Wednesday, April 13, 2016

Who should communicate the policy implications of ecological research?

Ecology is a science that tries to understand the world. How is the diversity of organisms distributed around the world? How do extreme climate events influence populations of animals and plants? How does the diversity of organisms in a landscape influence its function and the delivery of services to humanity? These are all questions routinely asked by ecologists and, importantly, are topics that most academic ecologists would believe are necessary for providing evidence for policy and management of habitats and natural resources. Yet policy makers, managers and practitioners seldom access ecology research. There is a research-policy divide that needs to be overcome.

Spanning the chasm between academic research and policy (from
Many ecologists are reluctant to promote the policy implications of their research because they do not feel comfortable or connected enough to talk to non-academics. But if not them, then who is responsible to communicate the policy repercussions of their research?

The romanticized view of an untouched, pristine ecosystem no longer exists. We now live in a world where every major ecosystem has been impacted by human activities. From pollution and deforestation, to the introduction of non-native species, our activity has influenced every type of habitat. But this is where management and applied ecology have relevance. The study of human physiology has direct relevance for health science –that is, the value of this basic biological science is measured in its ability to help sick people, and not necessarily in its ability to better understand how healthy people function. So to does ecology need to be relevant for our ‘sick people’, that is, human-impacted landscapes. We have spent much of our collective effort studying intact, semi-natural systems, and this is necessary to understand the basic operations of nature. But now we are required to apply this understanding to improve ecological integrity and human wellbeing. We are surround by sick ecosystems and ecology is desperately needed to influence policy and management.

I just attended the joint symposium “Making a Difference in Conservation: Improvingthe Links Between Ecological Research, Policy and Practice”, put on by the British Ecological Society and the Cambridge Conservation Initiative. This meeting was attended by a nice mix of academic researchers and practitioners, and covered a broad range of ideas, issues and solutions to overcoming barriers to implementing evidence-based policy. Overcoming these barriers requires communication, and scientists need to be at the table. In arguing the case that scientists need to communicate the policy implications of their research below, I take ideas and information passed on in a number of excellent talks, including from: John Altringham, Malcolm Ausden, John Beddington, Ian Boyd, Fiona Fox, Georgina Mace, Andrew Miller, E. J. Milner-Gulland and Des Thompson, and my own workshop on communicating research to maximise policy impact.

A guy who probably doesn't know what he is talking about, talking about policy. Perhaps a bit outside my comfort zone. (photo by Martin Nunez)

The Hurdles

The hurdles to the uptake of research and evidence into policy decisions are complex and multifaceted. On the scientists’ side, the hurdles are mainly a lack of training, experience and comfort promoting the policy implications of their work. In graduate school, very few scientists-in-training take journalism and media courses, and so are not well versed in the ways to communicate in a broadly approachable way. Instead, we are taught to communicate in technically precise ways that can only be understood by similarly trained experts.

On the practitioner side, there are a number of pragmatic and systemic limitations to the uptake of evidence into policy and management decisions:

1.       Structural: There is a lack of resources and time to read and synthesize scientific research. A lack of access because of expensive subscription fees, is a pervasive problem for individuals and small organizations.
2.       Systemic: Big organizations and agencies are complex and communication of best practices or idea sharing might be lacking. Frequent staff turnover means that research understanding and institutional memory is lost.
3.       Relevance: Practitioners need research relevant to their problem and trolling the impossibly large literature is not an efficient way to find the necessary information.
4.       Timescale: Practitioners and policy makers work at a variety of speeds, dictated by priorities, contracts, etc., and looking for resources may not work within these timeframes.

These limitations and the lack of relevant research uptake result in policies and management strategies that are not adequately informed by research, which can waste money and may not produce in the desired results. We heard about the requirement to build bat crossings across new highways (to avoid car collisions), costing millions of dollars, but research has not supported their efficacy. 

Random bat picture to break up the flow (from

Should scientists engage policy makers? 

I do think that scientists have a responsibility to communicate, and perhaps advocate, for evidence to be used in policy decision-making. There is a line between being seen as objective versus as an advocate, and scientists need to do what they are comfortable with, but remember:

  1. You are an expert on your research; you are uniquely position to comment on it.
  2. Related to the previous point, you may not want other, untrained, people to represent and communicate your work.
  3. You have an obligation to the public. You are likely paid by tax dollars and your research is funded by public grants. A part of the responsibility then is to not only do research but to ensure that it is communicated and if the people who ultimately pay you would benefit from learning about your findings, you owe it to them to communicate it.
  4. There are positive feedbacks for your career. Being seen as a scientist who engages and does relevant work will mean that you achieve a higher profile.

Citizens and policy-makers get the most out of their new information (which forms the basis for their opinions) from media news. If the only voices being heard are advocates and interest groups, then evidence will be lacking or misrepresented. Scientists’ voices are needed in the media, and here you can educate many concerned people. The former British Education minister, Estelle Morris, when speaking about the Fukushima reactor meltdown, said that she learned more about radiation from scientific experts in the media than she had during her education.

Of course it is important to remember that science is only a part of the solution, human needs, economics and social values are also important. But without scientists’ involvement, evidence will not be an important part of solutions to crises. 

How to communicate

Scientists are often driven by immediate career concerns and they need to publish high profile, impactful papers in peer-reviewed scientific journals. And this won’t change. But as Georgina Mace said in her presentation, overselling the implications of research in papers diminishes their value and confuses practitioners and policy makers. Policy implications contained within publications is one avenue to influence policy makers, but rather than tacking on broad policy recommendations, consider consulting them before writing the paper, or even better, include them in the planning stage of the study. One speaker commented that instead of asking for a letter of support for a grant proposal from a non-academic partner at the 11th hour, discuss the ideas with them at the outset.

How should scientists communicate their research?
  1. Discuss finings with local interest groups (e.g., park managers).
  2. Give a public lecture to community organizations (e.g., naturalist club).
  3. Talk to local politicians.
  4. Use social media –create a persona that acts as an information broker.
  5. Write opinion articles for magazines or newspaper editorials.
  6. Be accessible to journalists (e.g., get yourself listed in your university expert database).

The UK as a model

The UK provides one of the best examples of meaningful interactions between scientists and policy makers. Perhaps a better way to state it, is that there is a gradient of engaged individuals from pure scientist to local practitioner. There are robust organizations that span government agencies, NGOs, and universities that bring scientists and practitioners into contact with one another. They have Chief Scientific Officers and advisory groups at multiple levels of government. These groups develop the risk registry that estimates the likelihood and the potential repercussions of environmental and biological disasters or emergencies (e.g., influenza pandemic, severe drought, etc.). There is a well respected and effective Science Media Centre that organizes briefing sessions that bring scientists together with journalists on timely and important topics. These briefings result in influential news stories that sometimes challenge government policy or public sentiment (e.g., badger culls, links between vaccines and autism, etc.). This is a system to be emulated.

So, should scientists communicate their findings and engage policy makers, managers and the public. Absolutely. It may seem like you are entering uncharted territory, but believe me, your voice is desperately needed.

If you want advice, encouragement or more information, feel free to contact me.

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