Influence policy with your science!

Another blogpost from me this week – it has been a busy period! It was great to see this article by science writer, Julia Rosen, released in Nature this week. The purpose of the article is to provide tips on how to influence policy with science, based on the research of various experts from around the world. One such expert, Dr Megan Evans, gives lots of useful advice on connecting with policy based on an excellent paper released earlier this year. Do stay tuned for a book chapter co-authored by Megan, myself, and Dr Rebecca Jarvis, which is to be published later this year. This chapter will provide advice on how to engage well with decision-makers of all kinds and should be available open access alongside a number of other chapters on how to link conservation research, policy, and practice!

In the Nature article by Rosen, I stress two main points. Firstly, it is useful for scientists to network with policy-makers, particularly by working with them face-to-face. Out institutions aren’t geared to encouraging this, but we can change this! Even though we are now able to connect with people across the world at any time in a number of different formats, there is no substitute for face-to-face working. I will be putting this into practice with a secondment to the Department of Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (UK Government) later this year.

Secondly, I stress the importance of evidence synthesis. As research led by POST and UCL STEaPP found late last year, policy-makers rarely want to hear about the latest shiny, new academic paper. Instead, they want to know what the body of evidence says and preferably want to know which policy options work in practice. Something like the Conservation Evidence project is a good example of how to collate evidence systematically so that a policy-maker can quickly assess the body of evidence and adopt policies that are likely to work. This reduces the chances of making a costly, wrong decision.

Lots of other great tips are provided by other experts throughout the article. Enjoy!

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Sustainable intensification: actions not words

Our article on priority practices for sustainable intensification in the UK came out this week in Food and Energy Security. Led by Dr Lynn Dicks (UEA), and funded by Defra, this paper identifies a series of management options which can lead to sustainable intensification if put into practice on-farm. The paper also assesses whether these options are currently widely practised, which in some cases, is actually the case. We also looked at whether farmers would consider implementing practices that were not currently carried out. I have a Masters students currently doing a project which seeks to explore the reasons behind why farmers will or won’t consider various options for sustainable intensification.

It’s great to see this article out. The fieldwork for this paper began on the first day of my first post-doc when Lynn, Bill Sutherland, and I were all in the Zoology department at Cambridge. Lots has changed since then, including both Lynn and I moving to the University of East Anglia. The research could not have been done without the collaboration of a whole host of individuals and organisations who are listed as co-authors.

We hope that readers enjoy the paper. From a personal perspective, it’s great to propose tangible actions for sustainable intensification. Too often, we have obsessed over definitions of sustainable intensification, or indeed whether that term is even useful. I’ve written before about the tendency of some academic disciplines, including Human Geography, to critique ideas until they are blue in the face. While this is often useful, this should not be done at the expense of action when the general idea is good.  Of course there are many valid arguments that say we don’t need to produce more food if we distribute existing resources more fairly and wasted less. But I don’t think anyone would dismiss the basic idea that it would be good to produce food more efficiently while having less of an impact on the natural environment. For me, that is what sustainable intensification seeks to do, and for the first time we have tangible actions to put into practice on farms across the UK.

If we work together with farmers and the farming industry as a whole, we can start to make progress towards a more sustainable and efficient system of food production in the UK. Do let us know what you think about the list! Of course, some options are more applicable in certain farming sectors than others. The paper is open access!

Here is the list of 18 options in picture form below – not all are high-tech, one, for example, suggests further training and skill provision for farm workers.

*In response to a comment received, I accept that we did use a definition in the workshop, which influenced the list of interventions above. We defined SI as an activity that provided productivity, environmental, and social benefits, or any one such benefit without a net loss elsewhere. My point here is simply that a number of definitions have been proposed, many broadly along the same lines. With this in mind, and the general idea being good, it’s time to move towards actions.

Working with defra

I announced in the last blog that I am soon due to start a period of time working with the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra). I’ll be working with Defra, not for them. The motivation for this is twofold (1) to enhance my own understanding of government policy-making, and (2) to contribute social science expertise to the formation of post-Brexit agricultural policy.

I’ve written about the relationship between science and policy-making for some time. Papers have encouraged academics to tell policy-relevant stories, frame their research persuasively, identify policy windows, and synthesise evidence in a user-friendly way while engaging in good networking with policy-makers. I have written here before about how academic incentive structures could further evolve to encourage this.

