April 6, 2020 | Published by |

by Annette Hirsch (CLEX Research Associate – Inaugural winner of the CLEX Career Development Award)
As part of the CLEX Career Development Award for Women and Underrepresented Groups, I was keen to use the award to advance my knowledge of the policymaking process and understand how the science we do provides some of the evidence used to inform the decision-makers of our country, particularly when it comes to climate extremes. I was keen to seek opportunities to engage with the Australian Public Service (APS), which incidentally is the main employer in Canberra (28.7%) which is where I now live. So, it made sense to make a start – but I’m telling you now that this is a long-term investment that requires time to establish and maintain.

There are several courses available on policy essentials, which I intend to use the funding from the award to attend, but I decided it would help to have context first. Although having no shortage of professors offering their perspectives, I felt the need to immerse myself in the APS for an extended period to form my own opinion of the reality of working for Government. My thanks go out to Andy Pitman, Stephen Gray and CLEX advisory board member Chris Johnston for enabling this via a secondment. There are also other science policy fellowships possible if you’re interested.

Following my secondment, I attended a workshop from the SAX Institute on “Building Successful Partnerships for Policy Relevant Research”, which consolidated a lot of what I had learnt during the secondment.

While I’m tempted to divulge ‘Utopia-inspired’ tales of my experience, I think it more pertinent to share the important lessons that I’ve learnt so far:

  1. Recognise the limitations of specialisation. We all have our ivory towers in academia but in many respects, the APS has its own version, they just call them something different (silos). No one is an expert in everything, so collaboration and dialogue are key ways to navigate between towers and silos. A first step involves accepting the limitations from hiding in your tower.
  2. Policymakers have a ‘go-to’ that can be within their portfolio agencies (CSIRO and BoM are relevant to our community). It takes time to become a ‘go-to’ and you need to invest in if it’s something you want to do. Be prepared to repeat yourself.
  3. Good science communication and knowledge exchange is critical and it’s a two-way process! You can’t give the same 12-minute conference talk (aka brain dump) to policymakers without risking confusion. No one likes to feel like an idiot! You need to tailor your communication strategy to be inclusive, include a primer on ‘essentials to understand my science’ and park the details in ‘extra slides’ in case someone asks for them. Don’t presume people aren’t smart, they’ve specialised in something else so, drop the jargon, think year-9 science, and avoid going off on tangents! Don’t forget to listen too and understand the legal obligations for the APS to make things publically available.
  4. Understand the policy cycle – this is a work in progress for me but one important thing I’ve learnt is that if you want to inform policy, engage at the start when they are looking for background information not at the end when the strategy has been endorsed and published.
  5. Accountability – in the APS it so important that the messaging is consistent (standard words), particularly when media scrutiny can backfire in a big way! In contrast, in academia we are comfortable with uncertainty and shifting existing paradigms. Yet we probably need to talk about how our academic debates are perceived (and exploited) by those outside our circles, particularly sceptics! Sadly I don’t have the answer for you today but I would gladly welcome insights!

Now maybe some of these things sound like common sense to you but sometimes it’s not as common as we like to think it is! I’ve learnt so many things as a result of this award and I’m still unpacking how to navigate the path towards effective policy engagement…perhaps in time we’ll be able to measure that progress.