#03 2023

Prioritise your actions and distil your message: iAtlantic Science to Policy Workshop

By Safiyya Sedick and Lara Atkinson, Egagasini Node, NRF-SAEON

In March 2023, an iAtlantic Science to Policy workshop was hosted by the South African National Biodiversity Institute (SANBI). Co-funded by the SeaMap project, the three-day workshop provided a platform for emerging researchers and scientists wanting to develop skills on how to translate their research into clear, concise messages to reach those at a decision-making level.

The first day laid the foundation upon which the work over the next two days could be built. Experts from the SANBI Biodiversity Policy Directorate and the SANBI Marine Programme shared information and experience about the realities of influencing policy, targeted policy interventions and mainstreaming, which involves narrowing down and prioritising the key messages from research in a way that they can easily be actioned by decision-makers.

This prompted questions such as: Who is your target audience? What would be your key message to them? Seemingly simple questions, but when confronted by the in-depth knowledge of one’s specialised field, it became clear that it can be difficult to narrow down these concepts.

Case studies

The second and third days were spent taking heed of lessons learnt by SANBI’s experts and then implementing them in case studies that required the group work participants to apply the concepts that were shared during the workshop.

Making the case for anything is challenging (even if it is something you are passionate about), but what is even more challenging (particularly for scientists) is knowing that decision-making does not necessarily always reflect your own scientific priorities. However, this did not stop the participants from passionately making their cases. Some participants chose to create drawings, act out scenarios, present a podcast or simply provide good arguments for why their scientific findings should be taken up into policy.

Case studies selected by the participants included advocating for increased funding for taxonomy, funding for deep-sea exploration, eradication of the mosquito net fishery in Mozambique, improved management of the recreational fishery, declaration of a South African marine heritage site and a community-led eco-surveillance initiative.

Lessons learnt

The Foundational Biodiversity Information Programme SeaMap funded five students to attend the workshop. Here is what some of them had to say about their experience:

“The kob conservation strategy I have been working on has a strong focus on taking science towards policy improvement, and this workshop was perfectly timed for me to gain essential insight into the world of science-to-policy and ensure our efforts stand the best chance of achieving real impact. I made the case for developing a much-needed policy for South Africa’s recreational fishery to improve its management, sustainability and to ensure its economic value is realised as a tool for social development. I gained critical insight into the seemingly complicated process of translating science into policy, and I have been exposed to the tools and best practices required to ensure uptake of policy. I would absolutely recommend that more workshops like this take place in the future.” – Matthew Farthing, Postdoctoral Fellow, Nelson Mandela University

“I have research-based experience from a postgraduate career and contractual work in a research institute. Recently I’ve ventured into local governance, in particular environmental governance as the environmental management intern at my local municipality. My keen interest was/is to learn how to incorporate and align my research-based experience into environmental governance and management. On a broader spectrum of the workshop, the diversified information and schooling that was shared gave me insight into many matters that are relative to my current employment institution and how they can be scientifically resolved or mitigated.” Andisiwe Mvunelo, MSc Zoology Candidate, University of Pretoria 

“…throughout my educational background, there has never been an opportunity to participate in or receive science-policy training. This opportunity was unique and relevant to scientists. The latter are concerned only with scientific output, with little interest in policy. This may be due to the unavailability of science-policy training. For me, this was one step towards building my understanding of science-policy communication, given my previous experience in communicating science and my present postgraduate diploma in science communication. It has provided me with the knowledge to improve my science communication and my interactions with fellow participants. I have learned about ‘key messages’ in report writing, the need for social skills to communicate your key messages and receive political buy-in for your proposal. I recommend that more of this science-to-policy training be carried out.” Amos Rakgoale, MSc Biological Sciences, University of Cape Town 

“…what intrigued me the most is the phrase ‘science-policy workshop’ because I had always questioned myself about how scientific results benefit the scientific community, government and civil society. The workshop really helped me think beyond the school level and introduced me to a workplace-level biological scientist. I can now freely fuse the theory and practical knowledge with what I have learned during the workshop. I now understand that it is more than running statistical analysis. I would highly recommend similar workshops for graduates and for early-career scientists.” – Kwanele Msele, Biological Science Honours Student, University of KwaZulu-Natal 

Overall, the iAtlantic Science to Policy workshop opened the eyes of many emerging and established researchers to ways in which they can frame their scientific outputs more effectively to enable uptake thereof by decision-makers into policy and contribute towards making a real difference in the world. It is hoped that such future efforts will continue to inspire and build capacity in scientists to change the world for the greater good.

Students networking at SANBI in Kirstenbosch Gardens. From left: Amos Rakgoale, Kwanele Msele, Andisiwe Mvunelo and Nelisiwe Manakuza

Advocating for the appreciation of the deep sea, participants use drawings to make their case for increased funding for deep-sea research

Prof. Kerry Sink from SANBI’s Marine Programme shares some of the lessons learnt during her journey towards the declaration of offshore marine protected areas