Synthesising Compelling Evidence: Insights for Early Career Researchers

7 April 2021


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

How do scientific advisors bring together evidence to answer policy challenges? How can the best possible recommendations be constructed under severe time constraints? How can early-career researchers get involved with the world of policy?

On the 9th of March, NERC-funded doctoral students attended the second workshop session in a two-part professional development programme hosted by the Centre for Science and Policy (CSaP). The objective of this session was to give PhD students hands-on experience of delivering scientific advice to policymakers. Students were divided into groups and asked to produce policy briefings to be judged by a panel featuring Professor Sir David King, Professor Bill Sutherland and Sam Reed. This exercise was accompanied by presentations exploring speakers’ career trajectories in academia and policy.

Bridges Between Academia and Government:

During the event, Sir David spoke about his experience as Chief Scientific Advisor to former Prime Minister Tony Blair, and his current work as Chair of the Centre for Climate Repair at the University of Cambridge. He emphasised that the role of a scientific advisor is to “act as a bridge between the current knowledge base… in the university sector, where knowledge is always pushing at the frontiers, and the decision-making process in government.” Sir David was Chief Scientific Advisor during the foot-and-mouth disease epizootic, during which he observed that government was underprepared and ill-equipped to deal with unexpected crises. This realization prompted him to lead the creation of a foresight programme within GO SCIENCE which has explored issues including AI, future pandemics, and climate change.

Meanwhile, Dr Ethan Aines, a policy assistant at CSaP and Cambridge Zero, discussed his work developing policy recommendations for local authorities in Cambridge and Peterborough regarding the predicted impacts of climate change under various future emission scenarios. His work relies on careful synthesis of the best available data, a vital skill for scientific advisors. When working at the nexus between science and policymaking, Dr Aines stressed the need to avoid jargon, to use accessible language and to assume the policymaking audience does not share your scientific background.

Five Key Tips for Advising Government:

  1. Lead with the policy proposal: By presenting the most important information at the start, the key message will be retained even if ministers’ attention, which is in high demand, is lost before concluding the presentation.

  1. Evaluate the potential for failure: Failure is always possible, so ensuring that all eventualities have been considered, and that mitigating options have been assessed, will provide a level of reassurance essential to secure approval on a new policy measure.

  1. Outline costs and benefits: Will the policy have a net financial cost to the taxpayer? Is there potential for long-term gain? Government officials will be more likely to consider a new policy if it has an economic benefit, regardless of other impacts.

  1. Use existing resources: Ministers aim to avoid creating new institutions wherever possible. By highlighting existing institutional resources which could be utilised, the chance of adopting a new policy will be increased.

  1. Highlight potential international benefits: The government cares about national reputation and prestige. Demonstrating that a new policy could set the UK up as a leader will make the policy more attractive to ministers.

Conservation and Climate Change: An Exercise in Giving Advice to Government

As part of a hands-on exercise in policy briefing development during this professional development day, students were divided into groups to prepare policy recommendations on topics ranging from woodlands management and the reintroduction of lynxes to coastal erosion and carbon pricing. They proposed the following policy strategies:

  1. Should we establish more woodlands in the UK and if so where? Students exploring this topic recommended the phased expansion of forested areas and a requirement within planning laws for trees to be planted with each new housing development. They stressed that the UK would benefit from expanding woodlands due to benefits for biodiversity, carbon storage, ecosystems services, and opportunities for leisure and wellbeing.

  1. Should we reintroduce the lynx to Britain? Members of a group exploring this question argued in favour of the reintroduction of the lynx to the Kielder Forest, suggesting that modern technological advances and the increased involvement of conservation scholars could help overcome challenges faced during previous unsuccessful reintroduction attempts. They highlighted that reintroduction would benefit biodiversity and the UK’s standing as a leader in conservation, while noting that tracking and management programmes could minimize the risk posed to agricultural livestock.

  1. Should we change the length of coast we protect from erosion and if so which areas? The group exploring this question argued that government should prioritize a harmonisation of existing patchwork legislation on coastal protection while increasing central government responsibility for this issue. They also proposed that nature-based and soft engineering solutions such as flood store reservoirs and land management, combined with local awareness campaigns and increased stakeholder engagement, be used as part of our efforts to protect the UK coastline.

  1. Should the UK include agriculture in carbon pricing policy? Students exploring this question argued that the UK should include agriculture in carbon pricing policy, on the basis that doing so would help to lower carbon emissions from the sector and could also improve food security. While highlighting that the sugar levy demonstrates the potential for success in such initiatives and that net zero goals are a significant motivator, they noted that this recommendation came with challenges. Consumers could face higher costs, or UK goods could become uncompetitive, if the policy was not well managed.
Dr Ethan Aines

Cambridge Zero

Professor David King

Centre for Climate Repair

Sam Reed

Department for Energy Security and Net Zero (DESNZ)

Professor Bill Sutherland

Department of Zoology, University of Cambridge