Making science work for development

How to make research accessible to policymakers

Dr Candice Howarth
2 December 2016

Working at the science-policy interface is diverse and it led me to completely rethink my own research interests, methods and impact. I spent 18 months seconded to the then Department of Energy and Climate Change (DECC, now part of BEIS) where I was working with the policy, negotiations, comms and science teams on international climate change policy. My work also involved designing and implementing external stakeholder engagement strategies to facilitate dialogue between the policy, NGO, business and academic spheres. This meant that conversations were ongoing with different teams and stakeholders to enable a clear picture of the current landscape and up to date evidence to be available to inform policy discussions.

What have I learned?

From my experience, I have adopted a co-production approach to all research I conduct as it ensures the work I do is aligned with the needs of those I’m trying to inform and the collaborative nature of engaging with stakeholders in this way creates more meaningful, trusted and long term relationships.

What do I mean by co-production?

When I ran a project that explored the role of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) in informing local decision making and the extent to which it incorporates practitioner evidence, I incorporated interviews and running workshops with practitioners, academics and policymakers. This provided rich insights into the research itself but also mechanisms for working with diverse stakeholders on challenging issues.

As the Nexus Network’s Fellow, much of my work on nexus shocks has involved my end users participating in the research itself, helping to shape objectives so the research addresses key questions they need answers to. They provide their own perspective and help build an evidence base which can help inform their own decision making. This is also core to CECAN, the Centre for the Evaluation of Complexity Across the Nexus, where I act as the Knowledge Integrator, and whose unique blend of academic, practitioner, policy partners, co-funders, Fellows and Associates demonstrates how well a co-production approach can work. This sheds light on a longstanding issue about the science-policy interface and the extent to which research we produce as academics is used and useful to our audiences, and indeed the extent to which we think about this throughout our work (or indeed at all!).

Different timescales and language

When I worked in DECC, I often had to write, commission or contribute to briefings for ministers at very short notice. This forced me to break out of my academic comfort zone where I always assumed I have more than enough time to meet a deadline (and if I asked nicely, I could ask for an extension!). This isn’t always compatible with the fast paced nature of government settings. Not only that but I became aware very early on that the language, style and length of outputs I was used to writing (academic papers or reports for funders) simply wouldn’t work when briefing a policy maker. One of the main lessons I learnt was the need to be concise and knowing where to cut out content which I may find interesting but accepting that this may not be the most effective content to support policy makers in their decision making.

Striking a balance

My work in and with government enabled me to reflect deeply about my role as an academic and what impact I was trying to make. As most of my funding is from research councils, which is public funding, I have a duty to communicate my research in a way that members of the public can make sense of whilst remaining academically robust. This in itself has fed into my work on how to create innovative mechanisms for science communication to better suit the needs of those we’re trying to inform.

 So how have you made your research accessible to policymakers? Leave us your comments below

 Contact Dr Candice Howarth, University of Surrey: Candice [dot] howarthatsurrey [dot] ac [dot] uk


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