Deepening interactions between science and policy on the way to COP26: What role for science publishers?

In the run-up to COP26, the Nature portfolio of journals are providing free access to selected content on climate solutions. We found out more from the editorial team.

This article is part of the ISC’s new series, Transform21, which will explore the state of knowledge and action, five years on from the Paris Agreement and in a pivotal year for action on sustainable development.

With the launch of the Transform21 Global Knowledge Portal earlier this year, the ISC and the incoming UK Presidency of COP26 set out to create a hub for resources from the science community that could be useful to all policy-makers and stakeholders on their way to Glasgow for the COP26 UN Climate Change Conference.

In the run-up to the conference, the Nature portfolio of journals have just launched a collection of articles on mitigation, adaptation and finance – key issues for the conference – that are being made freely available for a month. The special collection is published alongside Q&As with four different advisors and decision-makers working to translate climate science into effective policy across different levels in Brazil, Chile, Finland and India.

We spoke to members of the Nature publications editorial team to find out more about what motivated this effort by a scientific journal to make policy-relevant science available to a wider audience, and to share an insight into the realities of policy-making with their readership.

For this article, we spoke to:

  • Nicky Dean, Chief Editor, Nature Energy;
  • Tegan Armarego-Marriott, Associate Editor, Nature Climate Change;
  • Lingxiao Yan, Associate Editor, Nature Climate Change;
  • Aiora Zabala, Senior Editor, Nature Sustainability;
  • Fouad Khan, Senior Editor, Nature Energy; and
  • Magdalena Skipper, Editor in Chief, Nature.

What motivated you to seek out these perspectives ahead of the COP? Who do you hope will read them, and why?

Nicky Dean: Increasingly, and particularly in areas like climate change, energy or sustainability, we see scientists and researchers really want to do work that will make a difference to current global challenges, that is solutions-oriented and driven by current policy challenges. At the same time, more and more governments and government bodies are calling for rigorous evidence to support their decision-making. However, despite the common interest of these two groups, it can be difficult for them to effectively engage each other. As journal editors, we think of part of our role as supporting and improving these interactions – helping both sides to make the most of scientific discovery and innovation – even if we mainly sit closer to the research side of things.

With the Q&As, we were hoping to illustrate some of the issues and needs of decision-makers for the researchers we serve, so that they can better understand how to help support policy. At the same time, we hope they will be read by people on both sides of the science-policy interface, and that decision-makers will be more encouraged to speak with the scientific community, to understand how they work and what they can do, and to set better expectations all round.

Tegan Armarego-Marriott: We tend to have more bidirectional communication with academic scientists, but less so with policy-makers – I think we hope that our science reaches them, but it’s perhaps less common for them to be reaching out to us, especially from a local level.

Lingxiao Yan: Voices from the Global South are essential for global climate action but are often ignored. Chile is a good example for this case: they are faced with severe threats from climate change with their long coast and high dependence on the Andes ecosystem, as well as their ambition to reach net zero by 2050. Meanwhile, Chile also needs to address justice and development issues along with net zero pathways. In particular, I hope climate practitioners, scientists or policy-makers from other Global South countries will see the piece. The takeaway message would be the acknowledgment of the importance of synergies between development, justice and battling climate change.

The most surprising but also exciting part is how political unrest in Chile, which mainly targets social justice, promotes climate action at different levels. I think it clearly shows why climate action should be framed and implemented from a justice perspective, which should improve rather than worsen social equity.

Were there any other surprises in the responses you got?

Tegan Armarego-Marriott: I liked that, although there were very clear differences based on the local needs/situations, there were some common themes shared by people in quite different situations.

Aoira Zabala: It was very inspiring to hear Dr Shailja Vaidya Gupta’s perspective – it was noteworthy her underscoring how technology for transport electrification in India should address very different needs compared to high-income countries. Another highlight, though not surprising, is how biased the agenda is to western interests (e.g. the more precise goals are from a high-income country perspective, whereas low-income country concerns are represented somewhat vaguely).

Fouad Khan: One surprising element of the responses from Atte Harjanne was the extent to which he already had clearly defined opinions about the questions that science needs to answer going forward. While Atte’s opinions were very well informed, not all well formed opinions in the policy community are grounded in deep understanding. The scientific community can sometimes expect policy-makers to continue to be silent listeners, so when policy-makers are approaching scientists with preset ideas, conflicts can emerge. The job of scientists going forward will not only be to continue to explore policy-relevant questions but to tactfully challenge assumptions that have set in in the policy-makers’ mind but are not always well substantiated.

During a recent discussion between Sabina Leonelli and Daniel Sarewitz that took place as part of the International Network for Government Science Advice (INGSA2021) congress, the speakers noted that Nature had ‘entered the fray’ of interactions between science and policy in recent years, suggesting that there was increasing appreciation of the importance of co-production and of the value-laden nature of science at the journal. Have you experienced this as a deliberate effort?

Magdalena Skipper: From its very start, Nature has recognized that science does not happen in a vacuum and that there is a need for a forum for both publishing significant scientific contributions and reporting on news and issues concerning science. In other words, the science-policy interface has always been important to us. It is true that recent years have seen us pay an increasing attention to the context within which science is done. This is quite deliberate. There is a need for an ongoing emphasis on social justice, inclusion and equity, both in the scientific process itself and in the access to the knowledge and benefits of science. The COVID-19 pandemic has made it all the more clear.

Engaging all stakeholders, including the general public, from the earliest stages of the scientific process is likely to lead to better and more relevant outcomes, and to a better informed and more knowledgeable society. We see ourselves as playing a role in this process. Recent examples from Nature include our special issues on a sustainable ocean economy (which brought researchers together with legal and policy experts to answer questions posed by fourteen heads of State), and the blue food assessment (highlighting the importance of aquatic food systems in tackling world hunger). Both of these have been very positively received by readers from diverse professional backgrounds.

The special issue is being made freely available for a month, in light of the importance of its contents for the upcoming COP. This echoes the way that COVID-19-related articles were made freely available in the early days of the pandemic. Can you envisage a future in which all scientific articles could be made freely accessible in a similar way, given that they may all contain useful knowledge? What would it take to make that happen?

Magdalena Skipper: Rapid access to vetted information is paramount in all cases of public health emergencies. Climate is of course another emergency and COP26 is widely considered to be a pivotal decision point.

We believe that the future of scientific publishing is open. Our publisher, Springer Nature, is committed to an open research future and has published more open access content than any other publisher. Since the beginning of 2021, all authors submitting to Nature and the research journals in the Nature portfolio have the option to publish their work open access, under a creative commons licence. This has been an important step for us, and by opening up science, and by that we mean opening up access to all outputs of research (data, code, protocols, etc.), the prize waiting for us is a faster and more effective research system, delivering benefits like vaccines and solutions to global challenges for the whole world.

Beyond that, we disseminate research out to wider audiences in a variety of ways, including through engaging multimedia content (such as our podcasts which reach more than half a million listeners every month) and via industry, domestic and international press – working hard to ensure the science is covered widely, accessibly and accurately.


You can access the Q&As and selected freely available material in the Special Collection here.


Image by: Phil Reid on Unsplash

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