Stepping Out of my Scientific Bubble in the Search for Policy Impact

Updated: Dec 20, 2019

By David Williams

Never before has climate science received so much public attention. Yet, as an early career researcher, we are often led to believe that the path we have chosen is insecure. The many positive and rewarding aspects of working in climate science are countered by a lack of fixed employment contracts, long working hours, pressure to publish in high-ranking journals, and large numbers of highly-qualified competitors, pushing us to do everything we can to increase our chance of landing that sought-after research position.  

Climate conferences are seen as facilitating platforms for vital encounters with other researchers. The presentation and discussion of research is normally punctuated by lavishly prepared tea and coffee breaks and intervals for meals, accompanied by incessant small-talk and a shared admiration for the spectacular choice of venue - I have stood in awe in front of seemingly never-ending lunch arrays and bottomless white wine, looking over pristine cityscapes and commenting on the wonderful view. Doing my bit for climate change, one crostini and sauvignon blanc at a time.

When reading a program leaflet at one such event (a rarity in itself), I noticed with interest that among the familiar objectives of networking and knowledge exchange, the objective of “policy impact” was listed. A bit of a hazy concept, policy impact essentially means effecting a change in behaviour, attitude, and knowledge of societal decision-makers and policy planners. This was to be achieved through providing a space for dialogue between scientists and the policy community. I took a look at other conference websites, and again and again I saw policy impact listed as a key objective. This was surprising to me, as societal decision-makers and policy planners are most often conspicuous solely by their absence at these events. Conference fees present a considerable barrier to engaging with the policy community, the language used is often needlessly complicated, and public institutions can rarely afford to grant their busy employees leave to attend.

In principle of course, the event organizers were right. Achieving policy impact is crucial in fighting the climate crisis we find ourselves in and should therefore be the primary objective of any climate science-related activity. I just didn’t regard scientific conferences as the most appropriate platforms for achieving this objective.

In pursuit of a more effective way of achieving policy impact, I decided to change my strategy. I joined my local political party, after which I nominated myself to advise on issues relating to energy and environment. Soon enough, I was asked if I would speak at the party spring conference on an issue relating to climate change. Familiar until then only with presenting in scientific forums and guided by my incessant naivety, I accepted the challenge. How hard could it be?

I arrived at the bleak community centre on a mild Saturday morning on which my political party was holding its spring conference. The main hall was filled with around 250 party members ready to spend the day deliberating. The topics for that day were education and climate change. Motions were tabled, and then one by one speakers would approach the lectern, talk into the microphone, and were given three minutes (not the normal 15-20 I was used to) to convince their fellow party members of their position on each motion. The conference started at nine o’clock in the morning, and after six hours of debate and a thoroughly underwhelming lunch break (not a crostini or sauvignon blanc in sight), the topic of climate change was up. I was the first speaker to be called to the floor, and with a sudden sense of anxiety and trepidation I approached the lectern.

I talked about the link between global warming and extreme events. I talked about the increased risks of forest fires and agricultural damage from droughts and heatwaves - which are already causing significant financial losses to the region. I talked about the importance of international climate negotiations for consensus and coalition-building, but that it was also important to implement climate action at the local scale where it was needed the most. And I talked about how, as one of the richest metropolises in western Europe, our city was failing miserably in its responsibility of acting as a frontrunner on climate change action. 

When I finished, I looked up, fully expecting the crowd to go mental and all start to download the latest IPCC summary for policymakers immediately. What I actually received was some polite applause by those kind enough to listen (perhaps about a third of the room). 

I was followed by a speaker with long lavish hair, flared trousers, Lennon-esque spectacles, and a loud imposing voice. His walk up onto the podium was purposeful and he grasped the lectern firmly with both hands. He talked about the German car industry’s grip of power over our national parliament and our political decision-making at the very top. He talked about the scandal which engulfed the car industry this year, when they were found guilty of falsifying emissions tests to make their products seem far less environmentally harmful than reality. This was manipulation of the highest order - their deceitful, lying actions were tantamount to a crime, and they deserved to feel the full force of the law. He talked about how those responsible in the car industry were not to be trusted, and how the companies had to be transferred over into state control immediately. His voice boomed, the lectern quaked, and the perfectly timed pauses in his speech were filled with rapturous applause. 

The challenge of communicating the need for climate change action was illustrated nicely in the underwhelming reception my speech received. I learned the hard way that scientific facts and statistics don’t elicit emotional responses. My storyline was not very evocative, as I didn’t identify a clear perpetrator of climate change. The scientific underpinnings of climate change are complicated, and there is always a degree of uncertainty when making projections into the future. The causal link between individual behaviour (such as driving a car to work) and the impacts of climate change (such as increased likelihood of flooding) is also temporally and spatially removed, making it very abstract. On reflection, I realise how obscure I must have sounded. My speech was not very salient for the audience, and it lacked urgency. 

What the following speaker managed so well was to convey a rich narrative, speaking to the value systems of the audience using simple and consistent language. He framed climate change as an issue of justice and equity, identifying explicit perpetrators, and suggesting a comprehensible course of action. His message was clear, the audience could relate, and the response was emphatic.

I am not disheartened by this experience. On the contrary, I gained a tremendous amount of perspective in escaping my scientific bubble in the search for policy impact, and would recommend this to other climate science researchers. The neo-liberalisation of climate science (strong competition and the lack of secure employment) can make it really difficult for under-pressure researchers to commit to these kinds of undertakings. However, the collective dilemma we as a society find ourselves in is daunting, and this is eminently clear to all climate scientists. 

I believe it is important to acknowledge, in particular for early career researchers, that climate scientists can have a significant impact by engaging with the public and clearly communicating the risk of inaction. When doing so, shifting the focus from presenting scientific facts and statistics to creating a narrative which speaks to the belief systems of the audience can significantly enhance public acceptance and the likelihood of affecting behaviour, attitudes, and knowledge. Crucially, it is society who will decide which environmental policies are implemented, and so climate scientists have a role to play in advocating for a just societal transformation. 

David Samuel Williams is studying for a PhD at the University of Hamburg, Germany. He researched the societal impacts of climate change, specifically how governance systems can improve their response to climate change impacts.

Art by Blue Rachapradit

This article is an online feature of Anthroposphere Issue V.

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