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Why scientists should think like policymakers

In this interview, Grantham Scholar Gloria Mensah explains why scientists (and engineers) should think like policy makers. Further she explains how her research into the rise and fall of CCUS on the UK government’s agenda reveals lessons for all sustainability researchers.


Gloria was born and raised in Ghana. After getting her degree from a prestigious university there, she worked in the oil and gas industry. After this she moved to Sheffield to pursue her MSc. In between, she worked as a crčche and pre-school teacher and says this is the job she misses the most.

Now she’s at the Grantham Centre researching why UK policy makers give more – or less – attention to Carbon Capture, Utilisation and Storage (CCUS) technology.

Has Covid had an impact on your studies?

Yes, especially when the news was full of numbers of new cases and deaths. It was distressing, making it sometimes hard to develop my thoughts and focus on my write-up. I guess many people felt the same way.

With regard to my research, the restrictions made it difficult to access university space and library resources and to meet colleagues. We have all had to find ways to adjust. But fortunately I had completed my field work before lockdown.

I was particularly lucky in this, because I needed to do a lot of interviews, and face-to-face conversations are often better. Plus my subjects included participants from government, industry and academia where it can be difficult to gain access to people. So cancelling them might have meant I didn’t get another chance.

How did you come to work in sustainability?

I have always been inclined towards the environment and sustainability. It started in school in Ghana when I was little. I did well in a subject we called environmental studies & social studies. Studying it came with ease. And I’d be so excited when asked to draw and label trees, flowers and fruits! There was just something about the environment that I was attached to. So getting into sustainability has been a mixture of what I’m good at and what I love.

I then studied for a BSc. Environmental Science degree, where I began to develop my understanding and worked hard to attain a first class honours. After that I took MSc. (ENG) Environmental and Energy Engineering, achieving a distinction. The MSc. exposed me to technicalities and different engineering solutions for environmental and energy challenges. This was where my interest in carbon dioxide capture, utilisation and storage (CCUS) began – and this now forms the foundation of my PhD project.

Can you explain what CCUS technology is?

CO2 is the primary contributor to greenhouse gas emissions. It is the gas that we all aim to reduce. Significant research has advanced into how CO2 could be captured, utilised or stored away. And this group of technologies is what we call Carbon Capture, Utilisation and Storage (CCUS). CCUS has received increasing attention and is recognised as a key technology in helping to achieve steeper emission reductions of CO2 from the atmosphere.

There are many different applications of CCUS. For instance, capturing CO2 directly from point sources such as the power and industrial sectors (e.g. steel and cement). There is also capturing CO2 directly from the air (e.g. direct air capture – DAC – technology). And you can combine bio-energy with carbon capture and storage (BECCS) to produce negative emissions.
And why is research into policy making and CCUS important?

You need some background to understand this.

So, in the UK, despite the increasing consensus about the value of CCUS for meeting climate change objectives, there have been barriers to implementing it. In the recent past, attention to CCUS appeared to have been fluid on the governmental agenda. And in some cases promised funds have been withdrawn from potential CCUS projects.

What this shows us is that there are barriers to implementing environmental technologies. Basically, it is not enough to have technology available. Social and political barriers need to be overcome as well.

As a result, my project is examining the policy making process in relation to CCUS in the UK. I am especially interested in how ideas rise on the government agenda and gain attention from policy makers – and why they sometimes slip away. By offering this agenda setting perspective on CCUS, my research draws out lessons that may be of value to proponents of other environmental technologies.

Should scientists and engineers researching environmental technologies learn about policy making?

It is important for those working in sustainability to have a general understanding about policy making. They need to know who to engage with – and how to engage with them – if they want to get their ideas out there. Sadly, without this understanding great ideas can be lost.

There are gaps between science and policy – and my research offers one way to address these gaps. I learned this through experience. Starting as a scientist, I found that my ideas about how technology gets into policy changed as I engaged with the literature on public policy. Basically I realised that social and political issues matter! And I am now taking this knowledge forward to make change. I’d encourage scientists and engineers to take an interest in the politics of their ideas or technologies.

