5 tips to improve youth participation at science policy conferences

A version of this article was published on SciDev.Net. Read it here.

This time last year, I was only just starting to understand the participation challenges young people across the world face when attending large science policy conferences.

On the surface it seems like progress has been made, with many commitments for youth representation in committees and in sessions.

Yet when you look below the surface, youth (defined as 18-30 years old) still often remain at the margins of participation in policy, research and practice efforts represented at these conferences.

One of the reasons is that young people are not provided with sufficient skill building opportunities to effectively contribute to these discussions and to become better professionals.

Another possible reason for marginalized youth participation is that issues discussed at large science policy conferences are often not ones that youth would be regularly exposed to in their studies or workplaces. For example, the conferences I have worked on address integrated land use practices and policies to combat climate change and achieve sustainable development – not topics that are widely discussed and debated amongst young people, even those who are heavily involved in international climate policy processes.

So 12 months ago, I teamed up with two other very inspiring young people to try to change these paradigms – Marina Cherbonnier from YPARD and Sarah Dickson-Hoyle from the International Forestry Students’ Association (led by the dynamo Peter Casier). Marina and I started with a special youth session at the first Global Landscapes Forum in Warsaw in December 2013 and then Sarah joined in to help us run a special youth session at the Forests Asia Summit in Jakarta in May 2014.

We’ve learned some key lessons along the way, which are detailed in a recent report:

  1. Having a youth session at your conference doesn’t mean you’ve ‘ticked the youth box’. There are fears that relegating youth to a separate session condemns them to continued marginalization unless appropriate steps are taken to also integrate young people into the rest of the conference program. This is not an argument against youth sessions (they are an important way to have the youth perspective formally represented) but we can’t let this mean that we stop pushing for young professionals and early career scientists as panellists and panel organizers, particularly for topics where youth issues are of key relevance (e.g. education, employment etc).
  2. Youth sessions aren’t just for young people. While young people often have innovative and creative ideas, we believe it will be difficult to mainstream this thinking if older professionals do not support and operationalize these ideas. Our sessions aim to bring the youth and senior professional communities together in the hope of linking goals and action statements. Older people could benefit from youth sessions by being pushed to have fresh perspectives and find new ways of explaining their ideas.
  1. Don’t just give young people a space to share their ideas, they need skill-building, networking and mentoring opportunities too. Youth sessions have given youth a space to share their ideas. But when it comes to presenting these ideas in other fora, we still see many young people afraid to take the microphone or unable to clearly articulate their ideas to a professional audience. We need to give them the confidence and skills to effectively contribute to these discussions. One of the reasons many delegates attend large international conferences is the prolific opportunities to network with many other organizations. Young people are often intimidated by these large and senior networking scenarios. According to feedback we received from a participant, we can and should do more to overcome this: “Would be great in future to link young participants to established people in relevant fields…perhaps there are others who could act as mentors for interested participants, or other ways to link youth participants with those more established.”
  1. Give us enough time. Don’t schedule the youth session on at the end of the day because it is not considered as important as a high level panel. We need brave conference organizers who aren’t afraid to rise above institutional politics to give time and space for young people to contribute and to learn. You never know, it may be the most dynamic and interesting session the conference holds, with delegates praising the innovative approaches for months to come.
  2. Don’t forget to plan what happens after the session. We often get so caught up in the logistics of organizing and preparing sessions that we don’t put enough thought into how to implement recommendations generated. This is tough as often funding just covers one-off events but we should be asking the “what next” questions much earlier in the planning process and ensuring they are reflected in our concept notes and fundraising efforts.

We’re in the midst of organizing our next youth project at the 2014 Global Landscapes Forum in Peru in December and we are pleased to say that we have been able to build on lessons learned to make sure we’re delivering even better youth activities.

The 2014 GLF conference organizers have committed to youth involvement in various aspects of the current conference program:

  • A dedicated youth session where over 200 young people will be able to share their perspectives on the four themes of 2014 GLF;
  • Making age a selection criteria for discussion forum speakers;
  • Encouraging youth facilitators of thematic pavilions.

For the first time, we’ll be running a blended masterclass series that aims to offer mentoring and capacity building opportunities (how to contribute to a discussion, how to pitch your idea, how to facilitate a discussion, what landscape approaches are) to a wide range of young people and will be setting them “tasks” to complete during the GLF conference.

We’re also planning to run informal speed networking sessions and a mentoring program to ensure young people and older professionals have the opportunity to meet and develop contacts.

We’re hoping that all of this will lead to:

  • Significant contributions from youth to 2014 GLF discussions, with clear messages related to the themes of the conference.
  • Increased youth awareness about landscape issues and how these relate to climate change and sustainable development.
  • Increased engagement between older professionals and youth.
  • Increased understanding of youth issues amongst older professionals attending 2014 GLF.
  • More youth in leadership roles in 2014 GLF sessions (facilitators, panellists) and at future events and meetings.
  • Youth adequately prepared to take on such roles.
  • New links, networks and friendships between young participants and youth organizations established.
  • Increased cooperation and joint program/project/campaign development among youth organizations in the field of landscape and climate change with a particular perspective to engage in the post-2015 agreement development and beyond.

If we manage to achieve even some of these aims, it will surely put us in good stead to ensure that 2015 — the year of climate and sustainable development action — will have an army of well equipped, confident youth leaders at the helm.

Michelle Kovacevic is a science communicator and educator with a strong interest in how the ideas and perspectives of early career professionals are represented in science policy fora. Get in touch with her @kovamic.