For a Meaningful Science-Policy Interface, Scientists Have to Do These Three Things

  • 2019/07/03     Dresden, Germany

    Image: Jan Rieger/clever pictures

    By Atiqah Fairuz SallehCommunications and Advocacy

    When it comes to governing the commons – resources that belong to a whole community – the intersections of science and policy are inevitable. Scientists, in particular, are urged to take the lead by doing three things: identify the needs of policy, engage with the right stakeholders, and maintain connections for sustainable impact.

    To ensure that we arrive at sound policies that allocate resources in the most equitable manner, good science and policy will have to work hand in hand. We need scientific findings to inform policy. At the same time, policy circles cannot afford to work in a vacuum without reference to good science.

    Opening the International Dialogue on Working at the Science-Policy Interface organised by UNU-FLORES on 11 June 2019, Technische Universität Dresden Rector Prof. Hans Müller-Steinhagen spoke about the value of working with the policy sector for academia. Especially in the era of fake news, it is the duty of scientists to speak up against dangerous tendencies coming from sources of alternative facts. By joining forces with policy actors, we ensure that policy is informed by good science.

    Identify the Needs of Policy

    The panel at the Dialogue, moderated by Rachel Ahrens and Dr Tamara Avellán of UNU-FLORES, brought together representatives from both policy and academia to discuss the science-policy divide and how we can bridge it, looking at specific examples from UNU-FLORES. We can draw three main conclusions on what it takes for a meaningful science-policy interface from the discussions that took place in the Dülfersaal at TU Dresden.

    Firstly, it is essential for scientists to take the initial step and identify what society needs. For any solutions-oriented science to be effective, a community’s needs have to be consulted prior to embarking on a scientific project. Addressing the science-policy interface in the UN System and UNU’s policy impact at the Dialogue, UNU Rector and UN Under-Secretary-General Dr David Malone emphasised the importance of asking communities about their needs before any attempts to try solving their problems.

    In fact, sharing her experience, panellist Natalia Jiménez traced how her personal journey from the policy sector to academia was largely driven by her curiosity about what did not work in her former field. Her job at the Ministry of Environment and Sustainable Development in Colombia exposed her to the challenges when making decisions, developing policy, and responding to stakeholders’ needs. As part of a team drafting a regulation on wastewater use, she saw the lack of implementation and wondered why that was the case. This prompted her to join UNU-FLORES as a Visiting Scholar and Alexander von Humboldt Climate Fellow to get her questions answered herself.

    Supporting this line of argument, a representative from the same Ministry Carlos Andres Palacio admitted that if more knowledge were to be made available to governments, they could make better policies. Speaking on the panel, he raised how critical it is to have data that is made usable for policymakers.

    Image: Jan Rieger/clever pictures

    Engage with the Right Stakeholders

    For such a demand-driven science, constant information exchange is crucial. We need ways for the scientific and policy circles to be able to share information, including their needs. Also on the panel, Prof. Manfred Buchroithner highlighted the need for scientists to take the first step and address politicians.

    Further, scientists need to engage stakeholders at various levels from the grassroots to the higher policy levels. Bottom-up approaches need to complement top-down approaches for solid stakeholder engagement.

    As Natalia Jiménez pointed out, knowledge exchange is key to keeping stakeholders engaged right from the start. One way of approaching a project would be to learn about the priorities and timeline a government were to set and then to plan research that would feed into these priorities.

    Looking at a case in point, Dr Mathew Kurian shared on the panel three incentives that the Ministry of Water and Irrigation of Tanzania saw from its engagement with UNU-FLORES. They were keen on the institute’s PhD programme, where a PhD researcher (Sekela Twisa) works directly on research that feeds into the Ministry’s strategic priorities. On the capacity building front, they also showed interest in short training workshops. Situating the engagement as part of a regional effort was also attractive to the Ministry. UNU-FLORES signed cooperation agreements with three ministry partners in Africa, formalising the establishment of the Africa Points of Excellence (APE) research consortium with the objective of advancing data generation, collection, and policy-relevant research with potential to support the development of regional data repositories for drought risk monitoring in Sub-Saharan Africa.

    Maintain Connections for Sustainable Impact

    Agreements between academic and policy outfits allow for lasting partnerships and exchange to be cultivated. Dr Kurian added how this would enable long-term monitoring of policy impact.

    Besides, having contacts, and especially in the form of a formalised cooperation, also creates avenues for greater exchange. Carlos Andres Palacio recalled the value of having access to the expertise and network UNU-FLORES offers on the Safe Use of Wastewater in Agriculture (SUWA). He appreciated how new opportunities arose by inviting international experts to Colombia.

    Natalia Jiménez echoed these sentiments – it is all about the people. Connections facilitate information flow. For example, there are occasions when ministries are actively seeking information. Having the right networks and connections to good science will ensure that they get the right information they need to inform policymaking.

    Image: Jan Rieger/clever pictures

    At the interface of science and policy, institutions such as UNU are the perfect embodiment of where great things can happen. Benefitting from a network of accomplished researchers and itself having access to a wide variety of local and international networks, UNU has the convening power to influence progress in both science and policy.

    Closing the International Dialogue, UNU-FLORES Director Prof. Edeltraud Guenther highlighted the critical role of nexus thinking and transdisciplinary research in furthering policy impact going forward. Given the larger developments in environmental concerns – with the growing Fridays for Future movement and the increasing popularity of the Greens in Germany as a whole – Prof. Müller-Steinhagen sees a window of opportunity for driving the dialogue with courage and optimism.

    More photos of the event are available on our Flickr album.