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Dr Christina Demski and policy engagement

Through her research, Christina has engaged with policymakers at different levels, from Local Authorities to Select Committees and via national governments.

Christina Demski next to a web of graphics demonstrating her research and engagement activities
Christina Demski has been actively involved in policy engagement

Dr Christina Demski is a Reader in the Department of Psychology as well as Deputy Director for the University's Centre for Climate Change and Social Transformations (CAST). Over recent years she has been actively involved in policy engagement – including responding to calls for evidence, organising dissemination events, and appearing on policy podcasts.

Tell us about your research and expertise

“I am an environmental psychologist specialising in public engagement with science, technology and policy. I have championed early and meaningful public engagement particularly when decisions involve contested social values, uncertainty, and complex trade-offs. My recent research has related to three topics: environmental risk; low carbon lifestyles / policies; and energy technologies and transitions. My research uses both quantitative and qualitative methods.

“I am also Deputy Director of CAST, where we examine the kinds of social transformations which are necessary for low-carbon futures.”

How is the work you’re doing relevant to policymakers?

“What people think matters, and how they might respond to new technologies and policies is an important part of climate policymaking. In the last few years, there has been a rising interest in public engagement in low carbon policies, for example through the use of citizens’ assemblies and incorporating public views into policy. While this is a welcome development, there is a lack of methodological and theoretical understanding of what it means to reliably engage the public and determine public acceptability.

“In CAST, we are advocating for a net zero public engagement strategy and stronger behaviour change policies to enable low-carbon lifestyles. This includes understanding levers of change, but also how best to engage people. Policymakers also need to know the likely public acceptance of policies more broadly, for example what is likely to be more or less contentious and why? This will enable more effective and fair policies to be designed. I recently participated in a Chatham House podcast which covered some of these ideas.

“I also co-led a project for the UK Energy Research Centre where we explored public acceptance of heat decarbonisation. This mapped current public awareness, understanding and willingness to adopt low-carbon heating technologies like heat pumps or hydrogen boilers. This work is relevant because it helps policymakers understand where there are gaps in people’s understanding and how people might respond to policies designed to roll out these technologies.”

Also see: Communicating research for policy audiences

How have you engaged policy professionals with your research?

“Policymakers are engaged from the onset of a project, for example by sitting on our advisory panels. We also write bespoke briefings and host webinars and workshops aimed at distilling policy recommendations from our research. On some occasions we will hold large stakeholder events to showcase our work and launch our key messages report. CAST held such an event in March 2024 in London with 120 attendees from policy, industry and the third-sector.

"We also regularly provide evidence to policy through calls for evidence, for example to the Committee on Climate Change, the Welsh Government’s heat strategy, or the Environmental Audit Committee’s call for evidence on heat resilience and sustainable cooling.

“I also completed a secondment with the social research group and policy team responsible for public engagement in the Department of Energy Security and Net Zero (DESNZ) in 2020. This was extremely valuable to understand the policy process and build a stakeholder network. We now have regular catch-ups between this team and the CAST Centre where we share ongoing research projects.

“Finally, and because of my wider network, I am asked to sit on advisory panels for initiatives like the Cornwall Council Resident Energy Panel or the Climate Change Committee’s (CCC) Oversight Group for their more recent deliberative public engagement process. This provides another route for influencing policy.”

Also see: Stakeholder mapping; Policy events and roundtables; Academic policy fellowships and placements

What methods do you think have been most successful?

“In my research to date, I’ve found it’s important to write short and concise policy briefs that are accessible for wider audiences and provide clear recommendations on what the findings mean for policymakers. On some occasions we have created policy briefs on a topic that we know is relevant for a particular organisation or group of stakeholders at a particular time (e.g. net zero backlash, public engagement). This has been useful to summarise key outputs and insights from CAST as a whole to speak to a specific and timely question.

“Having dissemination events like a webinar or workshop, alongside a briefing, is also very useful as it widens the potential pool of interested policymakers and opens up new possible relationships. It’s important to have a good network of policymakers that you can speak to regularly to know what their priorities are and that view you as a trusted source of relevant information. This can be difficult because there tends to be high turn over in the civil service but my secondment with DESNZ was invaluable in building up an informal network in this way.

“Most important is to have multiple engagement methods and pathways to impact.”

Also see: Stakeholder mapping; Policy briefs

What has happened as a result?

“In the last REF exercise, I was co-author on an impact case study with Prof Nick Pidgeon based on my work on public values for energy system change, which has changed thinking within UK climate policy about how to engage the public more deeply with energy transitions.

“We are currently working on influencing national and devolved governments to have clear and effective public engagement strategies for net zero, and recognising the need for more behaviour change policies in addition to those that focus purely on technological advancements to reduce carbon emissions. For example, we work closely with the CCC’s People and Net Zero team to provide insight into public acceptance of different policy options to feed this into their policy evaluation processes.

“Similarly, I wrote a government briefing on public participation with net zero while I was on secondment, which has been cited in the Net Zero Strategy which committed to do more on public engagement.”

Also see: National policy networks

What have you learnt about the process of policy engagement?

“It can be difficult to be strategic about impact, especially on policy — sometimes impact happens in places where you didn’t necessarily expect it. However, perhaps the most surprising thing I have learnt was how much networks and personal relationships still matter. When I first started my government secondment, for example, there was a clear list of academics they went to for advice on specific questions. While the team was very aware of gathering diverse perspectives, the short turn around times often meant that they would call someone they had an existing relationship with, rather than seeking out new relationships.”

Also see: IPR Policy Fellowship Programme

What advice would you give others?

  1. Having a clear idea about the kind of impact you want to achieve is important, but also be open to new routes of influence and understanding your audiences needs and priorities.

  2. It can be tricky if policymakers are not interested in the changes that your research points to, so it’s important to frame it in a way that can be useful for them and to stay aware of when a policy window might open to have more widespread influence.

  3. Using established Centres or Institutes, like IPR, which have wide networks is also very useful for building personal contacts and building your own network of stakeholders.

‘Most important is to have multiple engagement methods and pathways to impact.’
Dr Christina Demski Deputy Director, Centre for Climate Change & Social Transformations

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