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!


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.

Defra secondment

I announced in the last blog that I am soon due to start a secondment to 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!

The post-truth myth and the crisis of academic egos

Based on Rose, D. C. in press. Avoiding a post-truth world: Embracing post-normal conservation, Conservation and Society, DOI (TBC) [note academic paper is restricted to conservation, while this blog uses a wider lens – find in early view section here

‘Post-truth’, Oxford Dictionaries’ word of the year in 2016, is everywhere you look at the moment. From reading scientific papers, newspaper articles, blogs, and books, you’d be forgiven for thinking that post-truth was some kind of new phenomenon, a new paradigm for the relationship between evidence and policy. The ridiculousness of this has occurred to me for some time now as the first post-truth articles rolled off the press in the midst of apparently unexpected election results in the UK (Brexit) and America (Trump). But the post-truth fad of 2016 shows no sign of slowing down. As I perused the bookshelves of Waterstones, Evans Davis’ book ‘Post-Truth: Why We Have Reached Peak Bullshit’ captured my attention. Now, the latter two words of that title did immediately spring to my mind when I was flicking through the first few pages, but such books are obviously selling well. ‘Why?’, I wondered, ‘surely decades of work in the policy sciences has shown that politics has always been post-truth to an extent?’. Apparently not if some of the recent post-truth contributions are anything to go by, but then again you have to peddle the post-truth myth if you want to sell copies! I much prefer this in The Spectator – “Post-truth? It’s pure nonsense“.

In the context of nature conservation, yet applying just as well more generally, I discuss these issues in my new paper which is in press in Conservation and Society.

I start by asking when the ‘truth phase’ of policy-making existed? This is a question that could just as easily apply to public policy in all areas – seriously, when did the truth phase exist? When did policy-makers make decisions purely on ‘the truth’ [whatever that is] without thinking of other factors, such as beliefs, world views, interests, and practicalities? When was the last election campaign where candidates did not try to stretch the truth or form arguments based on a selective use of evidence? The answer – probably never. If we consider scientific evidence as a primary source of the truth [contentious – see the paper when released!], then policy-making has never been based on science alone – and that is an eminently good thing. I have no desire to live in a technocracy. Science says that we can do all sorts of things, but it doesn’t mean that we, as a society, should do them, a point made by several prominent STS scholars over the years. While better scientific representation in Parliament, or on Science and Technology Committees, might be a good thing, I have no desire to see decisions made by a Parliament dominated by them! [figure below adapted from Rose, 2014, Nature Climate Change]


So if there has never been a truth phase, surely many politicians have told mistruths, or misused evidence, before? If the recent outcry is anything to go by, apparently it’s a new phenomenon. But, in the UK, didn’t Nick Clegg promise to scrap tuition fees, before then increasing them in government? Didn’t Jeremy Corbyn’s team make repeated pre-election claims that the rise in tuition fees had led to a fall in applications from students of poorer backgrounds, a claim which showed complete disregard for the evidence? Didn’t Gordon Brown et al. claim in 2005 that the Conservatives wished to cut spending by £35 billion, before then admitting they were going to spend £15 billion more than Labour? And what about the record of former PM Tony Blair – what was his record like in terms of making evidence-based decisions?

OK, so those examples are selective and rather unwisely limited to politicians on the Left. I could have pointed to many similar examples of ‘post-truth’ claims by Conservative politicians through the decades – but it makes a change for an academic to criticise the Left first, so why not? My point, however, is simple. Policy-makers have always lied, or stretched the truth (that’s politics!), but it is only very recently that scholars are rushing to write books on post-truth or to claim that there is a ‘crisis of democracy’. A ‘crisis of academic egos’ might be more accurate as scientists realise that not everyone listens to their lecturing from on high (but when did the deficit model of understanding ever work?). One possible comeback from the post-truth protagonists is that post-truth is somehow different – it isn’t about merely stretching the truths or telling white lies, but instead it is the deliberate act of lying without fear of the consequences. Some of those examples listed above, however, as well as many more, surely fall within this description of post-truth. It’s funny that this claim has been made only after a couple of disagreeable election results – does democracy only work if the people get the ‘right’ answer as designated by the intellectual elites?

