Exploring the role of evidence and expertise in effective policy making for environmental science

5 April 2017


Reported by Anna Fee, NERC-funded CSaP Policy Intern (January-April 2017

A CSaP professional development policy workshop for early-career environmental scientists at Cambridge gave them an insight into the role of science, evidence and expertise in public policy.

Funded by the NERC Doctoral Training Partnership at Cambridge, this workshop provided PhD students with an opportunity to hear examples of some of the challenges faced by governments in areas such as climate change, conservation and natural disasters – and the important role that scientists play in addressing these issues.

Setting the scene Graeme Reid, Professor of Science and Research Policy at University College London, highlighted the power of narrative as one of the most important factors to consider when presenting evidence to decision makers in government. “Politicians engage with the narrative of an issue far more than lists of figures” he said. Policy makers need the full picture so presenting evidence in a way which highlights the areas of importance is key, but should be framed within the larger context.

Graeme’s advice was further endorsed by a panel of academic experts, who gave examples of the relevance of their work to policy makers.

William Sutherland, the Miriam Rothschild Professor in Conservation Biology, discussed his horizon scanning work exploring emerging science and technologies which may have relevance to public policy in the future. His advice for PhD students was to find and talk to decision makers in government who are interested in the work they do. He explained the necessity of presenting policy makers with half page summaries of their work, rather than long scientific papers, and advised the students to look for training opportunities in government and other policy organisations.

Dr Emily Shuckburgh, Head of Open Oceans Research Group at British Antarctic Survey, described the different channels whereby research can have an impact on public policy. Examples included more traditional channels such as government departments applying research evidence directly and commissioning further research. More indirect methods included using the BBC to raise awareness of issues such as the effects of climate change on the Polar Regions, which Emily has been involved with through her work with NERC.

Dr Emily So, Director of Cambridge University Centre for Risk in the Built Environment, explained how her work in earthquake risk assessment has been used in the development of alert systems which allow earthquake prone regions to practice response and test procedures and gives clear information about the damage caused and the estimated loss of life. She added that the UK government is conducting a Foresight Project into looking at how scientific evidence can be used by policy makers to make buildings more resilient and offer recommendations for disaster limitation strategies.

Dr Emma Hennessey, Head of Science and Innovation Team and Deputy Chief Scientific Adviser in the Foreign and Commonwealth Office described her work organising research programmes on topics such as agriculture, cloning and emergency issues. She explained how decisions must take into account all different areas of the policy issue, not just scientific evidence, and often have to be made very quickly. She emphasised the importance of a clear narrative when communicating recommendations on an issue to ministers.

Dr Jane Rumble, Head of Polar Regions Department in the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, described the UK’s role in Arctic and Antarctic policy making and research. She advised that academics who show conviction and who are willing to engage in discussion with policy makers, are more likely to influence policy.

The workshop included a role-playing activity where, working in ‘policy teams’, attendees were tasked with making recommendations to their ‘minister’ – a role played by former Deputy CSA in Defra, Dr Miles Parker – on the position the UK should take on a proposed scheme to restore Arctic sea ice.

One of the attendees at the workshop described her experience as: “Really engaging, interesting and highly relevant. I’d recommend all academics to do something like this.

(Banner Image: via Flickr. Thumbnail Image: via Flickr)