Science Policy: An Approach to 'Actually Do Something' about Climate Change

by Heather Plumpton

What inspired you to apply to work on your PhD topic or current post-doc?

For me - brace yourself for a strong dose of naivety here - I wanted to do something about climate change. I wanted to make a difference, to have a positive impact on the world, to help tackle a big problem for humanity. I know that this isn’t the case for every researcher, and the importance of fundamental research should not be understated or swept aside in favour of more applied science. But there does seem to be a strong contingent of early-career researchers who went into research in the hopes of providing solutions and influencing the actions of governments.

How can science be applied to tackle the effects of climate change?

After the initial burst of excitement about the potential application of my PhD research, I soon realised that achieving this positive impact on society was not as straightforward as I had imagined. I couldn’t just publish papers and attend conferences and hope that my research would be picked up and used by policy makers. So what should I be doing instead?

Engaging with policy-makers

As a palaeo-researcher it can be hard to communicate the direct importance of your work to policy-makers (see this PAGES magazine article on the topic, based on discussions at the PAGES Young Scientists Meeting in 2017). The quest to make my research policy-relevant was a constant struggle in my PhD, which I made little progress in tackling until this year when I took part in the Walker Institute’s first Climate Services Academy Training (CSAT) programme. The programme was designed to train postgraduate students in evidence synthesis to inform policy or business decision making. At first glance, this sounds basic – evidence synthesis? Surely that’s exactly what a PhD trains you to do! The crucial difference comes from the phrase “to inform policy or business decision making”. It turns out this flips the process on its head.

Making a difference

Taking part in the CSAT programme fundamentally changed the way I think about research. The take-home message for me was that if we want our research to make a difference in the world, we need to change the way we conduct research. Instead of designing a research programme based on our perceptions of what is needed to tackle climate change issues, how about asking the people dealing with these issues on the ground (i.e. the stakeholders, the people you want to use your research) what they need? For example, the project I worked on as part of the CSAT programme was looking at the impacts of drought on food security. The stakeholders we worked with included farmer representatives, international aid charities, think tanks and policy-makers.

If we can find out the questions these stakeholders need answered, then we can design our research backwards from this starting point. We cannot take the needs of the people we hope will use our research for granted or assume we know best what they need. If we can answer their questions and meet their needs, then real change in policy and people’s lives can be achieved.

The Senegal CSAT team interviewing a stakeholder - Professor Boubacar Fall of UCAD University and the Senegal Climate Change Committee (COMNACC) - as part of the CSAT programme evidence synthesis training (from left to right; George Dakurah, Ayeshatu, Cheikh Modou Noreyni Fall, Prof. Boubacar Fall, Heather Plumpton).

This is sometimes called co-production of research; where ideally stakeholders will be involved in all phases of the research, from initial design of the questions, through the research process itself, to the communication of the results. This does not have to mean giving complete control to stakeholders to set your research questions. Involving them in the discussion can reveal mutually interesting and relevant topics to pursue. Engaging in this kind of equal knowledge exchange makes it far more likely that the research you produce will be useful and used.

Moving towards impact-focused research

However, I do accept it is not an easy task. The traditional research process often does not work this way, and it can be hard to break an established mould in your research group. I think this struggle is particularly pertinent for early-career researchers, as career progression is still so focused on publication in high-impact journals, which compete for prioritisation with impact-focused research that may well be location-specific and less generalisable. But as funding bodies are increasingly very interested in the impact of research, perhaps the scales will balance out, and impact-focused research outputs will be given more weight in interview panels even when they don’t generate high-impact publications. Many others, with more experience of research funding than me, have written blogs about how this change might be achieved. A particularly good one can be found here. For me, I think the co-production approach to research is the pathway to getting real satisfaction and joy out of the work I do. If we want our research to be useful and to be used, which I believe many of us do, then we need to change the way we do research.

Heather Plumpton
Department of Geography and Environmental Science, University of Reading 

If you are interested in details on Heather's experience of the CSAT programme, read her post published on the Walker Institute blog.

If you have questions or comments concerning Heather's post, please leave a comment below, or send her an email. You can also connect with her on Twitter.


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