Using academia to influence policy: reflections on one year at the Energy Saving Trust

Our FAIR Research Fellow Max Lacey-Barnacle shares his experiences working in policy, and how the experience interlinks with academia.

After moving from academia into policy work after completing my PhD, my time at the Energy Saving Trust (EST) as a Policy Officer has been nothing short of fascinating. Working on EST’s three core policy areas of energy efficiency, community energy and low-carbon transport has greatly expanded my knowledge of the research-policy interface as a result of this experience.

I have had numerous exciting opportunities to travel across the UK and Europe to meet with civil servants, policymakers and researchers working to address core energy and climate policy challenges. In addition, I’ve been able to work closely on fuel poverty and low-carbon transport policy with Welsh government, whilst also devoting time towards a Horizon 2020 project focused on energy efficiency (‘ENSMOV’) and the role of European energy agencies in the EU’s low-carbon transition through the European Energy Network.

The passion, commitment and intelligence of the individuals and organisations I’ve been involved with has been immensely inspiring in the face of the worsening global climate crisis. Moreover, I have learned (and still have much to learn) much from the brilliant staff at the EST and their dedication to tackling climate change. After my year at EST, I’ve transitioned back to academia in a Research Fellow role at the Science Policy Research Unit (SPRU), working primarily on the innovative FAIR project, led by Dr Mari Martiskainen at SPRU. FAIR is investigating the links between fuel and transport poverty in the UK’s energy transition and will seek to understand how low-carbon energy transition processes may exacerbate and/or alleviate these forms of inequality. I’m excited to be working on such a pertinent project with strong research and policy relevance to low-carbon transitions, particularly after working in policy.

The FAIR Team

Acclimatising to policy

Coming from the academic world of researching, writing and publishing original work, the change of pace was one of the first challenges I had to acclimatise to when confronted with navigating the policy world. Policy certainly moves at a much faster pace than academia. Indeed, keeping up with the dynamic changes of government policy at multiple levels of governance (e.g. local, regional, devolved and national) requires a keen eye for how multi-level policy shifts influence the shape and trajectory of the low-carbon economy.

Seeing the temporal disparity between the two worlds of academia and policy led me to ask; how can the policy world be influenced by the academic world, when critical changes occur and core outputs emerge at such different paces and timescales?

Getting original research published in academic journals can take anywhere from three months to two years, whilst policy outputs such as blogs or briefings – or even consultation responses to influence policy –sometimes take just a matter of weeks. However, in spite of this disparity, it’s clear that both worlds ‘speak’ to each other and this is evidenced through increasing engagement concerning the links between social inequality and climate change policy responses.

Areas of convergence between academia and policy

Issues such as ‘energy poverty’ and concepts such as ‘energy justice’ and a ‘Just Transition’ have begun to take centre stage in the policy world, whilst academics have arguably been writing about these concepts for many years. This year alone we have seen the European Green Deal integrate energy poverty concerns and a ‘Just Transition’ mechanism into its future plans, whilst the steady emergence of Just Transition commissions across the world demonstrates the importance of continued academic and policy engagement in how low-carbon transitions are governed and managed.

Being familiar with these concepts, I sought to integrate these ideas into many aspects of my policy work at the EST. What stood out the most during my time there, was the willingness of the devolved governments to embrace the critical work and ideas of academics, potentially more so than the UK government. For example, both the Welsh and Scottish governments seem to show more progressive attitudes towards tackling climate change and social inequality together e.g. via innovative Welsh legislation (Well-being of Future Generations (Wales) Act 2015) and Scottish legislation (Fuel Poverty (Scotland) Act 2019). Additionally, Scotland has already established a Just Transition commission and Wales has announced intentions to set up a ‘Climate Justice Advisory Group’ that would perform broadly similar functions – monitoring the economic and social impacts of decommissioning fossil fuel power plants and what this means for fossil fuel industry workers. In addition, Just Transition commissions can be tasked with analysis of the social impacts of new low-carbon energy infrastructures and services. Currently, there are no equivalents in England, Northern Ireland and at the UK level.

Wales are monitoring economic and social impacts of decomissioning fossil fuel powerplants

The contribution of social science to energy and climate policy

Connecting these research-policy interactions forced me to think broadly about what social science research intends to achieve when analysing policy: do social scientists want to influence new policies or critically deconstruct the performance of existing ones? Is it possible to successfully do both? In many ways, the ultimate aim is to do both, particularly for policy oriented researchers.

However, one of the core goals of academic research is to shed new light on areas that have been neglected or ill considered. While academics may not see the immediate impact of their research on unexplored policy areas, patience may be a virtue if long-terms trends give rise to a renewed focus on their chosen area of research.

In addition, social scientists rightly feel compelled to highlight the potential exacerbation of social inequality by various policy responses to climate change, and to ask challenging questions in new contexts. For example, academic work on fuel poverty and ‘transport poverty’ shows a strong involvement of academics and researchers on the fuel poverty side and less so on the transport side. This is because the idea of transport poverty is a particularly novel idea in UK policy.

There is therefore room to expand the concept of transport poverty and issues of social equity in low-carbon transport innovations. However, it will be some time before such as concept becomes the ‘norm’ within mainstream policy discourse.

Whilst my year working in policy has shown me that the diffusion of such concepts into policy takes time, it is comforting to know these ideas are not falling on deaf ears – particularly in Wales and Scotland. As policy responses simultaneously addressing issues of social inequality and climate change intensify, policymakers will increasingly be forced to listen.

This article is based on an earlier 2020 blog post published by the RIPPLES research group, the original article can be found here.

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