“Thanks for coming, but no time for celebratory drinks,” I told my colleagues.
I arrived in Brussels right after defending my doctoral thesis to brief the Finnish Member of the European Parliament (MEP) Miapetra Kumpula-Natri and her team about the impact of sea-level rise and climate change on the coastal communities of the Baltic Sea. Climate science? Baltic Sea? EU Parliament? I was soon bombarded with questions.
Neither climate science nor the Baltic Sea (not even a career in politics) were on my radar screen. So why now? And most importantly how?
The answer to the former is simple: the societal impact of my scientific research results count more than the impact factor of the academic journals that publish them. And that’s not just my opinion, many research funding agencies want to know how scientific research contributes to measurable impacts for non-academic stakeholders. This is particularly relevant to research projects that involve public use of technical information, the application of which can have tangible impacts on people’s lives. One way for researchers to increase the social impact of their work is to apply their scientific knowledge to the policy decision-making process and thankfully, there are many opportunities and resources available for learning how to just do that. Below, is an example of a science-policy opportunity given to me by the EGU to experience and engage with real world policymaking at the EU level.
Two days at the European Parliament
In November 2019, I participated in the EGU’s science-policy pairing scheme which is designed to pair an EGU member with a Member of the European Parliament for two days in Brussels. The scheme is mutually beneficial for both sides. The EGU member gets to experience life in parliament by shadowing the MEP and attending parliamentary meetings. In return, the MEP receives relevant scientific advice that can inform the policy process. The scheme is offered this year again, and those interested should get in touch with EGU Policy Officer Chloe Hill (firstname.lastname@example.org).
A lot can happen during two days in Brussels, but below I’ve listed my top three activities:
1. Providing scientific input to the MEP and her team on the following topics:
- The characteristics of the Baltic Sea including the impact of climate change and the threat of sea-level rise for coastal communities
- Recorded a Q&A with the MEP about climate change, related hazards and the science-policy interface of climate change
2. Attending two parliamentary events chaired by the MEP:
- ‘Key Environmental Challenges & the Role of the Sustainable Development Goals’ – this event engaged policy-makers, researchers, the private and NGO sectors in an informed debate on the topic of key environmental challenges and the role of the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals.
- ‘Challenges and Opportunities for the Baltic Sea Region’ – this event brought together political and innovation ecosystem partners to share ideas and to set out a pathway for the Baltic Sea’s innovation agenda.
- Meeting with representatives of several EU organisations including Earth scientists and policy officers from the European Parliament Intergroup on Climate Change, Biodiversity, and Sustainable Development, European Civil Protection and Humanitarian Aid Operations, and the European Research Council. The cherry on top was visiting the Emergency Response Coordination Centre in Brussels which coordinates the delivery of assistance to countries affected by major disasters inside and outside the EU.
My two-cents to researchers
“They say there’s nothing more complex than the human brain. They haven’t worked in Brussels, have they?”
A bus stop ad in the European quarter in Brussels caught my eye.
Yes, the issues policymakers encounter are indeed complex. Equally complex and uncertain is the scientific evidence and advice scientists are asked to provide to help address these issues. Visiting the EU Parliament and shadowing the MEP unveiled some of this complexity and reinforced three important things to keep in mind:
1. Be ready to help when called upon by policymakers for scientific advice. Make “but I’m not an expert on this topic” the last resort. You may not be an expert on a topic, but as a scientist, you know the scientific method like the back of your hand. Scientists are trained to critically read and evaluate scientific research articles, and present their peers with different sources of evidence. Tap into your network of colleagues, geosciences unions and associations and get their input. Remember that your ultimate role here is to translate, aggregate and synthesise different sources of evidence, which in return allows policymakers make more informed decisions.
Example: When I was asked to brief the MEP on the impact of climate change and the threat of sea-level rise for coastal communities of the Baltic Sea, I reached out to several scientists that had presented related work in the 2019 Baltic Sea Science Congress in Stockholm. I asked for their guidance and a few returned my calls. After collecting the latest information, I read through it and discussed with my next door colleague, a climate scientist. I then incorporated the different inputs into my final briefing statement using the EGU policy resource page as a guide.
2. Keep up the pace. Sometimes policymakers need scientific input quickly. To be efficient with time, find out early on what questions/topics you are asked to cover. Get as much information as you can, but be ready to work with little. If the policymaker needs to be briefed about a topic in order to prepare for an event (e.g., a conference or meeting with press), find out about its purpose.
3. Storytelling is powerful. A good narrative can grab the attention and appeal to the emotions of everyone including policymakers. If you don’t have one, use someone else’s (and credit them appropriately).
Example: The impact of climate change on the Baltic coast was not a familiar topic until I was asked to brief the MEP. But even after informing myself, I couldn’t get intimate with it. So I asked a friend who grew up at the Baltic coast to send me his favorite photos of the region and what they mean to him. One photo stood out. It was quite simple. With shoes tossed over his shoulder and pant legs rolled up to the knee, he looked at the sea and the coastal community in the background. The photo captured the intimate connection I was looking for, revealing the diverse benefits the sea provides to humans. I closed my brief to the MEP and her team (who are all from the Baltic region) with this photo and a narrative that called for stronger measures for the protection of the sea and its coastal communities.
What followed next?
Participating in the EGU’s science-policy pairing scheme motivated me to continue honing my skills and building my knowledge of the science-policy world, especially in the context of disaster risk management, an umbrella field that encompasses much of what I do as a natural hazard researcher and educator.
So I attended the Evidence for Policy School: Disaster Risk Management organised by the European Commission’s Joint Research Center (JRC). The school was held earlier this year in Florence and brought together 78 participants including policymakers, scientists, and practitioners from 22 countries in Europe. The goal of this professional development training was to help researchers to have more impact on policy and policymakers to use evidence for policy solutions. The program included a series of interactive masterclasses organised into three categories: prevention and migration; preparedness and response; and hands-on and case stories, covering topics ranging from integrated multi-risk assessment and risk communication to crisis management tools and data visualization. In addition to learning new skills, this opportunity allowed me to connect with those advocating for evidence-informed policymaking.
Both the EGU’s pairing scheme and the JRC’s training gave me knowledge and invaluable skills that I will apply to my work both within and outside of academia, and will share with colleagues and those who are curious about the science-policy world. Please get in touch if I can be of any help: email@example.com or parsquake.org.