words on the screen are drifting in and out of focus… lithium-ion and
sodium-ion, redox flow and redox couples… and, errrrrm, what does ‘roundtrip
April 2018. I have just returned to work
after a sleepless year on maternity leave and been tasked with writing a report
on battery technologies and their environmental impacts.
an honour to write about such an important topic – batteries are critical to
renewable energy systems and e-mobility – and I am excited about the job ahead.
faced with this seemingly insurmountable, not to mention impenetrable, pile of
scientific papers upon which to base the report, it’s also easy to feel a
pull myself together. I know that I can do this because I’ve been here before,
having successfully delivered reports on a
diverse set of topics, from green finance to fish farming – as baffling
as some of these topics may have seemed at first.
sure enough, six months later, Towards the Battery of the Future (as the finished report is now
titled) is being handed out to warm approval at high-level international
conferences and EU meetings, deemed worthy of attention by top-tier
policymakers and captains of industry.
a glow of satisfaction, I pat myself on the back for having mastered a topic
that, initially, I knew very little about. I’m also chuffed to have played a
role in sharing the science with wider society.
the Battery of the Future is one of a number of reports I have worked on for Science for Environment Policy over the past 8 years. It is an example of a research
synthesis – a publication which weaves together research, often from multiple
disciplines, to support or influence policy.
Science for Environment Policy’s case, we distill research to help policymakers
protect and enhance our environment.
can tell you from my time on these reports that producing a research synthesis
is a tricky business. I am just starting work on a new report which explores
the wonders of pollinators, and it feels a good time to reflect upon how best
to go about a research synthesis.
increasing body of scholarly work is assessing the role and impact of research
syntheses, and various techniques for creating them1. This has yielded
some interesting principles and frameworks, which provide valuable food for
thought and guidelines for action.
blog post is my nuts-and-bolts contribution to the discussion and, below, we
have a handful of pointers, drawn from personal experience. These helped me take
the batteries report, and those before it, on the journey from a mystifying
blur of pixels to a bona fide
publication, and one which may just make the world a better place.
1. Talk to real people
chat with a well-selected expert can clarify more about a topic than days of
scouring through research papers (and certainly more than could ever be gleaned
on the batteries report really got going after some enlightening conversations
with the commissioning policy officer in Brussels and my trusty scientific advisor in Germany. Both helped define
what we really need to focus on.
does the weight of evidence sit? What are the big debates and unknowns? And,
seriously, what does roundtrip efficiency actually mean?
these chats, the words on my screen start to snap into focus, and, armed with a
list of useful keywords, I feel ready to take on the research databases and
build this report.
turns out roundtrip efficiency is really a very simple concept. Need to know: you don’t want your
batteries to leak too much energy when recharging).
2. And talk to lots of different types of people
lost count of how many people contributed to and reviewed the batteries report.
These helpful souls not only offered useful details, but also balance with
their diverse backgrounds, from transport to chemicals.
it’s not just scientists and policymakers who can help. Businesses, consultants
and community groups, for example, are all a treasure trove of information and
have been transported from my desk in a grey suburb of Bristol to tropical
forests of Central America and windswept fish farms of the Baltic Sea, courtesy
of telephone conversations with astonishingly obliging contributors.
my tabula rasa outset for each
report, I do often feel a little ignorant during these chats. I’ve not quite forgiven the guy who actually shouted
at me for asking the wrong questions (owing to my ignorance on the particular topic
of the report at the time), but I did come out of that conversation much more
knowledgeable than when I went in.
the more people involved in a report, the longer it takes – and the risk of
missing publication in time for key policy events increases, diminishing the
report’s potential impact. In practice, synthesis writers are often faced with
the challenge of finding the best way to produce robust content within short
timeframes (see also: limited budgets).
3. Your reference manager is your best friend
seen many a writer get in a twist attempting to manually manage the reams of
references that make up a report. Problems often arise as a report continually
shifts in form throughout its development; citations get lost, bibliographies
adopted Mendeley to overcome these issues, and do all the awkward formatting
for me. It’s not perfect, and I’m always keen to know how others deal with
their references, but it sure makes life a lot easier.
4. Keep on truckin’
is the research that goes into developing a report, and not the actual writing,
that drains the most time and energy. A day spent filtering and reading papers
can amount to just two or three short paragraphs of text. Producing a research
synthesis report is, at times, frustratingly arduous.
as Towards the Battery of the Future gradually morphed into a rounded product, I
was reminded of why I went into science communication in the first place: it’s
the perfect excuse to learn new things. The process of translating between the
languages of science and the ‘lay person’ is also something I find undeniably
Indeed, as I submit the final draft, I’m wishing I could make my own efficient roundtrip – to go back and do it all again.
Michelle Kilfoyle, Science Writer, Science for Environment Policy
- Some recent examples:
The Royal Society & the Academy of
Medical Sciences (2018) Evidence synthesis for policy: a statement of
Wyborn et al. (2018) Understanding the Impacts of Research Synthesis. Environmental
Science & Policy. 86: 72–84. DOI:10.1016/J.ENVSCI.2018.04.013