12 Things to Know about Working in the International Sustainability Arena

Tip #1: To meet leaders working on sustainability issues from different perspectives, attend the conference of an international cross-sector organization, suggests Katherine Sierra, a senior fellow in the Brookings Institution’s Global Economy and Development Program who spoke at our Leopold advanced training “Navigating the International Sustainability Arena.”

If you’re a researcher in sustainability science, and you want to make your research used and useful in solving sustainability challenges internationally, how do you engage? “The world is wide,” as the saying goes. How do you identify partners and determine where you can have the most impact?

The Leopold Leadership Program recently held an advanced training in Washington, D.C. to help participants answer these questions. All were academic researchers seeking to integrate their science into practice internationally.

During the two-and-a-half-day workshop, the group got an overview of the international sustainability arena through the lens of two organizations: the World Bank, which was the subject of a keynote by Katherine Sierra, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution; and the Global Environment Facility, which was the focus of a panel moderated by Tom Hammond, Secretary of the Scientific and Technical Advisory Panel for GEF. As happens with all Leopold trainings, participants immediately had the chance to put what they learned into practice. In this case, they interviewed professionals working at international organizations on their issue of interest to learn more about their work.

To prepare, the group first did a series of “speed interviews” during an afternoon session. Working in pairs, they had an hour to develop questions. They then used them in 12-minute interviews with volunteers from the World Bank, the Pew Charitable Trust, Climate Advisers, and the World Wildlife Fund. The goal was to learn as much as possible in a short time about the international sustainability arena. Armed with an understanding of which questions work best, they spent the following day visiting international organizations and doing their one-on-one interviews.

In their debrief, the workshop participants spoke about the power of informational interviews for building relationships to advance the work of solving sustainability challenges. “Aims to influence policy start with a real desire and ability to listen to policy- and decision-makers, rather than always providing information and thinking that ‘they will come,’” said Marc Jeuland, a workshop participant and faculty member in the Sanford School of Public Policy at Duke University.

Here are 10 other tips:

Marc Jeuland: “In the context of making connections, I learned how critical it is to tailor even a two-sentence introduction to be most relevant to the person and purpose at hand. I used to think that such clarity could come from subsequent conversations, but this workshop and the substantial practice interacting with others (in small groups, mock interviews, and then with my own scheduled interviews) really drove home the point that first impressions are very critical if one wants to maximize impact.”

Jill Caviglia-Harris: “I learned that the silos that we talk about in academia also exist in the international policy world… and that breaking into this new arena requires reaching out, building long-term relationships, and co-developing questions that can be addressed with research findings.”

Karen Holl: “I learned an immense amount about the goals and workings of several intergovernmental organizations, and how I could most effectively collaborate with them. As a result of one of my meetings, I was invited to participate in workshop in May to discuss forest restoration and monitoring with various countries participating in the Initiative 20×20, which aims to restore 20 million hectares of tropical forest in Latin America by 2020.”

Kevin Krizek: “If you’re asking for an informational interview with someone, include the name of the person who referred you in the subject of your email. This strategy works for getting a response, and I’ve begun teaching it to my students.”


“There are amazing efforts out there aiming to make the world a better and more environmentally humane place. These international agencies need different types of information from scientists and researchers at different points in various initiatives. A key challenge is finding out — and then delivering — the right info at the right time.”

Max Boykoff: “I found discussions surrounding our ‘theories of change’ very enlightening, in appreciating how we can chart different pathways to effective change in the international sustainability arena. My colleagues’ varied perspectives helped me to reflect on how to prioritize and plan my contributions going forward.”

Marco Janssen: “When I asked about the challenges they experience, representatives from the various international NGOs voiced the same message: ‘No more individual case studies, how can we scale up?’

