12 December 2014

Lancaster PhD student, Joe Acton, spent three months working in the Royal Society seeing how the UK’s top scientists try to ensure their work influences policy 

What influence does cutting edge scientific research, carried out in institutions like the Lancaster Environment Centre, have on political decision-making in places like Westminster and Brussels? This is a question that has always fascinated me.

So, when I found out that the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC), who fund my PhD, run a policy internship scheme, I didn’t have to think twice about applying.  I was lucky enough to be offered a three month internship at the Royal Society, a self-governing fellowship of many of the world’s most distinguished scientists and the UKs national academy for science.

The Royal Society, founded in 1660, has a long history of work on science policy both in the UK and internationally. They first appointed a foreign secretary in 1723, 59 years before the British government!

The Science Policy Centre of the Royal Society, where I was working, influences both policy for science (the Government’s policy for science and technology) and science for policy (ensuring policy decisions are based on good science). It has produced reports on topics as wide ranging as Climate Change and Cybersecurity.

The Resilience to Extreme Weather report

In September I joined the team working on the ‘Resilience to extreme weather’ report, led by an expert working group chaired by Professor Georgina Mace CBE FRS. The report looked at the effect of changing demographics and climate on our exposure to extreme weather over the next century. The analysis showed that the combination of a warming climate and a growing global population, increasingly focused in low lying coastal cities, will dramatically increase our exposure to extreme weather events over the coming century.

The report discussed general resilience-building strategies, the steps necessary for individuals and society to adapt in the face of extreme weather. It also analysed the effectiveness of a range of specific physical defences, comparing the advantages of ecosystem based defences such as the maintenance of mangroves or natural reefs, engineered defences like dams or levees and hybrid defences like artificial reefs or green roofs.

This analysis showed that while engineered defences tend to be more effective than ecosystem based approaches they offer fewer additional benefits and are often more expensive. A diverse portfolio of defensive measures is therefore likely to be most effective.

This report comes ahead of a significant year for global resilience building with agreements expected on the sustainable development goals, disaster risk reduction and climate change. The report highlights the fact that if common metrics can be established resilience can act as a thread linking these frameworks. 

Launching the report

I arrived at the Royal Society as the project returned from its external reviewers, so from day one I was involved in ensuring that we addressed the reviewers’ comments and getting the report ready for launch. What followed was three busy months of drafting text, designing figures and briefing stakeholders on our recommendations before the launch of the report at the Commonwealth Science Conference in Bangalore on the 27 November.
The report received significant attention in the media including coverage on the BBC and articles in the Guardian and the Daily Mail. While at the Royal Society I was able to join Professor Mace and Royal Society staff in briefing government department chief scientific advisors. The launch of the report is, however, only the first step and the Royal Society staff and working group members will continue to work hard to maximize its impact.

Linking scientists and policy makers

The Royal Society provides a valuable link between the scientists who make up its fellowship and the wider world. In my brief time there I was able to see how, though the production of detailed, accessible reports, it can act as a voice for the scientific community and offers policy makers an independent source of scientific advice.

Working in London provided many opportunities to learn about the relationship between science and policy including a visit to parliament and the preparation of a response to a parliamentary committee for the Royal Society as well as the opportunity to attend events at other institutions (see my blog on a Land Sharing vs Land Sparing discussion at the Linnean Society).I have returned to Lancaster with a greater ability to communicate with non-scientific audiences, a stronger understanding of the relationship between science and policy, and a keen interest in resilience and sustainability.

Find out more about doing a PhD at the Lancaster Environment Centre


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