Demystifying Policy in Scotland

The Scottish Policy Group (SPG) and the Scottish Policy and Research Exchange (SPRE) held an online policy training event on the 22nd of September with the aim of Demystifying Policy and this is a summary of the event. Bethany Chamberlain wrote a summary of the event below.

Alan Caldwell. Durness, Scotland. Pexels


This event was full of brilliant tips and advice about bridging the gap between scientific work and policy. Here are some of the key messages:

  • Keep your content succinct, jargon-free and focussed on the evidence. Ensure it is relevant and timely.
  • Consider what your audience already knows and what channels/media/forums they use to acquire knowledge.
  • Be proactive – seek our opportunities and ensure you stay up to date with current political affairs.
  • Get ahead of the game and be prepared to be in it for the long-haul.
  • No matter what research career stage you are at, you are an expert so do not underestimate your own knowledge and expertise as it is valuable.

Introduction to policy

This hugely informative event began with a basic introduction to policy from Jeanette Hall (NatureScot) who explained that policies are a set of principles to guide actions. They are influenced by a range of factors including values, science and economics – with none being more important than the other, not even science! International commitments and discussions, such as those taking place at COP26 in Glasgow this November, also influence national policy.

It is worth noting that there is a difference between devolved matters (Scottish Government) and reserved matters (UK) with the environment being a devolved matter and examples of reserved matters including defence and foreign policy.

Jeanette concluded with some helpful tips about writing for policy audiences:

  • Simplify your work into plain English – policymakers are not interested in detailed technical information.
  • Keep it brief.
  • Make it relevant to current policy discussions and be timely.
  • Be certain about uncertainty.
  • Focus on the evidence and always be honest.
  • Tell a story to bring a topic to life and explain why it matters.

This advice is key, and these points were echoed and reinforced throughout the event.

Engaging with policy

Nicky Bibby (SPRE) opened his talk with some helpful advice about how to approach policy engagement:

  1. Consider your audience – what do they already know and care about?
  2. Consider your message – what is the core focus? Drive this message home and build your piece around this.
  3. Consider your medium – how does your audience tend to acquire knowledge?

Nick highlighted that policy briefs are important tools for policymaker engagement. These should be professional but non-academic in style, short (2-4 pages) and focussed on a particular policy problem or question. Recommendations should draw naturally from the evidence you are presenting.

Nick presented a template structure of a policy brief (see slide image below).

Nick clarified that what distinguishes a policy question from a research question is that policies can be implemented in the real world – always keep this in mind when devising recommendations as the more you can inform the discussion around implementation, the better.

Finally, in considering your research topic and how you could link it to policy, consider what policy change you want to create as this will help determine which angle you should approach it from and which sectors will be impacted or involved in this.

Slide from Nick's presentation

Routes to engage with Parliament

Graeme Cook (SPICe) provided useful advice about engaging with MSPs and policy. In particular, he emphasised the importance of seeking out some background information about an MSP (including their political party and areas of interest) before approaching them. He also noted that impartiality is important – your role as a scientist is to help politicians make decisions by providing robust evidence, not to take decisions for them.

Graeme explained that the role of Parliamentary committees is to scrutinise the government and hold them to account through inquiries for example. This can be an excellent way to get more involved with policy as committees want to hear from you and rely on expert knowledge. Specifically, you can respond to calls for evidence, take part in focus groups and watch committees online. To find out what committees are up to, visit the Scottish Parliament website and check out social media. You can also sign up to this SPRE mailchimp for weekly updates.

Consultations are another excellent way to engage and are usually structured with clear questions. You can respond as an individual or with a group such as the BES.

Science into policy: tipping the balance

Chris Leakey (NatureScot) provided practical guidance about promoting the use of science in policy. With science competing with many different priorities and groups (i.e. lobbyists and public opinion), we have to be sure to present as compelling an argument as possible.

Here are some tips from Chris:

  • Get your data into public holdings (e.g. NatureScot use data and knowledge) – this helps establish yourself as a ‘go-to academic’ and is great for building working relationships with individuals in policy.
  • Offer to help or shadow; there are groups like SPRE and SPG you can actively get involved with. This could also lead to opportunities to input into consultation responses.
  • Keep up to date with policy affairs (check out the Programme for Government) and look up research pools like SAGES and MASTS.
  • Avoid lobbying – stay science grounded for your own integrity and be constructive by proposing solutions, not just presenting challenges.
  • If preparing verbal evidence, be confident (there is a reason you have been asked!), keep it short, avoid jargon, use bullet points and provide links to further information. Research who the other panel members are and know the session focus (Parliamentary clerks will be able to give you this information). Finally, try to anticipate conflicts or sensitive issues and prepare for these.

Policy Experience

Lydia Neimi (University of the Highlands and Islands) provided an overview of her experience of breaking into the world of policy through her work as a PhD researcher on pharmaceuticals in the environment. Lydia received a competitive scholarship from the Scottish Government Hydro Nation Scholars Programme to undertake her work and now works with the cross-sector group One Health Breakthrough Partnership which brings together four agencies in Scotland. She also wrote a blog for SPICe about the policy relevance of her research area.

In terms of careers advice, Lydia recommended maximising on your contacts and reaching out early to any stakeholders you work with who are involved with policy. It is also worth researching different funding streams as some want policy impact meaning the funders may be able to support you.

Preparing for policy work

Stuart Housden (RSPB) highlighted that science is core and necessary to policymakers – they need the evidence which you may be able to provide. For example, civil servants rely on information from NatureScot and SEPA among others so you could reach out to these groups to find opportunities for collaboration. Map out a clear plan of action setting out who you want to influence, who has the same cares and interests as you, and who you will need to seek ideas from – do not set into this unprepared. It is also important to build alliances and look to collaborate as there is strength in numbers and combining efforts. It is also helpful to understand what opposing stakeholders’ views and motivations are on a particular topic as you will need to present an argument that can change their minds.

Stuart emphasised the importance of getting ahead of the game and anticipating upcoming areas of policy relevance. Check out this SPRE guidance for more information. Aim to build links with the people you want to influence – before trying to make demands of an MSP, introduce yourself and make them aware of your research. For example, summer tours can be an opportunity to connect with MSPs. Remember, try not to only criticise – at the end of the day, people in policy are only human so where they accept an idea or fulfil an ask, thank them.