Jennifer Cherrier: “All my interviewees reinforced the power of collective approaches for creating change that I learned in my Leopold training. I was reminded of the need to focus on your niche and work toward a series of ‘small victories’ (‘shrink the change‘) rather than trying to hit it out of the ball park. In all of this, doing your homework is key — you have to ‘know thy stuff’ and enough of your interviewees’ and collaborators’ stuff to effectively cross borders. Finally, be realistic with time constraints when you interview for information and plan accordingly.”

Margaret Krebs, Leopold program designer and training co-facilitator: “The rules of engagement are different for the international arena than they are for other spheres of sustainability work. Cultural differences are in play, and you need to respect and work with them.”


Who you know matters. This training was possible because Leopold fellows and the Stanford Woods Institute for the Environment shared their networks to identify people who could advise us about the workshop content and matching participants with representatives of organizations to interview. Thanks to Josh Tewksbury, Lea RosenbohmEd Barbier, Ruth DeFries, and Rashid Sumaila for their help in this regard!”

Pam Sturner is the executive director of the Leopold Leadership Program.

Beyond “More Data Are Needed”: How Scientists Can Participate in the Policy Process


Karen Lips admiring a red salamander (Pseudotriton ruber). A new chytrid fungus of salamanders has recently been discovered in Europe; infected imports of pet salamanders could threaten US salamander diversity. (photo: Carly Muletz)

How exactly do you do policy? That was my question when I applied for the Leopold Advanced Training session on Hitting the Policy Mark last August. I signed up because I wanted to learn more about the policy process and how it might offer practical tools to reduce the loss of amphibians from invasive pathogens. While a graduate student and later as an assistant professor I had observed disease epidemics pass through several of my research sites and wipe out the amphibians. We had no idea of how to stop this disease, where it came from, or much about its biology. What we did know is that this microscopic fungus was devastating amphibian populations around the world, and the loss of all those amphibians was causing problems for the animals and ecosystems that depend on them. Worst of all, we saw little evidence that this disease could be eradicated once it was established at a site.

Clearly something needed to be done to stop the spread across the globe. For example, in the U.S. a federal regulation or other policy could be designed to allow us to test live animals in trade for disease, and then prevent them from escaping into the wild to infect other populations of amphibians. After some research I was surprised to learn that while polices exist to prevent the import of diseased livestock and agricultural pests (overseen by the US Department of Agriculture) and similar policies give the Center for Disease Control authority to control the arrival of human pathogens (like Ebola); no regulations exist that allow for disease surveillance of wildlife imports or that give US Fish and Wildlife Service the power to prevent the import of diseased wildlife. That’s right – any kind of wildlife, not just amphibians. This is a problem, and one that is likely to get worse with huge numbers of wildlife species traded globally and new infectious diseases being discovered every year.

What wasn’t clear was what was needed to develop a policy to tackle this growing problem. Who was in charge of writing such a bill, or implementing such a regulation? What kind of information did they need? Where did I, a field ecologist, fit into the process? So I went to the internet. But I could find no textbooks on “Policy 101” (I looked), useful online guides (I googled that), or academic papers describing how to get involved in the policy process. I wasn’t even sure what it meant “to do policy.” What kinds of activities does that entail? How does one get involved? And what exactly do we, as scientists, have to offer that would be of any help?

With the guidance of the Leopold trainers I started digging into the issue of wildlife disease policy, talked with colleagues who worked in agencies and NGOs on policy-related wildlife issues, and met with policymakers to hear their opinions. I requested meetings with the natural resource committees in both the House and the Senate, and I participated in the National Environmental Coalition on Invasive Species Legislative Fly-in. NECIS arranged meetings between a group of us scientists with legislative assistants from several Congressional offices, and organized a Congressional briefing on Invasive Species, where three of us presented research related to H.R.996.

