Research organisations are changing the make-up of their teams in order to increase the likelihood of their research having an impact on policy and practice. But is it working?
In the pursuit of evidence-informed decision-making there is a recent trend at environmental research organisations to implement new institutional structures to enhance the impact of science on policy and practice. These include, but are not limited to, using knowledge brokers in research projects, embedding scientists in decision-making agencies, establishing boundary organisations, and so on. These initiatives are not often evaluated, however, and when evaluations are undertaken, the results are rarely made public. As a result, there is very little information regarding the organisational features that confer – or limit – success, and there remains a lack of empirically grounded guidance to inform other organisations seeking to develop and implement similar institutional approaches.
To this end, together with colleagues from the Stockholm Resilience Centre and Newcastle University, we recently evaluated the Baltic Eye Project at Stockholm University: a unique team of researchers from different fields, science communicators, journalists, and policy analysts working collectively to support evidence-informed decision-making relating to the sustainable management of the Baltic Sea. Even though it had only been running for three years, we found that the Baltic Eye Project has already achieved demonstrable impacts at a range of levels, including on policy and practice; on individuals working within the organisation; and on the university more widely. Delving deeper into the learning and experience of the people working in the Baltic Eye Project we identified four key features (see Figure 1) that they believe have underpinned their success:
- The inclusion of policy analysts: Consistent with previous studies, our results highlight the importance of having teams with diverse skills and experiences to improve the relationship between science, policy, and practice. One study participant even said that ‘the inclusion of policy analysts within the Baltic Eye Project was a real game changer’. Particularly important is having people that understand local, regional, and international environmental policy processes for: (i) recognising policymaker’s science needs (i.e. horizon scanning); (ii) identifying the most appropriate channel/pathway to influence policy and practice (i.e. matching strategy to context); (iii) facilitating knowledge flow among scientists and decision-makers (i.e. knowledge brokerage); (iv) training team members to effectively influence policy and practice; and (v) facilitating broader and stronger social networks for other team members.
- The establishment of clear goals: Establish clear goals as early as possible, ensuring they are agreed by all team members. Goals should be ambitious, strategic, and measurable so that progress can be monitored, assessed, and adjusted over time.
- Effective leadership: Effective leadership is vital to achieve tangible impacts on policy and practice. Study participants singled out the importance of having engaged, supportive, and strategic leaders who helped to establish clear priorities in support of the team’s broader objectives. Participants also said that leaders need to have diverse backgrounds and experiences across both science and policy, to ensure a comprehensive knowledge of both worlds.
- Secured funding: Finally, organisations need secure and long-term funding, given the time it takes to develop relationships both within the team and with other stakeholders, and the time (at least 3–5 years) which it typically takes for science to impact on policy and practice. Secure and long-term funding alleviated the pressure on team members to be continually applying for external funding, enabling them to focus on stakeholder engagement and impact. Finally, funding should be flexible and autonomous (i.e. self-managed within the team), to enable individuals and the broader group to respond to opportunities as they arise (e.g. travel to attend unexpected meetings with policymakers).
Figure 1: The four most important features of research organisations that increase the impact of environmental science on policy and practice. Figure first published in PLoS One.
While some of the features that we identified may challenge long-standing cultures and processes in research institutions, their implementation will increase the real-world impact of environmental science on policy and practice. Building this institutional capacity is critical if environmental science is to contribute to the long-term sustainable management of natural resources that underpins societal well-being and prosperity.
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