By Dr Rob Brooker, Chair, Scottish Policy Group
At this time of year, with the shops stuffed with stuff and pubs offering some welcome respite from December’s gloom and wet, it’s hard not to get a little Bacchanalian. But for this BES Scottish Policy Group blog, and as an alternative to the ritual madness of the BES Annual Meeting, I thought I’d pay a visit to the more contemplative Janus. “Isn’t this a little early?” you cry. Surely the time for reflection and promises never to eat/drink/play Cluedo ever again is the appropriately-named January? However, at this year’s Annual Meeting I’m handing over the Chair of the Scottish Policy Group to Ruth Mitchell, and so this feels like a good time to look back on what we hoped the group would achieve for the BES and its members, where we currently stand, and what goals we might set ourselves for the next few years.
I had a quick dig in in my SPG files to find the original concept note put forward to the BES Policy Committee (in May 2011! – tempus fugit) for the development of regional policy groups. The aims included improving the BES Policy Team’s awareness of policy developments in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, increasing both the Policy Team’s and BES members’ ability to respond to these developments, and assisting policymakers through the provision of appropriate, timely and evidence-based advice. This initiative was in part prompted by the realisation that many of the policy areas relevant to the BES (including biodiversity, climate change, and agriculture) had been devolved from Westminster to the Parliaments and regional assemblies in Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland. If the BES were to engage on these issues at a genuinely UK level, it needed a mechanism to keep track of developments away from Westminster.
The Scottish Policy Group has been able to act as a general test case for this approach. And in getting established we have been lucky in a number of ways, not least by having a very supportive BES Policy Team, and considerable advice and help from Scottish Environment LINK (particularly Andy Myles and Rea Cris). In addition BES members in Scotland have really responded with interest to the group’s establishment and ongoing work; we now have 90 folk on our mailing list (all BES members), including an increasing number of early career researchers, which I think is essential if any SIG is going to have momentum and survive long-term.
So has it worked? I would certainly say we’ve increased the Society’s awareness and responsiveness with respect to key areas of Scottish policy development, in particular biodiversity policy. I wonder sometimes whether the Policy Team might occasionally like a holiday from e-mails arriving from north of the border. The challenge can be to choose which policy areas to engage with, not least because we realise we have only a limited capacity and manpower available, but I also think we’re in the process of developing the capacity of BES members in Scotland to respond to policy developments; for example, we’re currently engaging with the recently-initiated review of protected areas. The group is also trying to provide communication channels by which BES members can themselves get more engaged with the policy-making environment in Scotland, for example through our Pie And A Pint events. As to the final goal of assisting policymakers to access good quality evidence and advice, I would say this is a work in progress and needs to be linked to the development of a comprehensive expertise database within the BES, an activity which is currently underway.
In terms of general reflections about the whole process, one of the critical things about the groups is its developing autonomy and internal impetus. Andy Myles from Scottish Environment LINK argued strongly in an early Pie And A Pint event that names matter: it was important to call the group “Scottish” because this immediately demonstrates it is “of Scotland”. The legislation is generated by and delivered in Scotland, and the group operates in a similar way and this may be important in giving us legitimacy when talking to Scottish policymakers. I also hope this has benefits for the BES beyond simply the capacity for covering policy developments in Holyrood. It is perhaps good for the Society to have a core of activity specifically in Scotland (which can feel like a long way from events in Charles Darwin House), although I’m conscious that we’ve focussed very much on Edinburgh events and need to start thinking about moving north of the Firth (once the bridge is open again). The other general reflection, and its one that we repeat like an SPG mantra, is that things can be done differently in Scotland. Routes of communication to policymakers and MSPs are much more direct and simple, but this cuts both ways. It provides opportunities for understanding and linking into policy making, but achieving a higher profile and recognition also means as a group – and as researchers – we may be under more direct scrutiny.
So overall I think we’re in a good place and it’s a good time for me to hand over the Chair to Ruth (good luck Ruth!). There’s still stuff to do to deliver the Society’s original aims, but we’ve got a very solid foundation to build on and I hope some of the lessons we’ve learnt in Scotland can help with similar initiatives in Wales and Northern Ireland. For those of you not coming to the meeting, feel free just to get in touch by e-mail to find out more about the group, or check out the Scottish Policy Group page on the BES website. For those coming to Edinburgh for the annual revels, several members of the Scottish Policy Group committee will be around throughout the Annual Meeting, as will Jackie Caine and Ben Connor, the BES’ Policy Manager and Officer, respectively. If you’re at all interested in SPG activities – irrespective of whether you’re based in Scotland – then please come to chat with any of us. Alternatively you’ll find us in the Royal Dick bar of the Summerhall arts centre, 19:45 on Monday 14th December, or at our workshop on the Tuesday lunchtime.