I really do think, however, that the best way for an academic to influence government policy is to spend some time working directly with policy-makers, as argued by this excellent paper on how ECRs can have policy impact. Although I’ve done plenty of policy-maker interviews, and been involved with a study of Parliament which undertook surveys and participant observation, it would be wrong for me to say that I fully understand how policy is made. I have never been a policy-maker so I’ve never seen first-hand what happens. Much of my understanding of government policy-making probably stems from programmes such as Yes Prime Minister, as well as the academic literature. So I am excited to see how policy is really made, including the constraints on the use of evidence, and find out how academic knowledge can be presented in a more impactful way.

I hope to be able to make a difference to post-Brexit policy too. As I have written before, I’m all for co-location; i.e. more regular interaction between academics and civil society. To be frank, I live in London, but my university is in Norwich. The job of a lecturer in fourfold; (1) to teach (my favourite bit), (2) to research, (3) to do admin, and (4) to engage users of research. On the days that I’m not doing 1-3, I generally work from home (well, a local library) in London. What’s the point of going all the way to Norwich to sit in my office and shut myself off from the world? Why not make the most of my London location and go and work directly with policy-makers in Defra who are working on things that matter to me professionally and personally? It strikes me that I’m far more useful working on shaping policies in Defra than writing an academic paper in my local library. This is far more likely to make a difference to the world than my latest paper published in a journal that no one in the outside world ever reads. The sooner academics, and those incentivising academics, wake up to this, the better!

My work at Defra will be bound by the Official Secrets Act and I’ll have to be careful about making political statements. So, while I won’t be able to tell people exactly what I’m doing, I look forward to gaining knowledge more generally about how evidence is really used in policy, and how academics can improve the chances of policy impact. Maybe I’ll hypocritically write a paper about it when I finish…

Urban nature and a new policy adventure…

Academics commonly complain that they work too much. Now this is rarely untrue, indeed one of my fantastic former supervisors discusses here how he often ends up working too hard because he loves his job so much. It’s the same for me; my job is also a hobby, I love writing and teaching, and so it can be hard to stop sometimes. While I do not doubt the hard work of academics across the world, I sometimes think we need to put our profession in the context of others. Millions and millions of people across the world work harder, longer, and generally for less reward than us. My wife, for example, works much longer than I do. The fact that other professions demand longer hours shouldn’t, of course, be an excuse for long and unpaid extra hours in academia, but I am always thankful of the flexibility and good lifestyle that my job offers.

Thankfully I’ve managed to store most of my days of annual leave (generous amount at UEA) until this month. This week I’ve been exploring some of the best nature reserves in London, in addition to my local patch of Hampstead Heath, which I’ve written about before.

RSPB Rainham Marshes, on the edge of London in Essex but still within the M25, was looking beautiful in the sunshine, although one of the main wetland areas had dried out in the heat. It is definitely worth a visit for the varied wildlife, from good numbers of Water Vole (although I didn’t see one!) and birds to insects like dragonflies, as well as a great visitor centre and cafe! The view along the Thames towards the City of London and the queue of air traffic waiting to land at City airport, as well as the regular passing of the Eurostar, reminds you that a city of 8+ million people is not far away. Rainham is only half an hour from central London by train so it’s a perfect day out.

The next day was the turn of Walthamstow Wetlands managed by the London Wildlife Trust. This is just 15 minutes from central London and is surrounded by urban infrastructure – including Spurs’ new football ground. I was impressed by how the site had been managed for wildlife, which was again plentiful in the sunshine. Common Sandpiper, several pairs of breeding Common Terns, 8 Little Egrets, 5 Peregrine Falcon, Cetti’s Warbler, and many different damselfly species were particular highlights. The visitor centre had been developed well to include a good shop and cafe, so it is a perfect place for a family day out. It’s amazing how rich urban biodiversity can be when allowed to flourish.

At the end of this week, I met new colleagues at Defra where I am due to start a part-time secondment later this year. I can’t say too much about what I’ll be doing each day, but it is no secret that Brexit means that policy-makers at Defra are having to do an awful lot of thinking about what agricultural policy, formerly so dependent on CAP, looks like in the future. I’m excited for the opportunity to shape policy through the use of evidence, including from the social sciences, and to finding out how policy is really made. I write lots on how academics can improve their chances of getting evidence used by policy-makers, but this advice has been shaped by interviews, surveys etc. It will be great to gain first-hand knowledge about how policy is made, including the constraints to evidence use, and I will be able to take general insights from my secondment to inform my academic research.

All of this – the time off and the flexibility to take on a secondment – is possible in an academic career. Don’t be put off by stories of long hours and hard work, because if something is worth it in life, then it’s definitely worth working hard for!