So how can scientists and engineers influence how policy makers think?

Ha! This is a big question and definitely one that cannot be exhausted here. There are many things that drive policy makers to take action (or not).

What I’d say is, policy making can often be a messy process. In pushing for a preferred proposal, it is important to have a convincing message backed with strong evidence. People (including policy makers) don’t like taking risks they do not understand. Especially if huge investment is required. As such you need to be able to convince them.

What sorts of things convince policy makers?

Scientists and engineers should ask themselves a series of questions. For instance: What is the problem that you are seeking to solve? What solution are you bringing on board? Have you worked out all the technicalities in relation to the design and implementation? Is it cost-effective? What are the short- and long-term return on investments? Has risk been allocated appropriately? Are there competing issues or technologies? Do you have a clear message? What is the public perception of the technology? Have you considered wider social benefits that your technology offers?

Unfortunately, even if you attend to all these questions it does not guarantee that policy makers will act. Because policy makers can be motivated by many things. Moreover, wider politics can affect the process. For instance, governments change and bring in new agendas. And policy makers have a lot to deal with at any one time. They can only attend to a few issues at once. Therefore, it is important to act when an opportunity arises – as it won’t stay for long.

You work across disciplines, bringing the insights of social science into engineering and science. Do you think sustainability needs an interdisciplinary approach?

In order to make change we need a diversity of thought from different backgrounds. Generally, people have to be more willing to learn because sustainability needs a holistic approach to solve complex problems.

People at the Grantham Centre know that we must all learn from each other. I was privileged – like most Grantham Scholars – to work with supervisors from different academic disciplines. In my case this was politics, psychology and engineering. This diversity allowed me different perspectives on my subject. It also stretched my intellect and deepened my pool of knowledge. However, interdisciplinary work can be tough. For me, coming from a science and engineering background, going into politics was like travelling to a different world. The language and culture was different. But I was ready and willing to learn.

Do you think Brexit shows a narrowing of UK sustainability policy?

I’m not worried about Brexit because I think that people still care about sustainability. If we keep the focus and keep moving, we will get there. It’s easy to be despondent, but we can’t really know what is going to happen – just look at Covid!
Most of all, I believe that we need to care about future generations – if past generations hadn’t cared about us we wouldn’t be here. To cite from the Bible in Genesis 2:15, “The Lord God took the man and put him in the Garden of Eden to work it and take care of it”, meaning we are stewards of the earth and we need to protect it. Things might move slowly but we have to keep the focus.

Does faith help you stay optimistic?

Definitely, Yes. I believe in God Almighty. He created all things. My faith in Him keeps me going. He said in His Word that He will never leave us nor forsake us and that alone is comforting so I am completely hopeful about the future.

Are you up to anything exciting at the moment?

Recently, I was nominated by the UK Carbon Capture and Storage Research Centre to be part of a new initiative by the UK Government. This new project is the BEIS CCUS Early Career Professionals Forum. It will support the UK CCUS Council, following the UK's commitment to deploy CCUS in the near future.

This forum brings together professionals in the CCUS sector. And it provides a platform for knowledge sharing on key issues. I’m excited that I get to feed into government policy making and to learn as I do it!

What would you like to do when you finish your research on policy makers?

There is so much I want to do! With my multidisciplinary background and professional experience sometimes I feel like I want to do everything. But I will take it step by step.

I would like to be a policy analyst or have a policy research role because that would give me the opportunity to apply the insights I have gained in my PhD. I have also enjoyed engaging with elites from different sectors – including government, industry, academia and political think-tanks – and this is something I would like to continue doing.

Gloria Mensah is a Grantham Scholar at the University of Sheffield. This interview was given by Claire Moran, and was originally published on the Grantham Centre for Sustainable Futures


Posted 16/02/2021 09:55

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