How to squeeze the policy out of the science

Some key lessons from an engagement fanatic researcher

By Dyhia Belhabib

My first engagement lesson was a hard hit for me. It was in 2012 when I went to Senegal to talk about illegal fishing, and fishing by the [then] controversial agreements with the so-called Russian Distant Water Fishing fleet. These agreements were controversial because the process under which they were signed was very opaque and defied the Senegalese legislation. Besides, they were not known for their ethical fishing practices.

Now imagine me, this tiny woman, with the prestigious status of “PhD student” going to talk to fishermen, then to government bureaucrats on the hottest topic of that time.

I went there with my science, and my ideals, attitude, and words:

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Needless to say, while the overall outcome was “let’s keep the discussion going”, I have made some enemies, and lost some potential good listeners.

The octopus elasticity

As I was listening to another scientist and watching him waving his hands in space like an octopus, trying to explain a graph that I, as a scientist, could not understand, let alone a general audience, I realized that I was going next and I would look just as ridiculous as he did.


My strategy?

  • I changed the graphs very quickly [went over my Excel files and literally reformatted everything], made them more simple and more explainable
  • I cut the presentation in half and removed everything that was not relevant for the fishermen

I know that even until today, after a couple of these workshops, I have a lot to learn, but watching the audience that day and that scientist wave at his graph like an octopus, were really helpful.

The next day, I had a workshop with government officials and other partners. Obviously, the audience was more ready, but I was not. I was pretentious enough to assume that people would listen to me and that they would do “as I say”.

I remember the yelling in the room and the “DO NOT YELL AT ME!”, “I AM NOT YELLING!”

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I was not very aware of the workshopping culture. For example, the speaker would write down

the questions and answer all the questions at once rather than one at a time. I really did not like

that, and I completely disregarded the chair, and imposed my own culture on the rest of the audience.


A few tips I have learned the hard way

If you are out there, asking yourself how to squeeze some policy out of the science, here are a few tips or ingredients of the recipe I used to achieve meaningful change, including in the lives of people and in fisheries policy – or did I?:

  • It is absolutely not hard… Well, it is not true BUT just keep telling yourself it is easy, until you eventually believe it.
  • Listening to other people, and not being over the clouds with your scientific findings are important. If you don’t know how to listen, it is simple: stop talking, concentrate on what the person in front of you says, ponder and think about it, express understanding.
  • When listening ears can talk: when you agree with the person you can say “excellent”, “I understand”, “I completely agree” etc. and when you don’t, it is important that your proponent knows that you listened “I understand your point/concern”, “you bring an excellent point” (even if the person tells you that the illegal fishing photo you show is photoshopped”, “That is very interesting”, or even to mask your surprise that such a ridiculous point is given “Really?”. Just remember that what you want to say is not necessarily what you should say.


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  • Avoid using negative connotations, even if you intend positive, such as “but”, “however”, “you are not listening”.
  • Understand the current situations people can find themselves in, the governance, and the chain of decision making: maybe your proponent is afraid of losing his/her job.
  • The Minister is not always the best person to talk to and to engage with. Sometimes a person that can stay for a longer term within one position is best. The point here is about ambition, and making friends, not about bragging with regards to whom you met.
  • Chose the right battles for policy making. Based on the understanding you now master, you can target the right audience and the right person to listen to.
  • Identifying the problems the person talks about is key: This means that when you go with ideals and recommendations emanating from your work, and these are of no interest to your audience, listen to the audience and understand what THEY see as PROBLEMS, because these problems are THE absolute guide for making change, and this step is crucial.
  • Take your science, make a diverse set of recommendations based on the issues identified, overlap them with the issues the people you engage with talk about, and use the overlap as a basis for advice.
  • Politicians understand $ more than tonnes: It is a matter of public image. A Minister is better off in the media saying “I just saved 300 million $” than “I just saved 3 tonnes of fish”.
  • Bring the voters in: Publish your science and make it interesting for the media. If it is interesting for the media, it will be for the reader, the voter, and the politician.
  • Opportunitization: You have to be a wizard to not only grasp but also create the opportunity around the problem and explore ways of using data to solve the problem. Opportunitization can manifest itself by grasping an information you heard from a key person and transforming it into a conversation, or literally see a person at a conference and go introduce yourself. While the first is easy, the second (introducing oneself) can be tricky.

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  • Be a good public speaker, if you are not, go with one on one informal conversations… Keep practicing and watch more TED talks!
  • Be patient: learn to grab and create opportunities, some change just takes time. Embrace the time, and recognize that the slightest move to the right direction is positive change. If your science contributed to change, however big or small it is, it remains important.
  • Keep hope: I remember one of my colleagues dismantling my hopes when I told him: “Senegal is going to use the catch data” when he told me “all governments say that, it is not going to happen”. Well, it happened. He was wrong.

My engagement principles

If you are about to follow these advice, keep in mind some key principles, some of which are redundant, but just as important:

  • Far fetching is OK: any opportunity, as remote as it may sound, is worth taking to achieve change.
  • It is not about the scientist’s fame but about the people we try to help.
  • Failure is also success: We cannot stress enough that failing helps redirect, and failing teaches more than success, it is essential to fail in engagement on policy to have the absolute right solution. By the way, there is no absolute right solution!
  • People make policies and hence while the science has to engage the policy, the scientist has to engage with the policy maker, which is part of “understanding”.
  • Ideals are not always OK: we cannot just say: “ask your governments to stop foreign fishing agreements”! I heard this in the past and I find this outrageous. Do we really expect a person to go see his/her president and say “here, let’s stop fishing agreements”?
  • Accurate numbers are good, but it is often not about the numbers (only) but how you contextualize them.
  • We are not teaching people, we learn from people more than we teach them
  • Have fun: Engaging in policy change should be fun.
  • Believe in change: Despite all the challenges and the difficulty, keep believing that your science can make meaningful change. Any change towards the positive direction is relevant. Literally, squeeze your science to make the largest and the best set of recommendations, and use these to animate your conservations.
  • It is ok to explain a simple graph, but if you wave in all directions like an octopus and people still look like they have no idea what you are talking about, your graph is probably bad




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