Recently, Chad English, the Director of Science Policy Outreach for COMPASS who facilitated the training, told me I’d done it! I’ve “done” policy! I talked to colleagues, got meetings with legislative staff, and have been closely connected to the ongoing policy discussions now trying to address this issue. I know lots of scientists who’d like to get more involved, but aren’t sure where to start. Here’s what I learned from this experience:

1) Leverage your networks. If you want to get more involved in policy, use your existing networks to provide openings, introductions and opportunities. In my case the Leopold Network provided the guidance and suggestions for how to start, and then I contacted my friends and colleagues who work on wildlife policy issues. Living in the DC area, and working with various agencies and conservation organizations as part of my academic position, I already knew some key people who worked on this issue. One colleague became my navigator – somebody who explained the ins and outs of the issue, identified the concerns of opposition groups, and was willing to work with me and others as part of his job. I was lucky that some of the outreach activities and academic projects I had worked on in the past reappeared in this policy context and served as important links to ongoing policy activities. Those past efforts showed my new contacts that I had established connections and previous policy experiences, and that I was serious. My scientific network was especially critical when it came time to write a 10-minute briefing; I contacted several of my old friends for the most up-to-date info, insights and opinions on the topics I didn’t know as well.

2) Clear, concise communication is important. This was true at every step of the way. When I met with committee members or when the NECIS group met with Congressional staff, it was critical that speakers provided concise but relevant comments that explained the concern, why it matters, and what, if anything could be done. These meetings were short – all were less than an hour, most were 30 minutes or less – and there was no time for rambling, tangential, or sloppy explanations. Crafting a thorough, engaging, and accessible 10-minute talk for the briefing was a great test of the communication skills I’d learned in the Leopold Leadership Program. I totally rethought how I was going to present this talk and led with a more dramatic and personal story than I would normally use in a scientific talk, because I wanted to get the audience’s attention and communicate concern about this issue. I created a storyline that related my research to the loss of our native biodiversity and highlighted the gaps in our existing policies, which allow imports of wildlife without testing for infectious diseases or pathogens. I ended with a reference to existing legislation awaiting action in both houses.

Effective communication was especially apparent at the July hearing held by a subcommittee of the Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works. The subcommittee convened two panels of experts (one of federal scientists and one of scientists from private conservation organizations) who presented testimony on S.1153 and seven other bills. I was impressed at the brevity of the testimony – we heard introductions from several senators, testimony from four different experts, and a Q&A between the senators and experts on all eight bills and they still finished within 75 minutes! That’s because the full written testimony is entered into the congressional record, but all presentations were less than five minutes. If only faculty meetings were so efficient!

3) Know your audience. As when giving a good talk or media interview, it was important to know something about each legislator’s district and its issues, and the legislator’s background and interests to prepare for the group meetings. I used this iPhone app to read up on bill sponsorship, committee actions, committee membership, and voting records of all the legislators we visited. It was relatively easy to identify one or more invasive species that were a financial or health risk for every district or legislator. And while we scientists like to promote the ecological benefits of taking action, and the moral and ethical aspects of conserving biodiversity, the most powerful arguments were those that showed the financial burden of invasive species introductions. Every expert and senator, regardless of their position on the bills they were considering, mentioned the expected financial burdens to taxpayers and to agencies of every proposed bill, or the costs that would result from not passing such a bill. Requests for more research funding or claims that “more data are needed” won’t cut it here.

4) Work with what you’ve (already) got. At every stage in the process, it was especially helpful to be able to discuss specific legislation – in this case the companion bills H.R.996 and S.1153. Even though both bills had a low probability of becoming a law, they provided a starting point for a conversation that I tailored to fit that person’s interests. For example, in some of my meetings I discussed general issues of invasive species; in others, the usefulness of these bills in filling a regulatory gap; in still others I asked about the reasons for the lack of cosponsors or what an improved version of the bill would include.

I saw another example of this during the NECIS Fly-In, where I got to see how consultants and lobbyists worked with conservation organizations to advocate for particular legislation. I heard them discuss the political realities of invasive species legislation, which items were noncontroversial and likely to gain bipartisan support, and how new political, social or scientific developments would affect reception of the bill. It was obvious that these were ongoing discussions between colleagues that were important in sharing knowledge and finding areas of agreement where the various stakeholders might find a mutually beneficial outcome.

