Sharing your work beyond academia requires a specific skillset and dedicated time, both of which can be hard to develop in the busy life of a researcher. At Springer Nature, we've recently released a societal impact toolkit, aimed at early career researchers who are looking to learn more about the importance of societal impact and how they can maximize the visibility of their own research to help make real change.
Here, Erika von Schneidemesser, atmospheric scientist and science-policy advocate, shares her top tips for researchers working with different types of actors, from NGOs to governmental organizations.
(Erika also told a story at our virtual Springer Nature Storytellers at Berlin Science Week show! You can watch the recording here.)
Written by Erika von Schneidemesser
Early on in my career, I clearly knew that for me, doing research that has a societal impact mattered. And reflecting on the choices I have made at each transition, this has continued to be a driving factor in the path I have chosen.
I currently work at the Institute for Advanced Sustainability Studies in Potsdam, Germany, where I lead a research group focused on air quality, mobility, and health. Through our research we often work with different types of actors, from NGOs to governmental organizations. The focus on urban areas means that we are often working with municipal governments, trying to improve our understanding of the effect of different types of mobility policies on air quality and health. Here I share some of my take-aways from the experiences I’ve gathered in my career, from exchanges with colleagues from both research and policy perspectives, and from my year as an AAAS Science and Technology Policy Fellow.
Much influence is dependent on relationships. For example, when a window of opportunity for input opens up, the connections that have already been established are often those that are called on to provide input. It is important to develop relationships built on mutual respect and trust and that this won’t happen overnight. This is very much ‘the long game’ in engaging in science policy.
If you have been engaged in science-policy previously or received any science communication training, this message is likely getting old, but it still stands. For effective communication, we need to boil it down to a few key points. Don’t lead with uncertainty, lead with what you know. Short, succinct, accessible messages are critical. This does not mean you should remove complexity or dumb it down, but rather clearly make your points and include the necessary complexity in an understandable way. This takes practice.
There are myriad ways to influence policy, and these go far beyond activities such as testifying at a congressional hearing or speaking directly to a minister or elected official. We recently outlined the wealth of activities that fall under science-policy in an article in Earth’s Future. The figure below outlines some of these activities and their relative place on a spectrum from ‘science’ to ‘policy’.
Information is received differently from different sources; who the messenger is matters. In working with colleagues from an NGO, they communicated that a fact sheet or policy brief is taken more seriously when produced by a scientific institution than if the NGO were to produce it on their own. The content could be the exact same! On the flip side, there is still often the assumption or expectation that any scientist engaged in science-policy will present the facts, but refrain from opinion or advocacy (or work in an organization that requires this neutrality). These are just two examples, and there are pros and cons to any role. The critical point is to understand what is important to you, identifying that and engaging in science-policy in a way that allows you to be true to that ambition.
If you are working in research and you want to ensure that the outcome of your research has a chance to influence (policy) decisions, you will dramatically up the likelihood if you can bring in partners from the relevant organizations from the start. Engage with the relevant actors early on and have discussions at eye-level about the different goals you each have, the timelines you are working with, and be prepared to adjust your research plan. In considering possible adjustments to your research, this does not mean you should compromise the science you are aiming to do, but rather that you could consider incorporating additional ideas to address the needs of some of the other actors. The more ‘buy-in’ and co-ownership that others in the group feel they have in the project, the more likely any results will be taken up by that group.
There are a variety of opportunities, from immersive year-long fellowships to short seminars that focus on science communication, science-policy, transdisciplinary work, and the like. If this is something you are interested in, it is worthwhile to seek out some of these options. Furthermore, if you are going to engage in science-policy, take the time to understand the system and who the players are, what has already happened, and what relevant processes exist or might have happened previously. There are often windows of opportunity for input into different types of processes, and seeking these out can make your efforts more successful.
Dr. Erika von Schneidemesser is an atmospheric scientist. She received her PhD from the University of Wisconsin-Madison, and currently leads a research group at the Institute for Advanced Sustainability Studies. The focus of her research is air pollution, mobility, and health in urban areas, with an emphasis on science-policy and collaboration with actors outside of academia.