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Giving Advice to Government: Insights for Early Career Researchers

29 March 2021

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Reported by Anthony Lindley, CSaP Policy Intern (February-May 2021)

How should researchers synthesise diverse evidence and construct compelling answers to policy questions? What are the differences between being an honest broker of information and an issue advocate? How can early-career researchers get involved with the world of policy?

In early March 2021, the Centre for Science and Policy (CSaP) hosted two professional development events for NERC-funded doctoral students across the University, with the goal of giving doctoral researchers insight into policy engagement and the process of developing policy briefs.

During the first session, a panel of speakers were invited to speak to the students on the research-policy interface and on their personal experiences of the route into policymaking from academia. Nicola Buckley (CSaP Associate Director) provided an overview of the structure and goals of the centre and of other policy engagement networks across higher education. Highlighting the need for researchers to cooperate with networks of policy influencers such as NGOs, Industry and civil society organisations, Ms Buckley stressed the importance of network building and cross-cutting interactions across stakeholder communities.

Dr Claire Craig (Provost, Queen’s College Oxford) gave an overview of her own experiences moving from the Natural Sciences into policymaking: the challenges she had faced and the hard-won successes she had enjoyed while shaping government thinking on a variety of complex environmental and technological issues. Dr Craig discussed the responsibilities of being a science advisor in government, explaining two contrasting modes for sharing scientific knowledge. Firstly, it is possible to find that you are in the room with the minister, MP, or civil servant at just the moment when they require your expertise. These encounters, while satisfying, are distinct from the second mode, in which persistent and thorough projects result in fundamental shifts in government thinking on an issue and shape the culture going forward.

It’s a house with many doors; the land of policy and government’: Dr Craig stressed that getting into policymaking is possible at all career stages, and that while some PhD students may choose and be suited for civil service work immediately after finishing their doctorate; others may decide to transition from pure academia into policy after establishing a successful research career. Dr Craig also drew upon the framework of American academic social scientist Roger A Pielke and contrasted the paradigms of ‘issue advocacy’ and ‘honest brokerage’, arguing that the latter set of behaviours is preferable for scientists who seek to improve the quality of evidence in policy decision-making.

Concluding her presentation, Dr Craig encouraged academics to show humility and respect toward policymakers and politicians, noting that “so much of the media and common talk in academia portrays decision makers, particularly politicians, as focussed on power struggles, on personalities, on simplistic narratives, on short term gains, on emotions – all the things which seem simplistically to be antithetical to science.” However, scientists should always keep in mind that “running countries is an amazingly big task and most of what happens in government, most of the time, is sensible, often incredibly bright people, doing the best they can at speed and under pressure”.

Subsequent panel presentations were delivered by Professor Bill Sutherland (Miriam Rothschild Professor of Conservation Biology, Department of Zoology), Mr Sam Reed (Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy) and Dr Emily Shuckburgh (Director, Cambridge Zero & Reader in Environmental Data Science at the Department of Computer Science and Technology).

During this session, Professor Sutherland identified three key activities that researchers can undertake to influence policymaking:

  1. Horizon Scanning is an important modality by which academics can influence policy and stressed that these activities are often insufficiently invested in by policymakers, who are often preoccupied with near-term issues and extreme time constraints. Giving the example of microplastic pollution, Professor Sutherland illustrated the need for scientists to anticipate future issues of importance before they become more widely appreciated.
  2. Agenda Setting, involves the shaping of political decision making and public discourse by determining which questions which are most pertinent and directing research priorities.
  3. Evidence Synthesis, the collation of existing scientific knowledge, is particularly important in time-critical decision-making including emergency situations.

Complimenting these points, Sam Reed’s presentation focused on narrowing down the specifics of the policymaking process, discussing the ‘lifecycle’ of a policy question and the stages through which evidence is considered and a decision made. He noted that what often what feels from an external point of view to be the best option turns out to be unrealistic, poor value for money, or too complex to be implemented on a practical level. Here, Mr Reed highlighted the necessity to build upon existing policies and institutions rather than starting from scratch. Mr Reed also reiterated points from all previous speakers about the complexity of the challenges faced by policymakers and the value of viewing science as an important, but not exclusive, type of evidence within the policy generation process.

Closing the session, Dr Emily Shuckburgh left the participants with advice on a three-step process for developing policy briefings and giving advice to government:

  1. Ask: What is the message you want to convey? Dr Shuckburgh discussed the importance of centring the audience to which scientists deliver their advice and the context within which their expertise is placed.
  2. Act:There are opportunities to be both reactive and proactive when you want to interface with policy’. Dr Shuckburgh drew on examples such as the IPCC and work done by the government on ‘Green Recovery’ to illustrate proactive scientific inputs to government; and opportunities to input into select committees and council groups as examples of reactive approaches to specific policy demands.
  3. Adapt: Engagement with policy is very much a two-way process and understanding the most critical policy needs allows better directing of research efforts.
Nicola Buckley

Centre for Science and Policy, University of Cambridge

Dr Claire Craig

Queen's College Oxford

Sam Reed

Department for Business, Energy & Industrial Strategy (BEIS)

Dr Emily Shuckburgh

University of Cambridge

Professor Bill Sutherland

Department of Zoology, University of Cambridge