Translating Science to Policy Effectively: Looking to the Amazon

A high citation index is an interpretation of the effectiveness of science communication between scientists, not to mention the importance and relevance of the research, within that particular field. But is a highly cited paper an indication of effective communication to the public and policy makers?

Writing in NERC’s Planet Earth publication, Alan Grainger recalled that research by Oliver Phillips in the late nineties illustrated just how tropical forests, not only store, but sequester carbon, set about a chain of events that resulted in the creation of RAINFOR, a multinational scientific network.

RAINFOR has published and continues to publish an extensive body of research in highly ranked journals. The research has reached policy makers in two distinct ways; indirectly through the IPCC and directly through a report by the British Government that used a synthesis of RAINFOR research at a UN convention on climate change.

Because the results of RAINFOR’s work has been effectively communicated to policy-makers, initiatives such as carbon-offset schemes that involve planting forests have been operationalised. However international policy has yet to fully take on board the full implications of their research, such as conserving existing natural forests. If effectively valued and incorporated into the carbon offset markets, forests are worth orders of magnitude more standing then cleared.

Publishing in leading journals such as Science and Nature often results in a level of exposure to the media that would not otherwise be received in the ‘smaller’ journals. The BES journals (Journal of Ecology, Functional Ecology, Journal of Animal Ecology and Journal of Applied Ecology) are ranked some of the highest within ecology; all but one ranked inside the top twenty ecology journals. Concurrently, extensive media coverage highlights scientific developments to policy-makers. This can be particularly effective when the paper clearly has policy relevance, such as Professor Bill Sutherland’s paper in the Journal of Applied Ecology in 2006: The identification of 100 questions of high policy-relevance in the UK.

When Alan Grainier reported that UN estimates of forest loss could be overinflated due to their statistical modeling techniques, and possibly underestimating the influence of natural forest regrowth, he stressed the importance of errors when making forest estimates. So that the message wasn’t misinterpreted in his research, he emphasised the need for a better monitoring system. After exposure from the BBC, and subsequently across the globe, it is hoped that carbon credits trading under REDD, (Reducing GHG Emissions through Deforestation and forest Degradation), will consider Alan’s idea of creating a World Forest Observatory.

Finally, interacting directly with ministers is an effective means of translating science into policy. Meetings and conferences attended by ministers, are a great opportunity for scientists to interact with politicians and present their ideas and findings.

Scientists must always be mindful that, in order to get the message across, they should be clear, non-technical and succinct, so as not to alienate their subject.