Science with people who aren’t like you

It’s February 25th, 2019 – the warmest February day on record in the UK, and I have spent most of it on the train. I’m still on the train – this time the Eurostar, heading towards Ostend, Belgium, via Brussels. Given the alarmingly warm weather, I’m feeling quite good about my choice not to fly to Brussels. Instead, I’ve traded my office for seats on a bus and three trains. While it will take me 14 hours to get to Ostend, it’s generally a much more enjoyable journey.

I’m looking forward to this week’s meeting. I’ll be joining the International Council for Exploration of the Sea (ICES) Working Group on Marine Renewable Energy (ICES WG MRE) again after a two year hiatus. I’ll be meeting with other scientists and regulators from across Europe to discuss development of the sector from an environmental perspective. This year we are also providing advice to OSPAR on the sector, along with the ICEG Working Group on Marine Benthal and Renewable Energy Development.

For me, it’s also an opportunity to get outside my ‘research bubble’ and spend a few days interacting with decision-makers – people whose job it is to make decisions about if and how developments are consented. The UK might generally be a world leader at the moment in terms of development, but other nations are hot on our heels and developing strategies to advance the sector. We share the latest research, but also the dilemmas each country faces in balancing development with environmental sustainability.

I’ll be presenting some of my recent work mapping the pathways through which environmental scientists can influence decision-making across the offshore renewable energy sector. There is a general feeling that industry, policy and regulatory decision should be based on sound scientific evidence. But where do industry professionals, policymakers, and regulators consume their science? How do they get a hold of it? And how important are meetings like the ICES WG MRE meeting this week for knowledge exchange and idea generation?

It turns out that while scientists are involved in a lot of steering groups and committees, our ability to communicate across and influence the network is likely down to our sheer numbers. The influence of individual scientists on knowledge exchange pathways seems to be substantially less. From the lens of an environmental scientist, site developers and other ‘industry’-related professions are cliquey. They aren’t well linked in to our network, meaning that the flow of scientific evidence to these individuals is sporadic. This could be a reason that scientific evidence doesn’t always support industry decision making.

So what can we do? Reach out to industry members, for a start. Or join their groups and engage. This is easy to say but hard to do, as it often seems like we have little in common, apart from a general interest in offshore renewable energy. But the survivability of their devices and consenting decisions depend on it, so we’ve got a leg to stand on. Perhaps we should be inviting industry representatives to our ICES meeting would make for an interesting change – maybe some new ideas would come out of it. In fact, they probably would: most studies of social networks seem to suggest that individuals with more multidisciplinary connections have great ideas, are influential, and experience success.

Which brings me back to where I started. What I always look forward to most about international meetings is interacting with people from different countries and different disciplines to my own. Inevitably, we end up talking what it’s like to live, work, and do science in different places. We talk about our similarities, and also our differences. It gives a broader perspective on our field of environmental science and offshore renewable energy, but also on being a scientist and a global citizen. I wish more fields of work were as international as science – perhaps it would provide the empathy and collaboration we need to truly take action on some of the global problems

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