Communicating uncertainty to policy makers

The Scottish Policy Group joined forces with Forest Research and the Centre for Ecology and Hydrology to run a mini-policy workshop for early career researchers at the Bush Campus in Edinburgh. One of the attendees reflects on what he learned.

What would you say if you bumped into a government minister at the conference buffet? If asked about your work, how would you describe months of research in a pithy sentence or two?

Before attending the BES Scottish policy training day a few weeks ago I would have probably choked on my cheese sandwich and made a red-faced exit towards the less intimidating table topped with jugs of water and orange juice.

The training wasn’t all about pitching our research however. Maggie Keegan’s introduction gave clarity to the basic questions I hoped I wouldn’t have to ask in front of the senior staff in the room. What actually is policy and who’s involved in making it? How does policy differ from legislation and government from parliament?

Presentations from Chris Quine (Forest Research) and Francis Daunt (CEH) shared a common theme around communicating uncertainty to policy-makers, using case studies to highlight pitfalls that may occur when research is adopted uncritically, as well as examples of good practice including presenting multiple possible outcomes to policymakers with clarity and transparency. Scottish Forestry policy adviser Colin Edwards gave valuable insight from a Government agency perspective, emphasising the need for speed (hours not weeks) and brevity (words not paragraphs) when responding to requests for evidence.

The final session of the day involved writing and rehearsing our ‘elevator pitches’ (in Forest Research’s one-storey Northern Research Station) before testing them out in front of sympathetic participants and facilitators. I’m pretty sure most of us felt at a least a bit of dread in the build-up but it really wasn’t warranted.

I can’t say for sure that a surprise encounter over lunch won’t result in a dash for the water jugs, but I now feel better prepared to chat about my work with anyone, whether in an elevator, at the buffet or beyond.