Final Thoughts

In the end it was clear that the legislative process, much like other forms of outreach and engagement, requires a lot of patience and persistence to build support and maintain momentum. As of July 2014 S.1153 was still in the Environment and Public Works committee awaiting mark-up for the reconvening of Congress after August Recess. Meanwhile, in July another bill was introduced in the House, H.R. 5156 that would authorize the Secretary of the Interior to identify and declare wildlife disease emergencies and to coordinate rapid response to these emergencies.” It has been referred to several subcommittees for consideration, so perhaps we will see future discussion of this issue before the end of this session. I’m not sure what the future holds for any of these bills, but I am hopeful that all this legislative activity reflects the real concern I heard regarding the risk of new wildlife diseases being imported into the US.

This was an incredibly valuable opportunity to see how the legislative process works, and also how the legislative process interacts with regulatory agencies. I learned a lot about the policy process and was encouraged that many of the skills and approaches also apply to the general issues of communication, outreach, and engagement (see also this article on what scientists need to know about policy). It took some time to meet the right people, but nothing I did required any special skills or connections. The hundreds of people I saw visiting their representatives this summer reminded me that government decisions rely on both public opinion and on science.

So how about it? Are you ready to “do policy?” It’s a good time to let your voice be heard.

Karen Lips, a 2005 Leopold Leadership Fellow, is an associate professor and directs the graduate program in Sustainable Development and Conservation Biology at the University of Maryland. Follow her on Twitter (@kwren88).

Getting the questions right: Developing interview techniques to understand science needs


Note from PamKathleen Galvin and Margaret Krebs recently wrote about best practices for interviewing for information. This skill, a focus of our Leopold core and advanced trainings, is critical for integrating science into policy. Senior Scientist Ryan Meyer and Program Manager Emily Knight work for the California Ocean Science Trust, a boundary organization that advances a constructive role for science in decision-making by promoting collaboration and mutual understanding among scientists, citizens, managers, and policy-makers. We asked Ryan and Emily to share their top “lessons learned” from their many interviews with resource managers and policy-makers about what they need to incorporate science into their work.

One of the more encouraging aspects of working in the boundary between science and decision-making is hearing scientists increasingly express the desire for their research to more effectively inform policy and management. However, for many, the boundary appears difficult to navigate.

We regularly conduct interviews with managers and policymakers to explore their science needs and identify ways that we can more effectively deliver relevant and useful science. By asking questions about how decision-makers access and use science in their work, we gather knowledge about the process of science integration from beginning to end. We also build stronger relationships across communities in the science-policy landscape.

Here are a few lessons we’ve learned about interviewing for science needs.

Lesson #1: Process, not product

Science is not just a piece of information; it’s a process. The same can be said of science needs. When we interview a manager in the California Department of Fish and Wildlife, we’re not just looking for a list of pieces of information that she thinks would be helpful. We’re interested in how science gets taken up and used as part of her job. What are her approaches to accessing science, and how much, if at all, does that represent a standard approach adopted by the agency as a whole? What capacity does she have to commission new research, or vet existing research? What kinds of constraints are shaping the ways she interacts with science? What makes science credible in her eyes, and why?

Lesson #2: Focus on concrete, tangible examples

We have found that specific examples can help to cut through jargon and vagueness that often pervade more general discussions about programs. We often ask, “Can you describe an example in which science played a particularly constructive or positive role in something you were doing?” Then we pepper our interviewee with follow-up questions about the details of their answer. What was typical about this example, and what was out of the ordinary?

It’s hard to get managers to talk about “failures” as a counterpoint to the success stories. But people are often willing to respond when we ask, “What’s an example of a process where the role of science could have been better?” This can lead to valuable lessons for scientists on ways they can be more effective. By reflecting on these situations, the managers often acknowledge things they could have done better.

