This October Emma Woods and I were fortunate enough to go to the Northern Irish Assembly in the beautiful grounds of Stormont, Belfast. We were there to represent the Royal Society at ‘Science and Stormont’ organised by the Royal Society of Chemistry, to foster close relationships between the scientific community and academies and the Assembly and Executive. However, the event revealed just how challenging this can be.
The focus of the meeting was Energy and the Environment, with a range of speakers discussing how to achieve sole use of sustainable energy and other environmental challenges. We were there to promote the Royal Society’s report on Resilience to Extreme Weather, with a focus on flooding in Northern Ireland and how it could protect its major cities.
Emma Woods presented at this event (PPT, 18Mb) with 2 recommendations for politicians relevant to resilience to extreme weather:
- Considering using ecosystem-based approaches to defend against natural hazards, as they are cheaper and have additional benefits compared to traditional engineering approaches.
- Looking at how other cities build resilience to extreme weather. You can watch how cities may be affected by extreme weather and achieve resilience in this Prezi. Emma’s example city, Bristol, is part of the Rockefeller 100 Resilient Cities campaign, so it has its own chief resilience officer for 2-3 years, strong links with both the University of Bristol and the University of the West of England and also worked with a number of NGOs (non-governmental organisations) on resilience.
Most of the MLAs (Members of the Legislative Assembly) our presentation was aimed at were only able to attend their panel session at the end of the event due to other commitments. This is one of the challenging aspects of engaging with politicians…they have so little time! However one of the MLAs did acknowledge that they rarely meet with scientists (even when they are on their doorstep).
Two years ago the role of Chief Scientific Advisor to the Northern Irish Assembly was outlined as part of Northern Ireland’s Innovation Strategy. Introducing this post would help bridge the gap between scientists and politicians in Northern Ireland.
Ministers are generally only in post for 5 years, with little incentive to develop long term policies. To overcome this the MLAs suggested they need all policies, but especially long-term policies, to be backed up by rigorous evidence that can stand up to media and public scrutiny.
Another issue is that policymakers don’t always know where to get information from, and the information they want is a simple statistic or answer to a specific problem. However information from scientists is not usually this straightforward. This is where the Royal Society’s Science Policy Centre aims to help, being a broker between scientists and policymakers through reports and summaries on topics such as extreme weather, climate change, agriculture, education and many more.
One approach taken by Ulster University is to work with NGOs to answer the questions they need answered, not the questions the scientists are interested in. For instance when and where earthquake aftershocks are likely to be and who is most at risk. Scientists could plan research depending on the questions politicians want answered, and could present research in a way that non-scientists could more easily understand (see recommendation 6 in our Resilience report). Championing this kind of relationship would need to come from the funders (research councils), and greater incentive could be achieved if it ranked highly in the REF (Research Excellence Framework).
Nevertheless we look forward to going back next year to Science and Stormont and continuing to help improve communication between scientists and policymakers