PolicyNet: Knowledge and skills for science and engineering policy

Much still needs to be done to bridge the gap between scientists and policy makers. Differences in language and timescales can create artificial boundaries and lead to problems when communicating. Understanding the skills that both scientists and policy professionals should have to help them communicate and understand knowledge, evidence and expertise is vital for enabling good working relationships between the two sectors. A PolicyNet event – knowledge and skills for science and engineering policy to discuss this was held by the Royal Academy of Engineering last week.

Last week’s event was held in partnership with UCL’s new Department of Science, Technology, Engineering and Public Policy (STEaPP), which is currently developing two new MPA programmes – Science and Public Policy and Engineering and Public Policy – launching in September this year. Chaired by Dr Alan Walker, Head of Policy at the Royal Academy of Engineering, members of the panel each considered the following question developed by STEaPP:

“What do you think is the single most important thing a scientist, engineer or policy professional should learn to help them successfully bring knowledge, evidence and expertise to policy?”

The role of the Government Office for Science (GO Science) in bringing together scientists and engineers across the civil service was introduced by Giles Robertson, Private Secretary to Professor Sir Mark Walport. For scientists to be successful in communicating with policy makers, Giles highlighted that scientists must learn to be relevant. Framing your work, and answering the questions posed by government, rather than something you think is more important, are both key. To achieve this, you must also understand your audience. Knowing their level of expertise and background will help scientists to effectively present their evidence in a relevant and timely way.

The need to understand your audience was echoed by Dr Jason Blackstock from STEaPP at UCL. As part of the team developing the new MPA programmes, Jason voiced the potential challenges this may bring for teaching. Ensuring individuals leave the programme with knowledge of who to contact, and what they require will be key. Jason highlighted the role that experiential learning might play, with students tackling real-life problems at a number of organisations.

Andrew Crudgington, Director of External Affairs and Strategy at the Institution of Civil Engineers reflected on his experience in policy at the Institution to address STEaPP’s question. Andrew referred to a recent piece by Giles Wilkes, the former special adviser to Vince Cable, to highlight his understanding of the policy making environment in the UK. Talking about the disparate nature of Westminster, Wilkes wrote in the Financial Times at the beginning of this month – “There are only the departments – 20 or so disparate organisations, peopled by stubbornly uncommunicative officials, each with its own direction of travel and prone to colliding with the others”. Scientists who interact with policy need to understand that policy making is not linear, and is usually an iterative process.

Andrew highlighted the need for scientists to be a critical friend, to take part in policy processes, and to provide expertise. There may not always be an audience available when you are first ready with information, but if you embed yourself in the process, you will be able to push through information when there is a window of opportunity. In Andrew’s experience, it was vital for the Institution of Civil Engineers to have panels of experts for mobilisation when needed by Government, and to make VIPs available for Ministers when required.

In addition to learning to understand the needs of policy makers, Professor Lord Robert Winston, vice-chairman of the Parliamentary Office of Science and Technology (POST), highlighted that scientists need to listen more – to policy makers, to the media, and to the public. Understanding and listening to the media/policy reception to a particular issue will help scientists reframe arguments and address concerns that may be unfounded. Social science is critical to understanding public perception to policy, and understanding public perception is critical in launched policies. Without public consent, there may not be any action.

There was consensus among the panel that for scientists and engineers to successfully bring knowledge, evidence and expertise to policy, they need to understand their audience and be able to frame their evidence in the right way. Understanding the processes of policy is vital, and policy professionals need to have experience of dealing with unexpected changes, where timing is key. Following on from the policy makers’ example of engaging with a wide range of stakeholders, scientists need to make sure they engage with those in other disciplines to understand the impact of particular policy outcomes.

For more tips for engaging and communicating with policy makers, see our ‘top 10 tips’ guide, which was generated from a policy training workshop the BES held in April this year.