“Bridging the Knowing-Doing Gap”: Lessons for Engaging with Policymakers

The thorny challenge of addressing the mismatch between the ecological knowledge generated by scientific researchers and that applied by practitioners – be they conservation organisations, policymakers or businesses – has been widely recognised, but remains a work in progress. How do we bridge the knowing-doing gap?

A new special profile in the Journal of Applied Ecology seeks to advance this debate through a series of papers first presented last year at the British Ecological Society’s centenary celebrations at INTECOL, in a symposium entitled “Putting applied ecology into practice: knowledge and needs for the 21st century”. The symposium sought to provide a platform for practitioners to share their insights into what they require from applied ecological science and to highlight successful examples of its practical application.

In his editorial, Philip Hulme outlines some of the barriers to effective knowledge exchange and the limitations of current approaches. He emphasises the need for a genuinely two-way process, not merely a case of translating and transferring the “explicit knowledge” contained within scientific papers and other research outputs, but also of understanding the “tacit knowledge” – local, first-hand and individual – possessed by practitioners.

What does this mean for ecologists – and other scientists – seeking to engage with policymakers? Ian Bainbridge, Head of Science at Scottish Natural Heritage, further explores this question in his paper based on insight and examples from the devolved administration in Scotland. Bainbridge suggests that while it is frequently acknowledged that scientific papers are a poor method for communicating successfully with policy makers, scientists are often given little guidance or training as to how this could be achieved.

Whilst policymakers are increasingly citing the need for an evidence-based approach, providing useful evidence in practice requires an understanding of their needs and perspective. Bainbridge outlines nine key elements that policymakers look for in scientific evidence and advice:

  • Understanding: an appreciation of their policy needs and direction and an understanding of what is politically possible.
  • Familiarity: a good understanding of how government works.
  • Relevance: evidence focused on the questions the policymakers are seeking to address.
  • Summary: evidence provided in plain English and summarised in two sides of A4.
  • Simplicity: if in doubt simplify; most policy makers do not have scientific backgrounds.
  • Brevity: keep points focused and meetings short, not a two-hour lecture.
  • Certainty: include levels of certainty and probability.
  • Timeliness: the ability to work to shorter political timescales measured in hours or days
  • Credibility: knowing that evidence is reliable and credible through knowledge of scientific standing and publication record.

The paper concludes that it is crucial for ecologists to engage early with policymakers, and to build long-term relationships through engaging in fora which enable dialogue with all of the parties interested in an issue.

This week’s BES Introduction to Policy in Scotland workshop, organised by the Scottish Policy Group offers one such opportunity for researchers to understand the needs of policymakers, to be followed by Protecting Scotland’s Biodiversity, a conference bringing together scientists, policymakers and practitioners. To contribute to and follow the discussions on 2 and 3 October, follow the Twitter hashtag #scotbio14.