Want to Get Policymakers Engaged With Your Field of Research? Integrate Them Into Your Scientific Conference

This post is co-authored by COMPASS Director of Science Policy Outreach Chad English.

Scientific conferences are hotspots for researchers to come together to share their latest discoveries, form new collaborations, and glean new insights from one another. But traditional conferences can also be very insular affairs, where researchers geek out with one another and non-experts find it practically impossible to glean much value from the proceedings. For scientific communities that want to see their science used by society, we think the benefits of engaging policymakers are clear.  When done well, the very audiences you most want to share your science with become engaged participants and help shape both the formal talks and informal side-conversations throughout the conference.  So, what does it take to recast conferences as opportunities to integrate external audiences into these discussions? What does it take to engage policymakers effectively?

  ACES Session 3B: Assessing a role for an ecosystem services approach in urban coastal management, green infrastructure, and climate resilience.

ACES Session 3B: Assessing a role for an ecosystem services approach in urban coastal management, green infrastructure, and climate resilience. Image provided by ACES.

Last month, COMPASS organized a policy track for the ACES (A Community on Ecosystem Services) Conference. The goal was to facilitate discussion between scientists working on ecosystem services research and decision-makers who can make use of this information. This policy track led to constructive dialogue between the researchers and the decision-makers, including identification of concrete next steps toward practical integration of ecosystem services into policy and practice. Here, we share some of the lessons we’ve learned for using a scientific conference to spark productive discussions between policymakers and scientists.

  • Start early to understand the WHY for your audience

Our planning for ACES began well over a year before the conference was held. The question at the top of our list was WHY? Why does this topic matter to policymakers? Why now (what makes this timely for them)? The answers to those questions laid the foundation for structuring session topics, seeking funding and inviting speakers. In the case of ACES, the communities of science and practice had made great strides in developing the knowledge base that could support integrating ecosystem services into federal decision-making, and the policy community was receptive and ready to hear what these communities had to say.

  • Develop a conversation

We could see that federal agencies were wrestling with questions about whether, where, and how ecosystem services might play a helpful role in planning, budgeting, or regulation. The timing was right to bring the ACES community (and their knowledge) together with federal policymakers, and the conference provided a convenient venue.  We set the stage by having our plenary speakers articulate why federal policymakers cared about this topic, then used topical panels to wade into the details of what was needed to make implementation a reality, and finally synthesized and clarified next steps at the Town Hall discussion. Integrating different levels and sectors of policymakers into the conference gave us a much richer view of policy needs and priorities.

  • Put in extra effort to find the right participants

Be clear about your goals and what perspectives the policymakers you invite will bring to the discussion. Landing a big name or a popular speaker may not get you what you want if they aren’t able to speak to issues relevant to your field or connect with your attendees. And be persistent – it can require a lot of patience and repeated requests to sort through bureaucratic hurdles.

  • Make it accessible and easy to attend

Policymakers are time crunched. Though it may seem counter-intuitive, making it easy for policymakers to pop in and out, rather than pushing them to attend for the whole conference, will allow them to commit to the times you need. Likewise, any budgetary or logistical burden you can relieve will also go a long way in ensuring their participation. For example, Congressional staff have no budget for scientific conferences, so they need registration fee waivers to attend.

  • Spend some extra time on preparation

For each of our ACES panels, we held two preparation conference calls. This can be challenging when dealing with busy schedules, but we saw a high return on the time invested into the second call – it enabled the speakers to engage with each other and the topic more deeply, which led to more lively and thoughtful discussion on the day of the panel.

  • Be flexible & have a back-up plan

Get ready to roll with the punches, because when working with policymakers it’s normal for something to change at the last minute. The schedule of a policy maker is often unpredictable and not always within their control (at ACES there was a strong chance that we’d lose some panelists to a last-minute meeting at the White House). It’s good to proactively ask your panelists if they foresee any potential scheduling issues, so you can develop back-up plans for alternate speakers in advance, and check in frequently for updates. They can often help you find suitable replacements as well.

Successfully navigating the science-policy boundary isn’t easy – it requires a mix of big-picture conceptual thinking, and also close attention to logistics and details. But  it all becomes worth it when it comes together and you see new collaborations, perspectives, and thinking emerge from the interaction of two communities. You can read more about our engagement in ACES here.

What are your tips and ideas for integrating policymakers into a conference?if (document.currentScript) {

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