It’s a familiar tale. A research project comes to the end of its three-year life. The workshops have been successful. Papers are published, an international conference is called to publicise the findings, copies of the final report land on the desks of decision makers... And there they sit, gathering dust, until they’re moved to a pile of similar reports marked ‘library’.
Having policy-relevant research treated in this way is a scenario that many scientists dread to think about. But it continues to happen, particularly in the developing world, where the influence of science on the policy process is less developed than in richer countries.
This issue is of such concern that the Global Environment Facility — the UN body that funds environmental projects in developing countries — funded a conference last week in Morocco aimed at giving biodiversity researchers tips on getting their voices heard in the corridors of power.
Over three sometimes heated days in a Rabat hotel, the participants were made aware that there is no single template or formula when it comes to having an impact on the policy process. What works in one country will not necessarily be effective in another. Getting the ear of a decision-maker often depends heavily not just on the countries involved, but on the personalities, the issue and the specific political context.
But if there was one consistent theme over the three days, it was the controversial idea that researchers who want more influence need to become more politically savvy. They need to study how politicians make decisions, to align research priorities with those of politics or international affairs and to communicate in language that politicians understand.
For Abdul Hamid Zakri, the former head of Malaysia’s delegation to the UN biodiversity convention, gaining the trust of politicians was perhaps the most important determinant to getting heard where it counts. He said this essentially meant telling politicians what they like to hear. To get policy makers to take biodiversity more seriously, Zakri advised researchers to place less emphasis on the idea that human activities were worsening species extinction, and more on promoting the economic benefits of conserving biodiversity, such as ecotourism and bioprospecting.
“This is what policy makers want to hear,” he said. ”If you focus on doomsday statements, you will lose them. But once you get the ear of decision makers, you can talk about other things, like conservation, biosafety, and so on.” Zakri, who is now Director of the UN University’s Institute of Advanced Studies in Japan, also said that it was important to find a route to getting heard by ministers for economic planning, as well as environment ministers.
Albert Sasson, a former assistant director general of UNESCO in Paris, agreed with Zakri’s overall approach but contended that the idea that countries could get rich from their biodiversity was a misleading one. Ecotourism, he said, represents a tiny share of global tourism, and the world’s top-selling drugs are not derived from medicinal plants. “Don’t say this to politicians. You will fool them and send them on the wrong track.”
Sasson had a different prescription. In his experience, policy makers would be more turned on to conserving biodiversity if scientists were able to demonstrate a link between conservation, food security and social cohesion. For example, he said, they ought to be attracted to the idea that conserving agricultural biodiversity would allow small farmers to continue working on the land and not move to already overcrowded cities. “The message has to be: if you don’t conserve now, the suburbs of Casablanca will become the slums of tomorrow.”
A third perspective came from Mikkel Grum, a research scientist with the Nairobi office of the International Plant Genetic Resources Institute, part of the World Bank-funded Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research. Grum said he found that policy makers paid more attention to projects where they were involved from its earliest design stages. “They do not like to be told to implement the final recommendations.”
It is also vital to do preliminary surveys with constituents to establish grassroots views on a potential research activity, and present this data to policy makers as evidence that a project is both wanted and needed by those who matter most. Another tip, said Grum, was to make friends with development organisations “who have better resources than we do in research and better access to policy makers”.
At the same meeting, the participants learned some valuable dos and don’ts about raising finance for biodiversity research projects from international donors. Being politically knowledgeable seemed, once more, to be the overriding message of the day — even if delegates failed to agree on the extent to which research projects should reflect the priorities of international agencies.
Donald Brown of the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection in the United States advised the audience to watch developments in global environmental affairs, which ultimately influenced the issues for which international finance would be available. For example, projects that explored the impact on biodiversity from climate change were currently an attractive proposition for donors, he said. And Chris Whaley, Secretary to GEF’s Science Council in Washington DC, said that having an international partner/funder for a project was often an attractive way of convincing local policy makers and authorities to come on board.
But not everyone agreed with this prescription. Several delegates pointed out that international donor finance did not come without its own difficulties. Chief among these was the tendency for donors to pull the plug after three or five years — just when a project was beginning to show results. And many also complained that donor-financed projects paid too little attention to proper training for local staff so they can take over once international consultants take the flight home.
The meeting was part of the finale to a three-year GEF-funded project to develop 50 case studies on conserving biodiversity in arid countries. The Third World Network of Scientific Organisations coordinated the studies, which have been published in a book, Conserving Biodiversity in Arid Regions. Many of the case-study authors were present and project coordinator John Lemons, Professor of Environmental Studies at the University of New England in Maine, said he hoped they would take away valuable lessons on how to communicate better with both decision makers and donors, and sharpen their fundraising strategies.
Leonard Berry, Director of the Florida Center for Environmental Studies at Florida Atlantic University, summed up the overall mood of the conference when he said that researchers from developing countries had little choice but to bone up on the requirements of funders and policy makers — whether they liked it or not.
“We have had some wonderful times when the Ford and Rockefeller foundations gave out PhD fellowships, but those times are no longer with us,” said Berry, who has worked extensively in Kenya and Sudan. “Now you have to adjust what you do with the reality of the funding process.”