Learned societies vary enormously in their membership but many share the common aim of making the best possible evidence available to policy makers. This is typically in response to government enquiries or calls for evidence from select committees. But given that any scientist, or indeed any member of the public, can submit evidence to these, is there any advantage of doing so through a learned society? One of their strengths, as Paul explained, is learned societies understand policy timescales and are primed to respond to urgent demands: “Scientists are busy and used to working in timescales of months or even years, whereas policy makers often need information that very same day” he said. Camilla added that learned societies, through acting as a unified voice for many researchers, are seen as highly authoritative and reliable sources of information – besides being highly trustworthy: “We are distinct from campaign groups and NGOs in that we simply present the evidence, we don’t advocate specific courses of action” she said. “This means politicians see us as very safe and approachable”.
Besides this reactionary work, learned societies are also proactive in amassing evidence to inform debates surrounding newly-emerging areas of interest. “For instance, we set up a Brexit Policy Working Group shortly after the referendum and have been gathering a large evidence base from members to inform the development of policy briefs and well as future consultations” said Camilla. The Microbiology Society, meanwhile, has recently been focusing on the microbiome, an area of research rapidly gaining media and government attention. “We set up a microbiome policy project and have produced a report for policy makers to highlight the key opportunities and challenges of microbiome-related research for researchers, policy makers and other stakeholders” said Paul.
But writing reports and briefing notes only forms part of a learned society’s policy work, as Paul explained: “We are also committed to opening up ongoing dialogues by enabling members to gain access to new communities, thus unlocking the potential for knowledge exchange. This includes hosting roundtable events and workshops that get scientists and policy makers in the same room”. For researchers to benefit from these opportunities however, they must have confidence in their ability to present their work to policy makers - an ability which early career researchers can feel unqualified to do. Recognising this, both the BES and Microbiology Society have responded to their member’s requests for training opportunities in communicating the impacts of their research. “We listened to our members who wanted more support in translating their findings into public dialogue” said Camilla. Paul agreed, adding “Feedback from members informed our first ‘Engaging in Science Policy’ session which will be held at our Annual Conference in April. We also actively engage with research funders on skills, infrastructure and funding needs identified by our member, for instance around antimicrobial resistance”. The BES, meanwhile is investing in a series of practical Policy Guides explaining how policy making works and where scientists can feed into the process. Other initiatives include policy workshops at conferences; MP-shadowing schemes, policy internships and even paid fellowship schemes in government departments.
Clearly, learned societies are in a unique position to both facilitate policy engagement and promote researcher development. But why is it so important for scientists to get involved in policy, especially early-career researchers who are busy trying to establish themselves? Paul and Camilla were both clear on this: in order for research to be truly effective, the potential policy-impacts should be considered right from the start, rather than at the end. “Project proposals should be shaped with a specific outcome in mind, such as addressing a gap in knowledge” Camilla said. Furthermore, with so many other factors competing for MPs’ attention, it is vital scientists make their voices heard. “Policy makers have to account for many different views, so it is vital to make sure science and evidence do have a voice and that topics aren’t just swayed by public opinion” said Camilla. In doing so, researchers can develop their ability to communicate complex topics; a vital skill both within and outside academia.
To finish the session, Paul and Camilla shared their top tips for making the most of your learned society membership:
· Update your member profile with your area of expertise, to make it easy to find you for relevant calls for evidence.
· Follow your society’s newsletters, social media feeds, including Twitter and Facebook to find out about news and opportunities, including policy
· Look out for calls for evidence, training workshops and internship opportunities
· Apply to be on a policy committee
Further information about the Microbiology Society and the British Ecological Society can be found on their websites. The policy guides produced by the British Ecological Society are freely available to download here.