GeoPolicy: 8 ways to engage with policy makers

GeoPolicy: 8 ways to engage with policy makers

Scientific research is usually verbally communicated to policy officials or through purposefully written documents. This occurs at all levels of governance (local, national, and international). This month’s GeoPolicy post takes a look at the main methods in which scientists can assist in the policy process and describes a new method adopted by the European Commission (EC) that aims to enhance science advice to policy.

Contrary to what is commonly thought, science-for-policy communication can be instigated by both scientists and policy officials (not just from the policy end). Scientists are increasingly encouraged to step out of their ‘ivory tower’ and communicate their science to the glittering world of policy. During my PhD, I presented my thesis results to civil servants at the UK Government’s Department for Energy and Climate Change. That meeting was a result of me directly contacting the department with a summary of my work. Scientists should not feel afraid to contact relevant policy groups, although this is perhaps easier to do on the local / national scale rather than on the international level.


Types of policy engagement

Some of the commonly reported scientific evidence for policy methods are described below:

  1. Surveys: Government organisations may send out targeted or open questionnaires to learn stakeholders’ opinions on certain topics. This method is used for collecting larger sample sizes and when the general consensus and/or dominant views need to be known.
  2. Interviews: one-on-one meetings are commonly used for communicating science to policy officials; either by phone or in person. These provide opportunities for in-depth discussions and explanations.
  3. Discussion workshops: the term ‘workshop’ is loosely used when referring to science policy. It can describe a semi-structured meeting where no predefined agenda has been set, or the term can refer to participants systematically discussing a topic with specific aims to be achieved (Fischer al., 2013). Workshops can involve solely scientists or combine policy workers and scientists (examples of the latter at the UK Centre from Science and Policy). Workshops usually result in a written summary which can be used for policy purposes.
  4. Seminars: experts give talks on their research for interested policy officials to attend and ask questions afterwards. For more tips on ways to communicate science to policy officials please read May’s GeoPolicy post.
  5. Policy briefings: may refer to a several types of written document. They are usually written after a workshop or to summarise scientific literature. Briefings are usually written by so-called bridging organisations, which work at the science-policy interface. These documents can be relatively brief, e.g., the American Geophysical Union (AGU) have published several ‘factsheets’ on different Earth-science topics, or more detailed, e.g., the UK Parliamentary Office for Science and Technology (POST) regularly publishes ‘POSTnotes’.
  6. Reports: these are far longer documents which review the current scientific understanding. The IPCC reports are key examples of this, but it should be noted that any long report intended for wider-audiences should always contact a short summary for policymakers as they almost certainly do not possess the time to read full reports.
  7. The Delphi method: this less-commonly known practice combines both individual and group work and is supposed to reduce biases that can occur from open discussion platforms. Experts answer questions posed by policy workers in rounds. In between each round an anonymous summary of the opinions is presented to the participants, who are then asked if their opinions have changed. The resulting decisions can then draft a policy briefing.
  8. Pairing schemes: an alternative method used to bridge the science policy gap. This is a relatively new initiative but examples have occurred on the national (Royal Society and MPs paired together in the UK) and international level (EU MEPs paired with European-based scientists). These schemes involve an introductory event at the place of governance, which include seminars and discussions. Bilateral meetings are then organised at the Scientists’ institutions. These initiatives aim to help participants on both sides appreciate the different working conditions they experience. The EU-wide pairing scheme encourages pairs to work together producing a science policy event at a later date. This is still to be determined as the initial pairing only occurred in January.


Recruiting scientists

Different pathways exist for scientists to partake in these meetings. These include:

More commonly, scientists are contacted through the policy organisation’s extended personal network. This has been criticised as it can restrict the breadth of scientific evidence reaching policy, as well as it being not transparent. Under EC President Jean-Claude Junker, a Scientific Advice Mechanism has been defined, in which a more transparent framework for science advice to policy has been set out.


What is the Science Advice Mechanism? (SAM)

The Science Advice mechanism. Slide taken from presentation entitled “A new mechanism for independent scientific advice in the European Commission” available on the EC Website.

