Fishing in the dark – How can young scientists contribute to science-policy-interfaces?

Georg Barth, Yves Zinngrebe, Malte Timpte (NeFo) and Katja Heubach (NeFo)

At the 12th meeting of the Parties to the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD-COP 12) in PyeongChang, Korea, the Young Scientists @ Biodiversity Science-Policy Interfaces Network invited international policy makers, scientists and other knowledge holders to a side event discussion. At the event, it was discussed how young scientists can contribute to the effectiveness of science-policy interfaces, close current knowledge gaps (e.g. gaps identified in the Global Biodivesity Outlook 4) and improve scientific communication.

The Young Scientists @ Biodiversity Science-Policy Interfaces Network is a new international initiative to link emerging scientists interested in science-policy-interfaces (SPIs) such as the Intergovernmental Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES). Feeding into the side-event's discussion, a survey within the young scientist network actually illustrated that many young scientists are very interested in communicating with policy makers. However, young scientists reported many difficulties in communication, for example, due to lack of clarity in language, lack of available time and lack of motivation to understand each other. In other words, young scientists often seem to feel like “fishing in the dark” when they think about how to better communicate with policy makers on relevant research questions and results.

By throwing high profile policy makers and senior scientists in a ‘fishbowl’, a participatory discussion method that allows the entire group to participate in the conversation, young scientists and the side event's participants had the opportunity to state their views and come up with questions concerning science-policy interfaces. A fishbowl discussion, allowing for equal democratic participation, seems to be a very good start to exchange views: the free seat in the ‘aquarium’ was never empty and new ‘fishes’ passionate to state their views were queuing.

Interestingly, there were quite different and sometimes contrasting opinions on how young scientists can contribute to improve science-policy-interfaces. While one member of the network stressed that engagement of young scientists in formalized SPIs, such as IPBES, should be promoted, for example, by nominating junior experts and establishing fellowship programs. A national governments representative argued that young scientists might be better off by focusing on their scientific disciplines first, before getting engaged with policy makers and promote transdisciplinary research.

However, as explained further by the discussant, this perspective is not meant to discourage young scientists to get involved, but to be aware of the many obstacles they are likely to face working in the science-policy arena. Aiming at truly catalyzing young scientists’ efforts in this respect, a robust funding and rating system would have to be in place to create explicit incentives for their participation. Though, the great interest in the network speaks a different language. Obviously, there is an intrinsic motivation to contribute to shaping SPIs and related processes that can be mobilized to tackle these challenges. - The atmosphere in the ‘fishbowl‘’ truly was passionate on the engagement issue – and helped to avoid participants to freeze to fish sticks in the heavy cold of the side event’s tent-like facility.

Pointing to the question which knowledge gaps to be filled in order to achieve international biodiversity goals and the types of knowledge needed to do so, young scientists show a huge potential through their often unconventional and innovate ways of thinking and experimenting with new methodological approaches. Highlighting this, several discussants encouraged young scientists to align their research to the knowledge gaps as identified by, for instance, the GBO-4. However, in the first priority, their research should be interest and motivation-driven. This way, knowledge gaps ignored by processes like the GBO-4 or the IPBES could appear.

And if missing knowledge and appropriate scientific communication actually is not the problem? – Not infrequently, discussants stated, it is mostly lacking political will to translate scientific advice into action that hinders effective decision-making. Thus, it is necessary to understand why decision-makers are hesitant to implement scientific advice. – A very good entry point for research and communication initiated by young scientists.

As the very fruitful ‘fishbowl’ during this side event showed, there is considerable sensitivity towards the engagement of young scientists in SPIs and great interest to take full advantage of their high motivation in shaping existing structures and processes for the better.

The next open round of discussion on the issue will take place on the Young Scientist Network first official meeting prior to the IPBES-3 in January 2015 in Bonn.

You are heartily invited to join us!

On behalf of the network,

the organising committee: Georg Barth, Yves Zinngrebe, Malte Timpte and Katja Heubach