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How does science get into policy?

Posted by on April 15, 2014
Figure1 The Policy Cycle

Figure1 The Policy Cycle

Daija Angeli, project officer at the Natural Capital Initiative, reflects on the British Ecological Society (BES) Policy Training Day she attended last week.

How can scientists and researchers effectively engage with policy and decision makers and how do they best communicate science to these audiences? The British Ecological Society (BES) Policy Training Day offered answers to these questions through a series of talks from insiders working at the science policy interface as well as practical exercises.

Policy is not a single outcome but an ongoing process. This is often illustrated by the concept of the policy cycle, a process that is repeating itself, with policies being revised and refined over time (Figure 1). 

Sasha Leigh (Natural Environment Research Council, NERC) suggested that scientists can inform this process in the agenda setting stage by alerting policy makers about emerging topics and identifying issues. In the evaluation stage they can provide research on the outcome of particular policies.

Engaging at the right time was crucial, said Richard Benwell (RSPB); scientific evidence is more likely to have an impact on policy if it is communicated in an early stage of the process, such as when a green paper is published, consultations are being held or select committee inquiries take place. Evidence is much less likely to have an impact when a bill is about to be passed.

Jonathan Wentworth (Parliamentary Office for Science and Technology) highlighted that political decision making is a much more complex than the neat cycle in Figure 1 suggests. The reality of policy making is messy and better illustrated by Figure 2 (Source: Wellcome Trust).

Figure2 Figure 2: Some of the institutions influencing the policy cycle

Figure2: Some of the institutions influencing the policy cycle (Source: Wellcome Trust)

Jonathan Wentworth highlighted that scientific evidence is only one form of evidence for decision makers. Policy makers take into account social, ethical, cultural, practical, legal, economic and, oftentimes above all, electoral considerations.

That being said, the UK has a strong system to facilitate evidence-based policy making and provides many opportunities for scientists to contribute their knowledge, for example through engaging with scientific advisory committees, technical working groups, academic policy groups, and one-to-one interactions.

Helen Bayliss (Imperial College London) described her experience of giving evidence at a select committee inquiry. She found committee members informed about the topic and eager to learn more.

I was surprised to learn that, even though there are many ways in which scientists can engage in the policy process, good evidence is not readily communicated to policy makers. Both the Society of Biology and the British Ecological Society advocate policy based on sound science. They want to make sure their members’ research is being considered in policy making and offer a number of ways you can get involved:

The Training Day also helped me to understand the value the Society’s Special Interest Groups with regards to the science policy interface. For example, the Society joined forces with the BES, the Centre for Ecology and Hydrology and the James Hutton Institute to champion evidence based policy and decision making with regards to our natural environment and how it benefits our health and wellbeing in the Natural Capital Initiative (NCI).  We are currently planning the Natural Capital Summit which will bring together leading individuals and organisations from across academia, business, government and civil society to assess progress and make key, shared recommendations to further embed the value of natural capital into decision-making processes. Please get in touch if you would like to get involved.

You can also read a summary of the event on the BES Policy blog.

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