Want To Affect Policy Change? Board Your Train Of Opportunity

Like increasing numbers of your colleagues, you want your science to contribute to a better world. You want to make a difference. But you’re not quite sure how to get started, and navigating the black box of the policy world can be a daunting prospect. The public discourse about the environment is teeming with opportunities for scientists to weigh in. Trains of opportunity may be passing you by. Time to pack your bags and hop aboard!

Are you ready to climb aboard? Image by Joe Ross, CC BY-SA 2.0.

Are you ready to climb aboard?
Image by Joe Ross, CC BY-SA 2.0.

Recently, COMPASS brought together a dedicated, dynamic, and fun-loving group of scientists – each studying different dimensions of wildfire – in Boulder, Colorado to navigate their own paths to engaging in the policy world. A subset of the alumni from our April 2014 workshop, all are eager to engage in the conversation about wildfire, perhaps now more than ever. Fire seasons are lengthening, more houses are burning, more firefighters are dying, and protecting people and property is costlier than ever: federal agencies spend $2 to 3 billion annually to suppress fires. The scientific understanding of wildfire is largely not reflected in the discourse, from kitchen tables to the halls of Congress. This gap is exactly why COMPASS is invested in the topic of wildfire. We are training scientists to be more effective communicators. We are coaching scientists to navigate how, when, and with whom to engage. We are creating opportunities for scientists to connect with policymakers, journalists, and others when and where we see potential.

This group of fire scientists is hungry to engage. But trying to navigate the network of players and authorities (local, state, regional, national) across Canada and the US is unwieldy. Just dipping in your toes to begin to understand the landscape easily becomes overwhelming. And like you, each of these scientists lacks a most precious resource – time!

Here are 8 ways that they’re finding their way into the right conversations, with the right people, at the right times, that might be helpful for your own engagement journey:

1. Pack the communication essentials. Know your “so what”, find the nuggets of story in your science, and develop clear messages that keep it simple without losing the details.

2. Know your destination. What is your goal? What is the change you’d ultimately like to see in the world? Perhaps your science counters conventional wisdom, so you want to be sure it is understood and considered? Might your scientific insights inform how we can get more bang for our buck from fuel treatments or other dimensions of resource management? Is there a specific management approach or policy that doesn’t reflect the current state of knowledge? Your goal is crucial to helping you discern the strategic value of a given train of opportunity for you. Is that train likely to help you get to your final destination?

3. Find trusted navigators. Navigators can help you begin to understand the vast policy network you’re stepping into, so that you can find potential leverage points, understand the players, and identify champions who can grant you access. You might start with your professional society’s public or government affairs staff, a connection at an NGO, a funder, COMPASS, or even your own colleagues (until we start to map them out, we often don’t realize the extent of the networks we already have). Don’t forget, one of best roles for you may be to position yourself as a network node that can help decision-makers access the expertise of your community.

4. Know your timetables. Is there a train at the station right now that might provide a ripe window of opportunity? For wildfire, trains include state-level adaptation planning, the onset of regional forest planning, and ongoing discussions in Congress about how to pay for the soaring costs associated with fire. If there isn’t a train right now, when is the next likely one? Glean what insights you can into where the discourse is heading (this is where your navigators will be incredibly helpful). For wildfire, trains are frequently arriving at the station – there will be another wildfire. And as the fire season lengthens, the window of opportunity for engaging is getting that much longer. With each newsworthy fire, the public and policymakers are asking more questions about how to solve the wildfire problem.

5. Commuter or transcontinental? For wildfire, the trains of engagement span everything from daily commuters (e.g., decisions made by local fire and land managers) to transcontinental lines (e.g., the federal discussion about fire borrowing). Where are you most passionate about engaging? Locally? Regionally? Federally? For your topic, are there regular, frequent commuter trains? Something that runs less often? Or perhaps something that you think is running, but is actually just your imagination (the Polar Express)?

6. Pack your travel documents. It’s always a good idea to have a leave-behind in your back pocket. Ensure that it includes your contact information, a recent photo, and the top three points you want to make.

7. Bring plenty of patience – a traveler’s virtue. Policy change can be painfully slow and incremental. And it’s not always the latest most cutting-edge science that’s needed – what may feel relatively elementary to you may not be reflected in the policy discourse.

8. Be adventuresome. Take risks. Put yourself out there as a resource. Create new relationships, a key currency in the policy world. So much of policy is ultimately about serendipity – you never know when the relationships you make today might pay future dividends.