Lesson #3: Check your ego at the door

There are a few ways that your ego or existing knowledge can get in the way of a good interview. It’s hard to listen to someone tell you things that you already know, but of course this will inevitably happen, especially as you conduct more and more interviews. But proving to your interviewee that you know things is a distraction.

Avoid the impulse to ask leading questions. These can push your interviewee toward answers that are more in line with your own thinking and thus less informative to you on the whole. For example, instead of asking:

“Would you say that your ideas about which science is credible are driven by advice from scientists, or the views of your constituents?”

try something like:

“What do you look for in order to feel that science is credible?”

You also need to remember that your interviewee is doing you a favor, even if your intention is ultimately to help him. In this setting, he is the expert, and you are there to learn from him.

This points to a fundamental aspect of working across the boundary between science and decision making. We are not here to bring expertise to non-experts; we are finding ways to connect different domains of expertise such as management, science, and local knowledge.

Ryan Meyer‘s email is ryan.meyer@calost.org. Follow him on Twitter: @RyanMeyerSF. Emily Knight‘s email is emily.knight@calost.org. Follow her on Twitter: @EKnight_OST

5 tips for preparing to “interview for information”

Note from Margaret:   Thank you, Kathleen, for sharing your insights on interviewing.  I’d like to be a fly on the wall some day watching you interview.  I’m sure you had more fun than your colleague collecting camel bite data!

 This fall both the 2013 cohort and fellows attending the “Hitting the Policy Mark” advanced training are preparing informational interviews.  Leopold Fellows, don’t be surprised if you get an email from one of them.  The purpose of these interviews is to avoid reinventing the wheel by discovering what others are doing and to find bright spots or success stories. 


  1. Susi Moser (2005) recommended an incredibly valuable and comprehensive resource to use when preparing questions. Katharine Jacobs, who is currently the Director of the National Climate Assessment, wrote a handbook several years ago for NOAA,  Connecting Science, Policy, and Decision-makingA Handbook for Researchers and Science Agencies. You’ll find detailed suggestions on each of the areas outlined in the photo above.
  2. Imagine you’re an alien! In the late 60’s I remember getting this advice as part of change agent training.  It’s a mind-set that I still find helpful as a way to suspend judgments and assumptions.  It also provides a way to draw someone out, expressing your ignorance on a particular subject.  Tell me more about …
  3. Appreciate your advice on…: Use this as your email subject line. I’ve found I get immediate replies.  All of us like to be acknowledged as a person with expertise!  You can also use the phrase during the interview as an opener — a “grand tour” or overview—question such as:  What’s a day in the life of a [insert role]?  Can you draw me a map of . . .? How did you get started working in this area?
  4. Rod Fujita, Director of Research and Development, Oceans Program, EDF advised me to avoid asking:  What do you need from scientists?  Instead try a hypothetical:  What question, if answered, could make the most difference?  What are the dilemmas or opportunities?  What assumptions do you need to test?
  5. Who else should I be talking with?  Don’t forget to wind up your interview by asking this important last question.  This is your opportunity to ask for help expanding your network, to open doors and make connections to people you don’t know but want to know!

What question(s) work for you?  Please add your ideas and tips by commenting.

A Science and an art: What makes for an effective interview?

Interviewing a Mongolian pastoralist

Interviewing a Mongolian pastoralist


Note from Pam: Participants in our Leopold Leadership training programs learn how to create a network map for carrying forward a vision for change. A network map helps you visualize your relationships with others who work on the issue you care about. Understanding what that network looks like helps you identify points where you might engage. Informational interviewing is a critical skill for deepening your understanding of the issue and building long-term relationships for working on it effectively.

