Influencing Policy on Climate Change Workshop

Written by Dr Jen Roberts, ClimateXChange Post-Doc Civil & Environmental Engineering, University of Strathclyde


With the help of a UKCCSRC career development grant, I was able to attend a workshop about Influencing Policy on Climate Change at Cumberland Lodge on the 1st October. The workshop was intended for Early Career Researchers working on climate change – in *any* discipline. Considering that climate change research now penetrates possibly most academic fields, I figured this could be quite a novel gathering1.

I also thought the workshop would provide particularly useful learning for the postdoc that I started a few months back. Based at the University of Strathclyde, I am one of twelve researchers across Scotland that are funded by ClimateXChange – Scotland’s Centre of Expertise on Climate Change. The centre brings together a range of researchers to provide independent advice, research and analysis on climate change and climate change policy in Scotland. I felt like I was pretty up to scratch on energy policy, but much less so on the policy process and where researchers can fit into shaping policy.

The motivation behind the workshop was to (1) promote interdisciplinary exchange, and to (2) share the different routes through which policy decisions can be influenced by researchers.

The morning kicked off with the enthusiastic, heartfelt welcome from the Cumberland Lodge team who brought this workshop from seed to realization. Then Adam Cooper from UCL enlightened us on the progressive stages of the policy cycle – giving a revealing and succinct overview of the policy process and highlighting where research can fit into or guide this cycle. Adam also demonstrated excellent ‘slidesmanship’ – a term I have coined to describe the craft of artful presentation slide construction.

The first workshop aim, ‘to promote interdisciplinary exchange’, was achieved by a morning and an afternoon presentation session for which we were split into two un-themed groups. In these sessions, workshop attendees each gave a 2-minute, 1-slide presentation to each other – with 3 minutes of Q&A discussion. A very novel aspect of these sessions were that we graded each speaker – and you can see some of the feedback forms for my short spiel. This was an excellent way to encourage audience engagement and articulate delivery from the speakers. In addition – there have been few occasions where we academics have had such constructive and attentive feedback on such a range of aspects about presentation style. Some of the feedback comments and scores had me chortling to myself when I finally got chance to read them on my way back North. The morning sessions really did demonstrate that, with effective communication, there really are no  barriers to impede interdisciplinary climate change research synergies.

Over lunch, I got talking to the energetic Will Ball from ClimateSnack about his research at Imperial and the vision of ClimateSnack – which he co-founded. This is an international and inter-disciplinary community where early career scientists can improve their writing and communication skills. It seems like a great place for people who want to hone their writing skills, or get themselves up to scratch before they enter the global blogosphere (I had not realised that Will was speaking that afternoon and so grilled him about his experience and observations from ClimateSnack, poor bloke). Since we are all time-limited, the ClimateSnack model is a neat way to maximise efficient working and minimise organisational hassle. I would encourage you to check out the ClimateSnack initiative if you are wishing to exercise your writing skills with the aid of a local and global community of personal trainers.

I also had some interesting conversations with other attendees concerning the more ethical debate about whether or not researchers should be expected to engage with policy makers. This was picked up again in the afternoon in Mark Maslin’s compelling talk – where he stressed that high profile engagement is not for every researcher and reminded us that we were early-career and so may not, at this stage, be best placed for such engagement. In my opinion (and it is only that…an opinion) this is a really important point. Researchers should only engage with policy makers or e.g. the media if they wish to engage – and once they have developed the appropriate skill set. Poor communication can do more harm than good. Mark went on to give some excellent tips on effective communication and collaboration. His reflections were fed from his years of experience working with policy makers and the media while managing an impressive academic career.

Mark’s talk was preceded by Becky Buell’s insight into the landscape of NGO’s and Think Tanks. Becky is an expert in strategic approaches to social justice issues such as climate change. Becky introduced us to the breadth of publics and their value systems – reminding us that the public understanding of climate change is absolutely not an information deficit issue, and instead arises from different world views and value systems. Campaigns about climate change issues therefore requires a new approach rather than inundating people with facts and numbers which are meaningless and lack context to the various groups of the public. Becky’s thoughtful, cloudless delivery style was complimented by excellent summary slides.

Finally, the day wrapped up with talks from Dr Aaron Goater (a familiar face to many of us who have been researching in the field of CCS for a few years now) who now works at POST, and Julian Wright from the Environment Agency. Aaron and Julian shared with us their career pathways from research scientist to working at the heart of policy making. The floor then opened for an extended Q&A discussion, allowing us ECR’s to question them further on their experience of the transition from the world of academia to that of policy – and for their reflections on the key differences between the two. I am sure that the other delegates will be as grateful as I am for their honesty and humour during this discussion.

To give a flavour of the nature of the feedback from our brief presentations, here are 3 of mine, selected at random from a total of 22. Constructive criticism was consistent, and focussed on my time keeping. I introduced the subject broadly and without going into the nitty gritty of my research, which, in part, polarised the opinions in the group. These mammoth task of keeping these sessions to time (even with wafflers like me!) and feedback form distribution/collation were brilliantly managed by Owen Gower.

The conference was run under the Chatham House Rules, and so I cannot divulge the specific pearls of wisdom, key learning and sometimes controversial statements or other such things the speakers shared. However, know that there were plenty from the speakers and during the discussions – and CCS popped up regularly as usual.  In addition, many useful, interesting and fun conversations took place during the refreshment breaks, which perfectly interspersed the day, and were enriched by a brief blast of fresh crisp royal Windsor air en route to the coffee room. Unfortunately I had to make my journey Northwards in the early evening, but I am sure those that stayed for the evening had some fruitful dialogue and debate on the subjects that were raised during the day, perhaps nourished by wine or pacified by satiated stomachs!

Thanks to UKCCSRC bursary for supporting my attendance at this workshop, to the Cumberland Lodge team for the successful organisation of an excellent day, and for their financial support which made this event affordable for ECR’s with tiny budgets to attend.


1In fact, while writing this post, I paused to think of any discipline that has not yet performed  climate change relevant research. This became rather a long pause. After a while, I decided to seek help from our friend Wikipedia. Scanning the full list of academic disciplines and sub disciplines I would say that one would be hard pressed to find an academic field that has not been infiltrated by some aspect of climate change research.