Parliamentary Shadowing Scheme 2017

What's it like to be an ecologist shadowing an MSP? Dr Isabel Jones reflects on just that, after spending two days with Rosanna Cunningham.

Dr Isabel Jones and Roseanna Cunningham MSP

As an early career academic I spend a lot of time contemplating how to make my research ‘count’. I know that I can – and should – write press releases for newly-published research to improve accessibility and reach for example. But what then? I know that I can write a policy brief, but who should I send it to, and will it be useful?

I realised I needed to learn more about the audience who may potentially use my research to make decisions: what do they need, what barriers are there to effective communication, what can I do as a scientist to help their decision-making? I decided the best way to do this was to get ‘behind the scenes’ of policymaking, and gratefully accepted the opportunity to shadow Roseanna Cunningham (MSP) Cabinet Secretary for Environment, Climate Change, and Land Reform during the 2017 British Ecological Society Parliamentary Shadowing Scheme.

Getting to know your audience

One of the most important things I began to appreciate during the Shadowing Scheme was that policymakers have multiple, sometimes conflicting, and always time-demanding roles. Understanding this has really helped me begin to ‘know my audience.’ I want to build on the excellent and informative blog from last year’s Parliamentary Shadowing Scheme, by highlighting some of the main roles the Cabinet Secretary took on during the two days I was shadowing her, and how, as scientists, we may want to shape our interactions with policymakers in light of these.

1) Being the public face of policy

Over the Christmas period over 60 million meals will be wasted in Scotland, so on the first morning of my placement, I joined the Cabinet Secretary at a photoshoot with Zero Waste Scotland and Chef Gary Maclean as part of a campaign to reduce food waste over the festive period. The Scottish Government has set an ambitious target to cut food waste by 33 % by 2025, and working to achieve this goal is part of the diverse portfolio of the Cabinet Secretary. I was also able to attend a general comms meeting, during which strategies for press-related activity were drawn up for the coming months: it was evident that the Cabinet Secretary needed to be extremely media-savvy, and be able to give a 30 second sound bite or be in front of a camera at the drop of a hat. Of course being the ‘face’ of any policy means that policymakers, for obvious reasons, want to be associated with positive actions and news.

Take home message: frame research outcomes to be constructive and positive. If you’ve identified a problem that needs policy action, also identify what policymakers can feasibly do about it considering the timescales involved (see point #3), and the potential benefits they will gain from your proposed policy action e.g. budget saving, hitting biodiversity targets etc.

2) Time traveller

I was amazed at how planned to the minute the Cabinet Secretary’s time is. Journey times, back-to-back meetings (some scheduled almost a year in advance), evening receptions, overseas trips… all kept on track by a colour-coded diary, the Cabinet Secretary’s Private Secretary David, and the rest of her team. The Cabinet Secretary had several folders filled daily with new briefs requiring her response. As there were so many, and time to read and digest information was limited, it was clear that briefs needed to be succinct and deliver key information quickly.

Take home message: time is limited, keep any information short and sweet. Policymakers are always short of time and need key facts, with an outline of how these facts fit in with their policy agenda. Make it clear (in a minute or so) how your research will help them do their job.

3) Politician under uncertainty

I was incredibly fortunate to be able to sit in on a cross-party round table on climate change involving members from each political party talking about climate change policy. Each party seemed to have a slightly different way of thinking and/or priorities, and this made me realise that when communicating with policymakers it’s necessary to be aware of the party’s overall priorities. I also attended a meeting with the Welsh Environment Committee, with much discussion revolving around uncertainties associated with Brexit, and how UK, Welsh and Scottish Governments will navigate the challenges posed by changes in environmental legislation. Furthermore, during a one-to-one chat with the Cabinet Secretary, we discussed how changes in scientific methods (e.g. calculating estimates for carbon storage) can really affect the ability of policymakers to assess the effectiveness of actions they put in place to work with the previous methods, which may now need to change in light of scientific advances.

Take home message: It can be a waiting game. ‘Policy’ can be a bit like a giant ship that turns very slowly: initial dialogues regarding policy change may be the nudge to get it going in the right direction, but it could take a long time to effect change ‘on the ground’. This is especially true when considering the timescales involved with changes in legislation, and how far in advance proposals for legislation change are put forward. Add to that the impacts of changes in scientific understanding and/or political climates, and you have a complicated and rather long-term game to play.

4) Being part of initiatives and networks

The Cabinet Secretary delivered a keynote speech during an evening reception at Holyrood: ‘Deer on your doorstep’ which was introducing a project working on urban deer in Glasgow. This reception brought together many different MSPs and policymakers, as the situation regarding urban deer is very interlinked and crosses multiple work portfolios: green spaces in cities are essential for wellbeing and health, yet they attract large mammals which may become a problem for road safety for example. Thus, many different policy areas, each requiring decision-making, need to be considered to come to an agreed and effective policy outcome.

Take home message: everything is connected. Understanding the links between different stakeholder groups can help bolster your arguments: perhaps your immediate research output isn’t a policy priority, but if it links to something that is, or is of a personal interest to the policymaker, then changing the angle of the information presented could be the inroad.

Isabel is a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Stirling and a Committee Member for the British Ecological Society Scottish Policy Group. Isabel works on conservation conflicts and carbon storage @_Isabel_Jones