking, engaging, collaborating and building capacity might be employed in responding to different types of environmental policy problems or policy settings identified in decision aiding frameworks. Using real world examples, four frameworks are reviewed. For the different problem types or policy settings described in the decision aiding frameworks primary knowledge brokering strategies are identified. While the frameworks differ in their conceptual constructions, the applicability of specific knowledge brokering strategies serve as a commonality across particular problem types and policy settings.
Michaels, S., and de Loë, R. 2010. "Importing Notions of Governance: Two examples from the History of Canadian Water Policy." American Review of Canadian Studies 40 (4):495-507.
Abstract: As stress on water resources increases from growing human demands and a changingrnclimate, recognition of the need to develop effective strategies for water governance is expanding. Consequently, it is timely to consider the legacy of effective instances of water policy innovation that have been highly influential in water resource management in Canada. We present two historical examples of policy transfer ? that is, when policy employed in one jurisdiction is adapted for use in another. The first is the late nineteenth-century adoption of water allocation law in the North-West Territories thatrnwas a noteworthy departure from how water had been allocated in eastern Canada. The second is the twentieth-century introduction of conservation authorities in Ontario as regional watershed-based management entities. These examples illustrate how, in an era of expert-driven natural resources management, notions of governance were adapted from Australia and the United States. They also reveal how the biophysically-based policy context of water influences which policy transfer mechanisms are appropriate for lesson-learning. We conclude that the potential for policy transfer and lesson-learning to shorten the policy innovation timeline must be viewed as a critical response tornurgent and evolving demands on water.
Tyre, A.J., and Michaels, S. 2011. "Confronting Socially Generated Uncertainty in Adaptive Management." Journal of Environmental Management 92:1365-1370.
Abstract: As more and more organizations with responsibility for natural resource management adopt adaptive management as the rubric in which they wish to operate, it becomes increasingly important to consider the sources of uncertainty inherent in their endeavors. Without recognizing the diverse sources of uncertainty and their implications, efforts to manage adaptively at the least will prove frustrating and at the worst will prove damaging to the very natural resources that are the management targets. There will be more surprises and those surprises potentially may prove at the very least unwanted and at the worst devastating. These will occur in no small measure because of the inadequacy of the mental model being employed. Consequently, we articulate what is uncertainty, what it is not, and the consequences of being unclear about the distinction using case studies of efforts to manage three wildlife species; Hector?s Dolphins, American Alligators and Pallid Sturgeon. Three management failures are common to all of them; (1) to articulate quantitative objectives that can be traded off, (2) to recognize the potential for shifting objectives (non-stationarity), and (3) to acknowledge the social source of uncertainty, and hence increased risk of surprise. As an antedote, we recommend employing a holistic treatment of indeterminism, a term that includes both uncertainty and risk, that addresses method of quantification, source and reducibility.

Substantive Focus:
Energy and Natural Resource Policy
Environmental Policy PRIMARY
Governance SECONDARY
Comparative Public Policy

Theoretical Focus:
Policy Process Theory
Agenda-Setting, Adoption, and Implementation PRIMARY
Policy Analysis and Evaluation SECONDARY