Better science communication is needed to deliver the green transition

09 Sep 2021 | News

The research is there, but scientists are having trouble getting their voices heard. In the lead up to COP26, funding agencies are calling on scientists to be better at communicating their findings

To deliver the transition to a carbon-neutral economy, researchers must rethink funding, global cooperation and how they communicate with policymakers, a Science Europe seminar heard on Tuesday. 

“In many cases, more research is not always the answer. The real gap may in fact be in testing, transferring, implementing or communicating existing research,” said Ingrid Petersson, director general of FORMAS, the Swedish research council for sustainable development. “We can’t afford to have a fund and forget system, where funders of research leave the scene when the grants are approved.”

The science community has been vocal about the dangers of climate change for decades, while the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has been collecting information on human-induced climate change since 1988.

But having done the spade work, scientists were ignored for years. Rosa Menéndez, president of the Spanish National Research Council, said the research community suffers from the Cassandra syndrome, in which valid concerns are disregarded by others.

With the world now dangerously close to a climate catastrophe, pleas for action are everywhere. “Now, we also have to establish efficient bridges with policymakers, with the media and with society, [with the] ambition to also be active partners of the solution towards the green transition,” said Menéndez. “We have to build up bridges and a common understanding for efficient communication. Otherwise, we will all fail.”

For Peter Gluckman, chair of the New Zealand-based international network for government science advice, the key is in structuring communications to policymakers and other stakeholders in a way that is relevant to specific groups, because evidence has different significance for different actors. While a scientist will trust a robust study, evidence for a politician can be an anecdote, personal observation, customs, traditions, or religious belief. “All these have validity in the minds of certain stakeholders,” Gluckman said.

Seen from this perspective, social sciences from psychology to economics play a pivotal role in helping understand how best to influence the public and policymakers. “The social sciences are as critical, if not more [so than] the natural and technological sciences, if the incentives and regulations that governments may put in place and the desired behaviours that are needed from citizens are to be achieved,” said Gluckman.

Policymakers are willing to listen

Despite hurdles, there has been progress, with climate friendly policies now a key feature of Europe’s roadmap to a more prosperous future.

This shift in thinking happened in the lead up to the signing of the Paris climate agreement in 2015, noted Johan Kuylenstierna, chair of the Swedish Climate Policy Council.  Policymakers are ready to listen, and as a result a clear climate agenda, spearheaded by the European Green Deal, national climate laws and the Paris Agreement, is emerging.  

But the willingness to listen does not mean communicating is easy. Kuylenstierna stressed the importance of involving different kinds of experts, having a good understanding of the role of scientific knowledge in a given context, and building a clear idea of what the science community is trying to achieve.

Communication is not something that can be tagged on once the results are in, but should be built into the science from the outset, Kuylenstierna said.

Another key aspect is investing time to build trust and having done so, when the opportunity arises, as with the COP26 meeting in Glasgow later this year, ensure scientists are ready to deliver. “We have to be ready to deliver scientific inputs to these processes at the right time to the right actors,” said Kuylenstierna. “This requires a good understanding of what is happening in the international policy arena.”

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