Statistics with stories – the making of a policy brief?

It feels like it has been raining non-stop for weeks, even though I can now look outside and see some blue sky amongst the clouds. Certainly for those vulnerable communities across the country there is currently no silver  lining as they face the frightening prospect of yet more heavy storms. But it would appear that our experience of extreme weather might be making a difference to our attitudes to climate change.

Last year a survey by C3W , a partnership of four Welsh universities, showed that there had been a significant rise in the number of people in Wales believing in climate change following the flooding there in 2012 – from 77 percent to 88 percent. And the science would suggested that they are right. Only this week Lord Stern has warned that the extreme weather in recent years is a clear sign that climate change is with us. Even the Government’s Met Office  suggested that while there is ‘no definitive answer’, climate change is likely to be a factor in the persistent rain that has recently swept across the country.

What was also interesting about the Welsh survey is that the majority said that measures should be taken to address not just the consequences of climate change but also the causes. Many of us working in sustainability have been grappling for years as to the best way to engage the public around key environmental issues. The received wisdom is that people respond better to positive messages rather than being scared about the environment. While I go along with the argument that positive sustainability stories are a powerful way of reaching people, directly ‘experiencing’ climate change, however that is interpreted by the public, must also be a game changer.

For the academic community, engaging with the public is one pathway to creating a research impact, as is influencing policy makers. Briefings appear a tried and tested way to reaching the policy community. On reflection, maybe not ‘tested’ as it is often difficult to tease out the influence that briefings have on policy.

Engaging with policymakers is part of the DNA of SPRU – it does after all stand for Science and Technology Policy Research. At the Sussex Energy Group we have produced briefings for many years and been fortunate to have many good links with policymakers. But like most things, it pays from time to time to take a fresh look at what you are doing and see if it can be improved. So a small group  of us are doing just that with our energy policy briefs. As a first step I decided to have a look round the net and see what else was out there. Here are some of the policy briefs that stood out for me.

Firstly, the briefings produced by the International Institute for Environment and Development – have great graphics, accessible writing and clear ‘policy pointers’ on the first page. A very different policy briefing on rising energy costs was produced by Save the Children.  What stood out for me here, was the emotional pull of hearing people’s stories:

“I only have a bath before school on a Sunday night and one on a Wednesday night,

because hot water is expensive. The boys carry around their bed covers in the house

and sit downstairs with them in the day because it’s so cold…”Stacey 16

Such stories were interwoven with hard-hitting facts drawn from a survey of parents. The combination of statistics with stories makes for a compelling policy brief, even if at ten pages it was quite long.

Charities are used to drawing on stories in their communications, whether for raising funds or getting the attention of policy makers. While academic policy briefings are very different, I am certain there are lessons we can learn from them. For example, qualitative researchers often have a wealth of interview material to draw on, and the occasional anonymised quote or case study could bring a brief to life for policy makers. As researchers we also often have powerful facts and figures that we can draw on from our work.

Closer to home I have also seen some excellent examples of briefings. The Sussex Energy Group, in collaboration with 3S at UEA, have produced a set of research briefing. The series clearly communicates,   sometimes in just a few hundred words, the world of grassroots innovation. I am sure they would be very useful for policy makers looking to quickly grasp some of the key issues in the subject – and they also look great. Global Studies at Sussex, also has a well designed policy series… I could go on.

So back to my theme of communications and engagement, as researchers we can undoubtedly improve on our practices, as well as learn from others, both within and beyond the academic world. So in the coming months I will be keeping a watching brief on what I find inspiring from the world of sustainability communications and engagement and how this might translate to our work as researchers.

And in the tradition of all good communications I would love to turn this into a conversation so do get in touch if you know of some great examples of engagement. And if you happen to be a policy maker I have a few questions to ask about our briefs…


Nicolette Fox is a PhD student at  the Sussex Energy Group in SPRU at the University of Sussex.  Her research looks at the impact of microgeneration on households. Prior to this she worked for many years as an environmental journalist and sustainability communications consultant, winning top industry awards including WWF’s Environmental Campaign of the Year, Media Natura’s Regional Documentary of the Year and  PR Week’s Best Community Campaign.

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