We asked Kathleen Galvin, a Professor of Anthropology and Senior Research Scientist at the Natural Resource Ecology Laboratory at Colorado State University and a Leopold Leadership Fellow, what makes for an effective interview. Kathleen works collaboratively with pastoralists, students, researchers, local governments, villages, and NGOs on climate adaptation in the drylands of east Africa and in northern Asia (Kenya and Mongolia in particular). Her work has resulted in new research and inputs to land management policies and practices for sustainability. For an overview, watch this 4-minute video.

Kathleen shares her insights below about two kinds of interviews used in the social sciences: one for exploratory research, the other for testing hypotheses.
If you’re building a network map, how might these two approaches help you expand your understanding of an issue and test parts of your vision for change?

The Effective Interview – Exploratory Research
I’m sitting in a pickup truck interviewing a rancher about his land use and land management strategies and how they have changed over the last two years under recurring droughts. I’m taking notes, listening, asking other questions that are not in the interview. There is a fine line between getting the information and carrying on a conversation. One way to do this smoothly, if given permission, is to record the interview. Issues and information emerge that I was not looking for but are important for understanding. Doing effective interviewing is a science and an art.

There are several types of interviews – in-depth, open-ended interviewing is a way to learn about a topic, like a rancher’s management strategies. There are no correct answers and it is a means to learn about something about which little is known. But it requires logical thinking and excellent communication skills and the general questions are planned. This demands clear objectives for the interview. It also requires humility on the part of the interviewer and the willingness to always ask about meanings of terms and clarification of details.

A semi-structured interview consists of a predetermined set of questions about a domain of interest administered to a representative sample of respondents to identify variables for analysis or use in a survey. The questions are formed; the answers are open-ended. Both of these types of interviews are preparation for more systematic forms of investigation and are used to develop hypotheses.

Remember, you are listening to what matters to your informants, not to you. Interviews are a first step to a survey.

The Survey – Explanatory Research
To begin you need to introduce yourself and the project, ensure confidentiality and explain why their views and information are important. Try and make people comfortable by making culturally important small talk. Put yourself into their shoes for a minute and imagine, for example, what that rancher in his truck thinks about an academic asking him questions – maybe it’s time for a good joke!

Based on interview data, I hypothesized that rich ranchers have diversified their land use under droughts more than poor ranchers. I also hypothesized that diversity is a drought coping strategy. To test these hypothesizes requires all the same scientific procedures that occur in the natural sciences. In this case, avoid open-ended questions and make sure the questions are relevant to the topic. Always pretest the survey on a subsample of the population first. Make sure the questions use terms and phrases that are understandable to respondents. If answers are confusing or inappropriate the wrong questions are probably being asked or being asked in unclear ways. Keep questions short and ask only one question at a time. Do not ask questions that are biased or lead the respondent to answers. Be sensitive to the cultural context or social meanings of words or questions. Key informants are important in this regard. It is important to find a few people who are especially knowledgeable about the topic; ask them to help pretest the survey.

The best way to learn how to conduct an effective interview or develop a good survey is to take a social science methods class. Altamira Press and Sage Publications have great books on interview and survey methodologies and there are wonderful software packages that can analyze and quantify qualitative data (e.g., NVivo, Atlas ti, MAXQDA). There are many quantitative data analysis programs familiar to natural scientists.

Have fun! I did my anthropological dissertation research in the field with an ecology graduate student who was doing camel bite counts (that’s another story) and both he and I can affirm I had more fun!

Kathleen Galvin is a Professor in the Department of Anthropology and Senior Research Scientist at the Natural Resource Ecology Laboratory at Colorado State University. Read more here and visit her Sustainable African Ecosystems and Societies Research Group website. She and her collaborators have a new 10-minute video,“The Maasai Voices on Climate Change (and other changes, too).” This participatory documentary, made by young Maasai pastoralists, will be awarded the Jean Rouch Award for Collaborative Filmmaking by the Society for Visual Anthropology at the American Anthropological Association meeting in November.