Policy Lunchbox: How to increase your policy impact as a research scientist

Posted on December 17, 2018   by Eva Scholtus

Dr. Steve Ormerod, Professor of Biosciences at Cardiff University, Co-Director of the Cardiff Water Research Institute, and Vice President of the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB), spoke at this month's Policy Lunchbox. In his talk on the importance of academic engagement with policy, Steve shared his personal experiences in engaging with the policy process and how other scientists can maximise their policy impact. Here, Eva Scholtus from the Microbiology Society’s Policy Team, summarises Steve’s key take-home messages for academics wanting to engage with policy-makers.

Ian Britton, Flickr
Ian Britton, Flickr

From picking a pub for a night out to deciding on the management principles of ecosystems, most of the decisions we make rest on political interactions. When it comes to nature conservation, such interactions have global ramifications. Although Steve’s research activities are explicitly ecological, solutions to the problems of freshwater ecosystems through policy are an important focus of his work. His research has influenced the policy-making and advocacy activities of a range of government bodies and major NGOs for years.

Policy beginnings

During the 1980s, acid rain was a major environmental concern. Rivers and lakes were affected over large areas of Britain, Europe and North America. Steve’s PhD focused on understanding the effects of acid rain on fresh water ecosystems and his research led to the delivery of the world's first data revealing change effects on upland river ecosystems. At a time when Britain was known as the “dirty man of Europe” the Department for Environment used Steve’s findings to set up the acid water review group. For Steve, this marked the beginning of an exciting policy-oriented scientific career that gave him the opportunity to solve important problems. 

One thing leads to another…

When sharing his experience in engaging with the policy process, Steve explained that one thing often leads to another. Under his chairmanship, the RSPB became increasingly active in the policy process and multiplied projects to promote nature conservation amongst policy-makers. Steve highlighted some key examples of when the RSPB influenced environmental decision-making:

The State of Nature report brought together data from over 50 organisations highlighting the dramatic consequences of intensive agricultural practices and climate change on the wildlife and the environment, with the UK faring worse than most other countries. This powerful consortium mobilised the media and made a compelling political point. A new report is on its way for 2019, shortly in advance of the 2020 deadline for meeting the Aichi targets, global biodiversity targets agreed under the Convention for Biological Diversity.

For the Wallasea Island Wild Coast Project, the RSBP worked with Crossrail – a British project to build major new railway connections under central London – who were seeking a beneficiary to reuse the clean spoil from their tunnelling. RSPB transformed the clay, chalk and gravel from the Crossrail partnership into 1,500 acres of tidal wildlife habitat. The Wallasea Island Wild Coast project is now a landmark conservation and engineering scheme - the largest of its type in Europe. It is also a great example of how environment regulation can enable economic activity and have a tremendous policy impact.

© BerndBrueggemann/Thinkstock

Wallasea Island in Essex is the site of the largest coastal
habitat restoration ever undertaken in the UK.

Influencing policy by becoming a trusted public servant

In order to increase their policy impact, research scientists should be aware of the complex range of factors involved in policy interactions. Government is an obvious one; this is where most policy formulation is carried out. Less obvious are professional bodies such as the Chartered Institute of Ecology and Environmental Management, learned societies like the British Ecological Society, the civil society, and the business sector. These groups influence one another in a constant “battle of ideas”. Steve emphasised key considerations for scientists wishing to participate and influence such processes:

  • Research with obvious applications and a problem-solving vocation is more likely to influence policy-making than exploratory, blue-skies research;
  • Literature reviews are invaluable opportunities to synthesise existing information, expose knowledge gaps, and advise on how to efficiently use available evidence;
  • Networking and collaborating with policy organisations allow scientists to share their research and to gain a better understanding of the policy needs and regulatory contexts that they seek to inform;
  • Scientific research has intrinsic worth value for solving problems. Those that embrace the “public-service mentality” are in the best position to effectively influence policy-making.

Steve’s parting message for increasing policy impact is to remain scientifically objective when expressing an opinion. Throughout his career, Steve has been just as ready to give evidence to the central electricity generating board as he has been to inform the regulators of electricity generation. One thing that he has learned is that, if they maintain integrity and stay true to the evidence, research scientists can become trusted advisors capable of significantly impacting the world of policy.