The Science Advice mechanism. Slide taken from presentation entitled “A new mechanism for independent scientific advice in the European Commission” available on the EC Website.


This mechanism aims to supply the EC with broad and representative scientific in a structured and transparent manner. The centre-point to this is the formation of a high level scientific group which will work closely with the EC services. This panel comprises seven members “with an outstanding level of expertise and who collectively cover a wide range of scientific fields and expertise relevant for EU policy making”. This panel provides a close working relationship with learned societies and the wider scientific community within the EU. Since its initiation is 2015 the panel has met twice to discuss formalising this mechanism further. The minutes for the meetings are publically available here. More information about SAM is available in the EPRS policy briefing ‘Scientific advice for policy-makers in the European Union’.

Previously, the EU had appointed a Chief Scientific Advisor, however this role was discontinued after 3 years as it was considered too dependent on one individual’s experience. A panel is thought to provide a broader range of scientific advice.


GeoEd: Announcing the winner of I’m a Geoscientist!

The last two weeks have been action-packed, with ten schools from seven countries heading online to ask five fabulous geoscientists questions about anything from how the Earth works to what it’s like to be a scientist in the first ever I’m a Geoscientist, Get me out of here! competition.

Find out more about the event at

Find out more about the event at

The aim of this thrilling fortnight was to let school kids interact with real geoscientists and challenge their knowledge in a competition to find out who was the best geoscience communicator. The scientists (from the UK, France, the Netherlands, Malta and the USA) fielded questions on earthquakes, climate, floods and more to share their science and win the favour of students taking part. And in the last few days they narrowed their favourites down to a final two, who battled it out on Friday for the champion’s title.

After almost 150 questions and over 450 answers we had a winner! Congratulations to Anna Rabitti, an Italian oceanographer working at the Royal Netherlands Institute for Sea Research (NIOZ)! In a post on she explains how the Earth and space sciences can inspire great curiosity, whatever your background: “our Earth still has the power to amaze and question each and every one of us, from young students to geology professors.”

Anna at sea on RV Pelagia – the rocks were collected some 2300 metres below the surface, not far from the Atlantic’s Rainbow hydrothermal vent field (Credit: Roald van der Heide)

Anna at sea on RV Pelagia – the rocks were collected some 2300 metres below the surface, not far from the Atlantic’s Rainbow hydrothermal vent field (Credit: Roald van der Heide)

Anna will be awarded 500 euros to use on science outreach. She hopes to spend it improving the way scientific data is shared on the public ferry that doubles as a research boat and connects the island of Texel in northern Holland with the mainland. The data collected by the boat (ocean temperature, salinity, chlorophyll and more) is currently displayed on big screens for all passengers to see, but Anna hopes to set up something more interactive to inspire the next generation of geoscientists. In Anna’s words, “There are many ways to be a scientist, if you wish you can find your own.”

By Sara Mynott, EGU Communications Officer

GeoEd: Get ‘em when they’re young

There’s a lot of emphasis on outreach to older students, i.e. those who are contemplating further education and may well wish to pursue a career in science, but shouldn’t we also target our efforts at the younger generation? Sam Illingworth highlights the importance of outreach to primary school kids – and of catching them at an age when they’re most likely to be inspired…

From my experiences working in schools across the UK, there has been a rather biased drive to deliver educational outreach to students that are either coming to the end of their compulsory education, or who are about to decide what to study at university.

However, to me this appears to be a somewhat backward approach. Yes, it is important to target students with stimulating outreach activities that inspire them to study a geosciences-related degree at university, but many of these students will already have had to make some selections regarding the speciality of their education, even at this early age.

In the UK, at the age of 16, students are asked to choose (usually) between 3 and 5 subjects to study for a further two years, a decision that will have major implications for their university education. In reality, for many students the choice of pursuing a broad scientific education occurred even earlier, with many UK students given the option at 14 of replacing some of their science lessons with those from other subjects.

