Megan Evans got a crash course in science policy in 2011. As a research assistant at the University of Queensland in Brisbane, she joined a project helping the Australian government to develop a tool to compensate for the environmental effects of commercial land development and other activities. If a protected species might be harmed, for example, the ‘biodiversity offset’ tool would help the government to determine how much extra habitat to set aside. Evans loved the project’s applied nature.
Many early-career researchers are drawn to the intersection of science and policy, says Evans, now an honorary research fellow at the Centre for Policy Futures at the University of Queensland. But it can be hard to know where to start, she says. And there can be career penalties for junior scientists. Policy-based work can be time-consuming and hard to fund, and helping to shape a law or management plan might not look as good on a tenure application as do high-profile publications. All scientists must also cope with the political realities of helping to translate scientific evidence — replete with uncertainties — into clear-cut laws and regulations. Because of this, many say, science can underpin good policy, but rarely defines it.
Even so, engaging in policy has never been more important, says Tateo Arimoto, a science-policy expert at the National Graduate Institute for Policy Studies in Tokyo. Society and the world are changing rapidly, he says, and policymakers need scientific evidence to guide decisions on issues from climate change to artificial intelligence. “The mission of modern science is not only creating new knowledge,” he says, but “using scientific knowledge to address social issues”.
Researchers can take proactive measures to increase the policy impact of their work. They should establish strong relationships with elected officials or government staff members, and learn to provide clear and concise summaries of existing scientific evidence to help policymakers to understand the options. Scientists and policymakers can also collaborate on projects aimed at real-world questions. The important thing is to be humble and open, Evans says. “If you want to engage with policy, you need to go cap in hand, and say, ‘How can I help?’”
Connect and observe
The first step, Evans says, is to connect with policymakers. In a paper this July designed to help other early-career scientists to navigate the policy landscape1, Evans and Chris Cvitanovic, a researcher at the University of Tasmania’s Centre for Marine Socioecology in Hobart, suggest that scientists first observe how policymaking works for their issue of interest. Approaches such as reading the news and setting up Google alerts for relevant keywords are helpful, they say.
Then, scientists can determine who in the policy world might be interested in particular aspects of their work and why, and how those people interact with one another. Lawmakers, officials in a national government’s executive branch and their aides could be one audience, as could staff members at government agencies who implement those policies. Evans recommends sketching a map of potential contacts that researchers can refine over time.
For many scientists, the end goal of their life’s work is to change the world for the better.
On top of any number of goals a scientist may have for themselves, there’s now increasing pressure for them to demonstrate that their work provides a benefit to society. After all, much of the research being done across Australia is funded by tax-payers’ dollars. We should be getting something out of it, right?
One way for scientists to turn their lab-based theories into real-world solutions is to influence policy in some way. In an ideal world, scientific evidence would be taken into consideration by our governing bodies and used to inform policies like this environmental offsetting strategy.
But in case you haven’t been paying attention lately—our world isn’t always ideal.
The policy process is complex. It’s fraught with politics and competing interests, and decisions are often influenced by cultural, social and economic ideas.
Navigating all of this is not easy. This is especially true for early career researchers (ECRs) who already have their own unique challenges to face. Faced with low job security, limited positions and heavy reliance on their professional networks, understanding how to achieve impact in the policy space is particularly difficult for ECRs.
And it’s certainly not something they teach at uni.
Dr Megan Evans of the Centre for Policy Futures at the University of Queensland, along with her colleague Dr Chris Cvitanovic of CSIRO, saw this was a problem. If early career researchers can’t contribute to the policy process, society doesn’t get to benefit from their experiences, insights and expertise.
“Impact can be many different things,” says Megan. “There’s no one-size-fits-all approach.”
It’s also messy. There’s no clear-cut path from science to impact. Impact also looks different to everyone.
“Policymaking has, on many occasions, been likened to making sausage. You’ll like it better if you don’t watch how it’s made too closely.”
But there are ways to manage this messiness. Megan and Chris’s paper clearly details the many things that early career researchers can do right from the start to improve the likelihood that their research will be incorporated into policy.
It includes practical, achievable tips like figuring out what you actually want to achieve and building your social media platform.
This advice might seem relatively basic. If making a difference in the world was what inspired researchers in the first place, why don’t more of them know how to do it?
PUBLISH OR PERISH
Megan says that the incentive systems built into academic institutions are one of the barriers preventing early career researchers from making a real impact in the world.
Tenured or permanent positions at universities are highly sought after by academics. Having a tenured position means that the researchers can only be dismissed from the role for really extreme circumstances.
To be awarded a tenure position at a university, researchers often have to demonstrate a long and illustrious career of publishing articles in influential journals. The more citations these papers receive, the more impact they are deemed to have. However, this sort of impact is mostly just a measure of how many people are talking about this research. It has no correlation with any change in the real world.
The pressure to publish is demanding, and it means that, for the bulk of a researcher’s career, they must ignore any desire to have a real-world impact. Even when putting together this new paper, Megan found that many advanced researchers saw societal ‘impact’ as something to be addressed only “once you get tenure”.
“The advice is well meant but not forward-looking,” says Megan.
But this couldn’t be further from the truth.
A REAL NEED FOR REAL-WORLD IMPACT
The desire to have genuine impact became abundantly clear in a forum held last year where discussion centred around how researchers could engage meaningfully with big societal questions about the environment.
