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Reflections on teaching science-policy engagement

Note: This article is a part of the publication ‘Science diplomacy capacity development: Reflections on Diplo’s 2021 course and the road ahead’

Our module teaches participants how to navigate the interface between science and policy. We aim to give a realistic view of the challenge and ground participants’ reflections on their realities.

Science-policy relationships in the 21st century occur within a complex interplay of cognitive, social, and institutional forces. The reasons that scientists and policy actors succeed in informing each other’s work are the same as the reasons that they fail: values, language, culture, and organisational priorities shape their behaviour. When they align, it works. When they don’t, it fails. As such, the use of science in policy is not only a question of finding and using information. It is also a question of building trust and finding alignment between many heterogeneous actors. Such alignment does not happen in a vacuum but within a context often constrained by political and time pressure, as well as interpersonal and networking skills.

Understanding and navigating the interwoven dynamics of science-policy engagement can be a daunting task. In this module, we break down this complexity and provide a vocabulary and solutions to navigate this reality pragmatically.

The approach we employ in the module goes back-and-forth between letting participants reflect from their point of view and getting them to step back and think about the bigger picture. We start with case studies where participants take on the role of a policy adviser or a researcher and need to explain how they would build a scientific task force or change their approach to science advice. Participants thus identify science-policy challenges based on their intuitions and reflections. Then, we step back and provide a vocabulary to name these challenges and solutions to overcome them. After that, participants apply such knowledge to their careers in a reflexive essay. Lastly, a final session allows participants to share their reflections with others, thus encouraging cross-pollination.

The shift from the big picture to participants’ careers is challenging to negotiate. We accompany the participants’ journey by recognizing the role of ‘boundary-spanners’, which they play in their respective contexts. This is a role that is increasingly necessary and sought after in order to connect the dots of science and policy towards science-informed solutions to global challenges. This is a role that equips participants with skills and responsibilities to hone in the future. And most importantly, it provides a strong sense of hope: they are not alone trying to span boundaries, and there is a body of practice that can inform their work. As such, our module aims to give participants more agency and a strong belief that navigating the science-policy interface is not only essential, but also possible.

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