Because of this early selective branching, it can often be very difficult to change the mindset of a teenager that has already taken the decision to less actively pursue the sciences in their studies. Whilst this model is not in place across the whole of Europe, it is certainly true that there is more of a focus on depth rather than breadth as a student’s education progresses. Furthermore, research suggests that for many pupils the dissatisfaction with science sets in at the end of their primary school (10-11) years.

The brain is far more impressionable in earlier life than in maturity, and with increasing age, the ability to learn and to be influenced declines. Peak impressionability is between the ages of zero and three, and it begins to taper off significantly after the age of eight. Therefore, in order to encourage as many students as possible to actively pursue a broad scientific education it is important to instil a fascination and desire to do science at an early age.

The impressionable youth. (Credit: Sharon  Peters)

The impressionable youth. (Credit: Sharon Peters)

Targeting students between the ages of 5 and 11 requires a slightly different approach to working with teenagers, but many of the core principals remain the same, with the students needing to be both educated and engaged.

In educating the students, it is very important not to work with a deficit model, an idea that focuses on the students’ lack of knowledge, rather than a student-centeredness approach based around the understanding of the learner and the learning process. In my opinion the use of a deficit approach to outreach is akin to the feeling you get when a car mechanic sighs at your understanding of spark plugs; it is not a very positive experience to be told that you do not know something!

Instead, if we use an approach that focuses on what the students have already learnt in class and on concepts and items that they understand and are familiar with, then this can reinforce the work we are doing, and will leave the students feeling empowered and therefore far more willing to contribute. For example, in a recent activity that I ran for a group of seven-year old pupils I wanted to teach them about how to conduct a scientific experiment. Knowing that the notion of a fair test was a part of the curriculum I developed an activity that saw the students squashing bananas, weighing them before and after, and recording their results in a scientific manner. The students were then able to build on their knowledge base of what constituted a fair test to learn about the scientific process, using equipment (bananas and weighing scales) that they were familiar with.

Outreach activities that build on a previous knowledge base can be far more engaging than those built around a deficit model. (Credit: Louise Bousfield)

Outreach activities that build on a previous knowledge base can be far more engaging than those built around a deficit model. (Credit: Louise Bousfield)

In order to engage with younger students it is advisable to make the outreach activity as practical and interactive as possible. A recent report from the UK’s Wellcome Trust found (not surprisingly) that young people enjoy practical activities in which they can actively get involved rather than just watch. That being said, from personal experience there is still room for traditional assembly-style presentations, providing that the students are kept involved and that there are lots of opportunities for questions!

I recently gave a school assembly to around 150 students, between the ages of five and eleven on the subject of ‘Who is a Scientist?’ The assembly lasted for about an hour, including twenty-five minutes of open-ended questions, and could have gone on for much longer; in fact, I only had to stop taking questions so that the students were able to leave school on time!

School assemblies are a great opportunity to engage with a large number of students. (Credit: Sam Illingworth)

School assemblies are a great opportunity to engage with a large number of students. (Credit: Sam Illingworth)

Working with younger children can be a liberating and exhilarating experience. They are yet to develop the cynicism and awkwardness that can sometimes make engaging with older children so energy zapping. They can also surprise you in the most wonderful ways; in the assembly that I mentioned above one softly spoken student asked me ‘Why, if human[s] evolved from monkeys are there still monkeys?’

Carefully developed outreach activities can educate and engage younger students, thereby instilling a love of science at this early and impressionable age. Such activities can have a large influence on the degree to which they decide to sustain their scientific educations, which will ultimately have a profound effect on them far beyond the confines of the classroom.

By Sam Illingworth, Lecturer, Manchester Metropolitan University


Clemence, M., N. Gilby, J. Shah, J. Swiecicka, and D. Warren: Wellcome Trust Monitor: wave 2 tracking public views on science, biomedical research and science education report, Wellcome Trust, 2014

Osborne, J., & Dillon, J.: Science education in Europe: Critical reflections. London: The Nuffield Foundation, 2008

UNICEF: The Importance of Early Childhood Development, 12 October 2008. Accessed 5 June 2014.

Ziman, J.: Public understanding of science, Science, Technology & Human Values, 16(1), 99-105, 1991