Q&A with Aparna Lal and Julia May, Co-founder, Visibility stream, Homeward Bound

Aparna Lal is an ecologist and public health researcher interested in how environmental changes influence the spread of infectious diseases. As a mother of three young children, she is passionate about communicating her science to the next generation and creating connections between academia and policymakers.


As an academic, how has your mindset around collaboration changed over time?

I used to think that if I didn’t have a skill set I had to build it myself. Over time I learned that wasn’t necessary; I could find people with those skills. Academic collaboration involved reaching out to someone with the skill set I wanted or needed to engage with, but at the same time I had to let go of my academic ego: it didn’t always feel safe to do that, because academia is such a highly competitive space.

But academic collaboration often only led to papers, which didn’t feel like impact to me. The turning point around wanting to have more impact happened around 18 months ago – I loved my work but felt that if my work wasn’t seen or taken up by decision-makers who were making policy then I was never going to make a difference.

Why does policy feel to you like success, in terms of impact?

Policymakers are making decisions that impact people’s lives. If I want my work to have a positive influence on people’s lives then I need policymakers to hear what I have to offer. There are environmental decisions to be made about how we use our land, and decisions about how we use our water, but health is not commonly part of those discussions and decisions. Land and water are a health issue. If we want to shift away from treatment to prevention of infectious diseases that are spread through the environment and affected by climate change, we need to improve conversations between environmental, land and water managers and the health sector.  

How do you go about collaborating with policymakers?

It was simpler than I thought! In the first instance, I rang up a director of policy in a relevant department and said, “Can I come and speak to your team?” He said, “We’d love you to – academics never come and speak to us about their work. We don’t have time to read scientific papers”. So, I started with generosity: connecting with policymakers and saying, “Here is what I have to offer”. At first, I go in and listen; a lot of my learning is done here. Then I offer to present my knowledge, ensuring it’s relevant to the policy areas they’re working on.

How can you create systems change between academia and policy?

I find it crazy that many students finish their PhD and have never engaged with policy. We don’t routinely offer them any opportunities to learn this skill. I’ve had to learn it four years post-PhD, and I’ve done it off my own bat. We inform policymakers of relevant research, but often this is reactive, and in response to a crisis. I want us to be more proactive; I want to see policymakers drive academia more: for them to collaborate with us from the outset and tell us the research that needs to be done. That could create a step change in the way science is done.

What are some other ways that researchers and academic institutions can build a bridge between academia and policy?

  • Send summaries of relevant papers that you publish to partners or prospective partners in government; publish these summaries in in publications that policymakers read: e.g. I have water research published in a magazine that is specific to water policy
  • Include policymakers as part of students’ PhD supervision teams, to ensure research is relevant to policy
  • Take the time to build relationships and don’t expect an instantaneous outcome
  • Institutions should innovate on both their funding systems and metrics for success: look, for example, at how many collaborations within and outside academia researchers have, rather than just looking at the number of papers published.