Although I tactfully try to avoid the subject in the paper, instead sneaking my point into footnote one, I suggest that the recent ‘post-truth’ fad has indeed been whipped up by scholars and other commentators in response to election results that they disagree with. It is no secret, for example, that the academic community in the UK heavily favoured ‘Remain’ in the Brexit vote. It is, of course, perfectly understandable that many academics hold this position – Brexit does potentially create challenges for funding, as well as providing challenges for attracting talent from the EU, and even splitting up families. There was also much evidence to suggest that leaving the EU would cause problems for the economy etc. – although those pre-vote Treasury forecasts might as well have been made by the clairvoyant who lives next to my in-laws. All are good reasons to have backed the Remain case, and indeed to support ongoing protests.

Yet, other people had their own reasons for voting ‘Leave’, including evidence that suggested there would be benefits. Amidst the many claims, there were some spectacular mistruths told by both sides. It is unfair to suggest, though, that the arguments for supporting Remain were somehow the only valid ones. Yet, if you had attended the academic conferences and meetings that I have in the last two years, you’d have thought that the wider public were stupid, ignorant, and devoid of the truth – ah, the deficit model of old! Hardly a conference goes by where someone doesn’t make fun of the public for voting Leave! It’s like a rite of passage – make an anti-Brexit joke early in your talk, or indeed at the start of a coffee break, and you’re part of the club, and everyone will like you. Perhaps it’s worth considering how this looks from outside of the ivory tower.

The major point I make in the paper is that it is too convenient for the academic community, including in conservation science, to blame people for being ignorant and devoid of truth. ‘If only people had listened to the scientific facts’, goes the argument, ‘then the result would have been different’. I will argue in the paper that such a contention is dangerous – it is dangerous because an attitude of ‘we have the facts, we have the truth, you don’t, so listen to us’ is precisely the cause of the gap between academics and the public. The day after the Brexit vote, I walked into the department to shocked people saying that ‘I don’t know anyone who voted Leave, so how could it have happened’.

That is precisely the problem. If the academic community continues to blame such events on people lacking in truth, then it won’t consider that change might be needed. Change, for example, that may lead to a new kind of science better suited to the societies it serves. Lack of engagement with society causes science to be poorly communicated and framed, and may lead to the production of knowledge which is irrelevant to people’s lives. Not including people in the co-production of knowledge further reinforces the idea that academics reside in an ivory tower and therefore do not care about people’s concerns in practice.

Instead of wishing that we lived in a truth world, we should embrace the fact that public policy on the environment, and on other issues, has always been post-normal. As evidence is often uncertain and the policies affect a large number of people, an extended community of people has always been responsible for making policies. Such decisions will not always be based on what the evidence suggests we should do (although it is always likely to play some sort of role), but that is not automatically a bad thing. As Sarewitz argues, let’s stop treating science denial as a disease. In order to succeed in a messy post-normal world, academics need to become better storytellers in order to make their knowledge persuasive and relevant to people. Blaming people for being ignorant isn’t part of that good story!

So the next time you hear the claim that ‘post-truth’ is a new phenomenon, perhaps point out that such a claim may actually be ‘post-truthful’ in itself.

Academia – 1 year completed…

Although it’s not quite one year since I started my first permanent position at the University of East Anglia, my first ‘academic year’ is practically over. I’ve enjoyed marking the exam papers over the last week or so, and I’m having a great time interviewing students in the School of Environmental Sciences who have applied for a paid summer internship with me on knowledge exchange in agriculture.

It’s been a little while since I started this blog with an optimistic outlook on academic life – although much of this blog has been devoted to my research since then, my optimistic view of the profession has not changed. I still consider myself very lucky to do this role, to help shape the minds of the next generation and to learn from them, and to be able to pursue my own research interests. For those budding academics out there, why wouldn’t you want to do this job? It’s great!