Chris was presenting at this forum. As someone with experience working as a policymaker, knowledge broker and researcher, he had valuable insights to share and probably expected a bit of engagement with his audience.
But he was overwhelmed by the number of people who approached him after the presentation seeking more information. The majority of them? Early career researchers.
They all wanted to know what they could do to make a difference. This was the catalyst to write the paper .
Since being published, Megan and Chris’s paper has been tweeted over 800 times. Megan says she’s received dozens of tweets and emails thanking them for their work. While it’s not recognition in the traditional form of citations, it’s clear the real-world impact of this research has been felt.
Many conservation scientists are interested in engaging with policy, but may not be sure where to start, or how they can most effectively contribute. This course aims to provide a “Public Policy 101” for conservation scientists who want the knowledge and tools needed to navigate messy policy processes.
The course will feature presenters working across the spectrum of policy, practice and academia who will contribute to the following topics:
What is policy?
Key legislation and conservation policies, national & local level governance (New Zealand focus)
I’m very surprised, humbled and obviously rather awkward about the fact I was recently awarded the University of Queensland Faculty of Science 2018 Rising Star – Academic award. The award recognises “individuals who demonstrate excellence and future potential in research (science or teaching & learning), teaching, academic or professional service, or driving positive workplace culture.”
I was one of three finalists (selected from 29 nominations), which included my excellent colleagues Matt Holden and John Dwyer , and whom I was so convinced one of them would reign superior that I made (and lost) a bet to shout drinks if I won. (Un)fortunately I wasn’t able to collect the award in person so I didn’t have to follow through – suckers*!
Kelly,Ange and I were thrilled to secure ten fantastic speakers working across the science-policy-practice interface to present at the forum. We’ve had some fantastic feedback from people who attended the forum, which is always nice to hear after organising an event!
You can read the program here and a summary of the event here
Furore erupted last week among many Australians who care for our native species.
First we heard that land clearing in Queensland soared to a staggering 400,000 or so hectares in 2015-16, a near 30% increase from the previous year. Second, the federal government’s outgoing Threatened Species Commissioner, Gregory Andrews, implied on national radio that land clearing was not a pressing issue for Australia’s threatened species.
This is a troubling public message, particularly as the government’s own State of the Environment Report 2016 lists “clearing, fragmentation and declining quality of habitat” as a primary driver of biodiversity decline across the continent.
These comments highlight key issues with the Threatened Species Commissioner’s current remit, made more pressing due to timing: the federal government will soon appoint a new commissioner, a “TSC 2.0”, if you will.
Threatened Species Commissioner 1.0
The commissioner’s role was established in 2014 to address the dire state of threatened species; a key initiative of the then environment minister, Greg Hunt. The remit was sixfold, including bringing a new national focus to conservation efforts; raising awareness and support for threatened species in the community; and taking an evidence-based approach to ensure conservation efforts are better targeted and co-ordinated and more effective.
Also laudable was the 2015 Threatened Species Summit, attended by some 250 delegates from a diverse set of stakeholders, which garnered significant media coverage.
But elsewhere progress has been mixed. The development of the Threatened Species Strategy is welcome, but the plan does not go nearly far enough. Key targets by 2020 are improvements in the population trajectories of 20 mammals, 20 birds and 30 plants. But this represents a mere 4% of Australia’s threatened species, excluding all threatened reptiles, amphibians, fishes and invertebrates, and most of our threatened flora.
Yet the Threatened Species Strategy mentions land clearing zero times and habitat loss just twice. Feral cats, on the other hand, are mentioned 78 times, with the plan overwhelmingly focused on culling this one invasive species. Other major introduced pests – foxes, rabbits, feral pigs and goats – are mentioned 10 times between them.
An on-ground focus and mobilising of financial and logistical resources to support threatened species recovery was a welcome development during Andrews’s tenure. His second progress report cites AU$131 million in funding for projects in support of threatened species since 2014.
Likewise, funding for threatened species must be better targeted. Of the 499 projects cited in the TSC second progress report, 361 were those of the Green Army and 20 Million Trees programs (costing AU$78 million, 60% of total funding). Neither program is specifically devoted to threatened species, and their benefit in this regard is doubtful.
The next commissioner’s checklist
Australians and democratic societies should have access to reliable, independent and objective information about the current state of our natural heritage, and how government decisions influence its trajectory. That’s a critical role that TSC 2.0 should play.
Expertise will be crucial for the new appointee. Given the complex science of species conservation, a background in environmental science is a clear requirement, just as a background in economics would be expected for the chair of the Productivity Commission, or a grounding in law for a human rights commissioner.
For a commissioner to work effectively, they must also be willing to comment on politically sensitive issues and put themselves at odds with the government when necessary. Commissioners typically work as the head of an independent statutory body, such as the Productivity Commission, the Australian Securities and Investments Commission, and the Australian Electoral Commission.
But if the TSC 2.0 is to be a truly informed and independent voice for Australia’s threatened species, the role must sit within a statutory authority, at arm’s length from government. This is the case in New Zealand, where an independent environment commission has operated since 1986. It’s time for Australia to follow suit.
We argue that viewing poor conservation outcomes as simply the result of a deficit of evidence is counterproductive, and overlooks the complex social, political and institutional processes which lead to decisions being made. We suggest that in addition to ensuring decision makers have access to relevant evidence, we need to understand and embrace these complexities if we hope to improve on-ground conservation outcomes.