Practical advice from the “Making an Impact: Understanding the ways you can engage with the UK Parliament and Policy” event, by Kasia Mikołajczak and Lydia Cole
Chances are that if you’re reading this blog and working in ecology, it’s because you want your work to have a positive impact on the environment. And you’ve probably heard before that most of our prized outputs – scientific publications – are never read by policy-makers. So, what can we do to make our science be heard and influence policy? This was the topic discussed at the recent BES Conservation Ecology SIG and BES Policy Team joint event “Making an Impact: Understanding the ways you can engage with the UK Parliament and Policy”, organised on the 6th of March in the swanky new BES offices in London. Our speakers included some fantastic experts from the science-policy interface: Brendan Costelloe (BES Policy team), Steve Ormerod (Cardiff University), Alice Milner (Royal Holloway University of London), Miriam Grace (University of Cambridge) and Martina Girvan (Arcadis). The meeting was packed full of useful, practical advice and here we share some of the nuggets of wisdom picked up on the day.
2020 – the ‘Super Year’ for nature
First of all, if you want to pitch your science to policymakers, it’s useful to know what policy is, who the policy-makers are and how the policy process actually works. For a great overview of this topic, head over to the BES policy guides. The year 2020 is a great time to start your journey of engagement with policymaking. It has been touted as the UN ‘Super year’ for nature, with several important events planned over the coming months, including among others the Climate Summit in November in Glasgow, and the Nature Summit hosted in October by the Convention on Biological Biodiversity in Yunnan, China, where a new framework will be agreed that will aim to reverse catastrophic biodiversity losses by 2030. As such, politicians will be under a lot of pressure to understand and engage with environmental topics and may be particularly open to listening to science on this matter. There should be lots of opportunities to get involved* so keep your eyes open for those!
Engagement with the Parliament
One of the most effective ways for scientists to influence policy in the UK may be by engaging with the Select Committees. These are made up of cross-party parliamentarians working on a particular topic. The Environmental Audit Committee is one of the most popular, encouragingly! It can be hard for Members of Parliament to get a spot on it. The select committees produce reports for the government on relevant thematic topics, and while any recommendations they make do not have to be acted on by Government, they are often quite influential as a result of the media coverage they get. The Government is also obliged to respond to the Select Committee reports publicly.
If a recommendation made in a report is translated into policy by the Government, it is often relatively straightforward to link that policy action to a particular piece of evidence in the report. This makes for a great demonstration of the policy impact of that evidence, which, if provided by an academic via a publication or consultation, can be cited in, e.g. an as part of the Research Excellence Framework (REF). The clerks of the select committees are often trained scientists themselves, and therefore encourage the report recommendations to be as evidence-based as possible. The main ways to engage with the committees involve responding to calls for written and oral evidence. Occasionally, committees also commission research to fill a specific knowledge gap, which is another pathway for scientists to engage.
Governmental agencies and professional networks
Another way to engage with environmental policymaking is through the government agencies such as the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra). These have multiple formal and informal teams working on a variety of topics. To get involved in these groups, networking is key. Often it is helpful to reach out to someone you already know who’s got contacts in Defra to help you connect with relevant civil servants working on the topic you’re interested in and get that first introduction. Some excellent ways of getting your foot in the door and understanding this kind of work are structured experiences such as the NERC-DEFRA fellowships, UKRI doctoral internships, and BES policy fellowships and internships. We should also remember that impact isn’t generated solely through government policy. Getting involved in non-ecological professional networks (such as the ECI Natural Capital Taskforce) can be an effective and creative way to generate positive outcomes for nature by bringing attention to ecological problems, or ‘mainstreaming’ ecology, in other sectors such as civil engineering.
The Elevator pitch
But what if you do have direct access to a policy-maker? What if you find yourself serendipitously stuck in an elevator with a politician and a few precious moments to convey that burning policy idea in your head? An effective formula for getting their attention is to frame your research as a solution to their problem, e.g. “I can help you deliver your commitment on the Environment Bill…”. Then you can follow on with your solution, “we have a once in a lifetime opportunity to…”, and finish with what you want in exchange, e.g. to get a meeting with a person of influence.
OK, I want to engage. How can I make sure that my contributions will be useful to policy-makers?
Most of all, your message needs to be as simple as possible and succinct – imagine that you’re writing for someone who only gets to read when rushing between meetings! Second, policy-makers are interested in hearing solutions, so you should always offer recommendations if you can. Remember that politicians are also humans, so use stories to bring your research to life! Make sure your assessment of evidence is broad and comprehensive, avoid cherry-picking or referencing only your own research. Assessments need also to be balanced and unbiased and to consider different sides of a policy divide. Any conflicts of interests need to be declared – there’s no space for hidden advocacy agendas. As scientists, our main currency is the trust that the public and politicians vest in our data as being objective, so we need to be careful about balancing our personal beliefs and making sure to stay objective. Lastly, don’t get too frustrated if your recommendations ultimately aren’t implemented. Academic research is only one of the many forms of evidence and factors that influence policy-makers.
If you found this information interesting, check out the post with all the slides from the event and make sure to follow the Twitter accounts for updates and opportunities to engage with policy yourself, such as @DEFRA and others listed @BESConservation and @BESPolicy. Also, keep an eye out here for specific opportunities on our Conservation Policy webpage for ecological scientists and practitioners to get involved in policy.