Have there been long hours? Well, yes, I’ve worked many late nights and weekends to push my research onwards, but in comparison to millions of other people out there who work longer, harder, and for less reward, it’s a very comfortable life – a fact that I will never forget. And it’s certainly not impossible to write papers, teach, and do admin at the same time – I set myself an ambitious target of 10-15 academic outputs in the 2018 calendar year. I’m currently on 7, just less than half way through the year, with many more in late stage review. So I might just hit the upper bound…

I’m trying to do academia my own way though as regular readers of the blog might know. True, I have been focusing on getting lots of academic papers written, despite the fact that I don’t think it is the best way to measure success. Hypocrisy noted! But, I’ve not been sitting in my office waiting for things to happen – as much as possible, kindly helped by my department, I’ve been out in the world meeting as many different people as possible so that I can make a difference to environmental policy and practice. Indeed, I’m just off to meet an independent environmental consultant who is doing some interesting work trying to create dialogue between diverse, and often conflicting, stakeholders in environmental land management settings.  I’m really excited to present at the Royal Norfolk Show at the end of the month and to meet the Universities Minister when his diary allows. I’m also really excited to speak at various outreach events this month, at the UEA Sixth Form Conference and at a UCAS event.

But, probably the most interesting thing I’ve done this year is to drive a forthcoming partnership agreement with Trent University, Canada. We hope to foster student exchange between Trent and UEA, and run a ‘Model Arctic Council’ next year at UEA attended by some Trent students. Who knows, in future UEA could act as the host for a Model Arctic Council attended by students from across the Arctic states.

Lastly, did you hear that the School of Environmental Sciences at the University of East Anglia is 50 years old this year? Back in 1968, the school was a real innovator in inter-disciplinary environmental science and continues to be internationally respected for its work on current environmental problems, such as climate change and biodiversity loss. While other institutions are now rightfully promoting inter-disciplinary ways of working, the 50 year anniversary provides us with a renewed sense of purpose. We’ve had a ground-breaking 50 years, but now is the time to lead again.

But just as the new ways of working in 1968 were innovative for the time, we must continue to evolve so that our School of Environmental Sciences is fit for the modern world. We still face many of the same challenges that have been faced for several decades. But can we really say that we have got it right in terms of convincing wider society of the need to prioritise the issue of environmental protection? Can we really say that we have developed participatory ways of working where we are listening to society and co-designing solutions with them? To some extent, maybe, and see here for the work of the ‘3S’ group on the latter question.

But we can do better. We can look around for inspiration – co-location exercises, represented by the David Attenborough Building in Cambridge where NGOs and academics work together in the same building, offer some inspiration. Our department already offers some co-location, for example hosting representatives from Cefas and Anglian Water. This is a great start. But moving forwards, we need to find ways of working and of communicating more effectively with civil society so that we can solve our environmental problems together. This partially requires us to change academia, to incentivise impact over academic publication, and to reach out more to others outside of academia who have similarly important things to contribute to environmental stewardship. In simple terms, it means getting out of the office more and crucially listening to other people!

And to all those A-Level, undergraduate, and graduate students out there thinking of a great place to study cutting-edge environmental science….the School of Environmental Sciences is a fantastic option! Not every staff member is quite as mad, subversive, and outspoken as me, but we are all united in our commitment to change the world for the better! And that means taking care of our environment that offers so much to us!

More next week on the myth of post-truth and the crisis of academic egos! (warning: may offend!)

Towards a new kind of academia

In the last week or so, I’ve done a couple of talks about how we can do academia differently; firstly at the Zuckerman Symposium at UEA to celebrate 50 years of the School of Environmental Sciences, and secondly at a policy event with POST at Kingston University. My school of Environmental Sciences at UEA was the pioneer in its field back in Zuckerman’s day so it’s fitting that I should be part of a department that may once again be part of forging a new kind of academia. My department is great for impact, but I’m going to challenge it to break out of the academic mould and to prioritise this above publication in journals. REF reform will help (see below). My talk at Kingston was described as provocative – good, change doesn’t occur without ruffling a few feathers! I’ve had some interesting discussions on Twitter afterwards too with other visionaries who want to change academia for the better (thanks Niki Rust, Dani Rabaiotti et al.). Some people are leaving academia because they feel they can make a bigger impact elsewhere – we need to stop this! I was heartened by the comments from audience members at Kingston though – there is much support out there for revolution!


So what’s wrong with academia at the moment? Well in my view, quite a lot, although it must be said that there are fine examples of innovations being conducted across the country as we strive to make more of an impact on policy and practice. My own department at UEA is great on impact! Indeed, I would be quite wrong again if I left readers with the impression that academia makes no contribution to society – in fact, it makes an enormous difference. Look around us; those innovations, medical breakthroughs etc. have changed our lives.

But, are we doing enough to ensure that all of our academic research makes an impact on policy (notwithstanding that not all research strives to do so)? Well, if the findings of our report on the use of research in the UK Parliament are anything to go by, then no. Academic research was criticised by people in Parliament for being difficult to access, hard to understand, irrelevant to the pressing issues of the day, not concise, and for failing to provide an overview of the body of evidence. And academics were criticised for not engaging well with Parliament, in other words failing to send research to be used in parliamentary debate and scrutiny. People in Parliament are calling out for concise summaries of ‘what works’, but we are tending not to provide it.

In summary, we are not engaging well, nor are we providing what policy-makers want. Take this analogy.

Many years ago I tackled my Methodist Minister after the service about their sermon; tackled verbally I may add! My family were very embarrassed about this, but I have long had a reputation for saying things that need to be said. I tend to be very good at launching metaphorical grenades into the fray, which is good, because you can’t change paradigms without offending people. The subject of his sermon touched on why congregations were dwindling and why young people weren’t coming to Church. So, I asked what the Minister intended to do about it? Why not take the message to where the young people are, in the shopping centres, in people’s homes, in the pubs, at the sports stadiums? Why not invite different types of music into the Church to improve the experience? No, no, no came the replies – apparently that’s not what the Church is. So their approach to boosting the number of young people rested on them doing exactly the same thing that they’d been doing for years, which is exactly the reason why no one was coming. Sound familiar?

I think the same is true of some aspects of academia. We often seem to wonder why few people are listening to us, why for example society isn’t taking the threat of environmental change seriously enough? We often lambast the public for voting in the ‘wrong’ way or for not listening to the experts. We can express great surprise when we encounter members of the public, often keeping them at arms-length and using them for confirmation rather than allowing them to set the path of research in a truly participatory way. We act very surprised when we learn that non-academics think differently from us, hold different values, perhaps not really actively caring about the environment. Well, wake up everyone! People out there largely don’t think like us, so we either continue to do what we are doing, or we start reaching out to people in an inclusive way and telling some relevant, optimistic, and persuasive stories! Let’s get out of the office more – what are we doing sitting in there (except when students need to be supervised of course!)? Society is not in the office!

We certainly don’t solve this problem by portraying the public as stupid in the light of some unexpected election results. We don’t solve it by reverting to the deficit model of understanding. We don’t solve the problem of limited policy impact by publishing jargonistic articles in journals that no one can access or understand. If Jesus was a scientist, he wouldn’t be publishing in Science, he’d be taking the message to the people (he might actually do both!). I did make the point to the Minister that Jesus was successful because he took the message to the people, rather than waiting for them to come to him, but that fell on deaf ears.

So let me throw down the gauntlet to academics, and I do so not in a critical way because we need much more encouragement to produce research that is wise to the needs of government (funders, and universities take note!). I’m going to be taking a message of REF reform to the Universities Minister soon and I’ll be calling on him to join me in changing academia – we need to be incentivised to change so we need help. We need to prioritise policy and societal impact – I’ll be writing on this in the coming weeks and offering some practical suggestions for improving the impact of our work.