Untangling climate change and health from a political perspective

A photo of Leonardo Zea Reyes wearing a navy coloured suit with a pink tie and a background of green trees.

Leonardo Zea Reyes has an educational background in urban management and development, urban environment and climate change, and architecture. He’s just about to start his second year as a PhD student at Imperial’s Centre for Environmental Policy (CEP), and his first co-authored peer-reviewed paper was published in July 2021. 

In this post he tells us more about how his postgraduate research is evolving and what his first experience of the peer-review process has been like.

By Leonardo Zea Reyes

My research focuses on exploring why the application or implementation of joint climate change and public health projects is so challenging on the ground in many cities, and why it takes so much time to realise, even though there is a huge amount of knowledge about the benefits and co-benefits of implementing these kinds of projects. Literature suggests that this is linked to politics, vested interests, structural challenges and the economic system, but we need to be more specific. So, I’m looking at both climate and health from these perspectives, untangling it: what are the specific political influences on project implementation, and what can bring political traction?

I chose to study at the Centre for Environmental Policy because CEP gave me access to a range of research opportunities within the environmental policy realm, which was an advantage. I hope to continue in the line of climate change governance, specifically in cities which I find utterly fascinating

My PhD project has evolved…

In the beginning my proposal was very different. I like to think that its adaptation is a result of reflection based on continuously trying to search for the right research gap. It will likely keep evolving.

I certainly hope it has an impact on policymaking in urban areas, but I do question whether it will. It can sometimes seem that environmental science remains on paper without being used in the “real-world”. Many PhD students and postdocs spend years developing their research; I sometimes wonder how much of that research is used outside academia, and in what specific ways it ends up being applied. In some areas of science it seems to me there is a gap, where the production of the research needs to be done in more effective ways.

… so where does the research go?

Part of my work experience is in setting the ground, planning and execution of buildings and urban developments. I’m an associate in Cónclave Consultora. Think of a new housing development – a tower block. One of the first steps in a new project is to conduct market research and analysis, which determines whether the project is profitable. If the market study concludes that the project is not going to give you a return on investment, you don’t do it. You change plans. If it does have a good return, you proceed. These analyses are so accurate that they tell you everything from how many square meters for how many people per unit (house or flat) are needed, to when it will be bought and who is going to buy it (based on all kinds of demographics, like how many units are needed for singles, how many for couples with no children, how many for couples with children, how many for couples that plan to have children – and even on further detailed information, such as sexual orientation). The process segmentises and makes the developers clear in these terms.

In contrast, in the world of science research you don’t always know where it’s headed. The investment you put in – for example, in time, effort, intellect, years of preparation, funds – isn’t always so easily quantifiable. I recognise it cannot be so market/profit-based, but consider that at the start of a research project you don’t always know what will happen with the knowledge that results from it: who is going to use it, when and how. You don’t always know what the return of that investment is: is a policy being made or a decision being taken? Is there a collective benefit or might it just benefit an individual? Will another scientist benefit from your work? If so, who? With a bit of luck, it is used outside academia in ways that benefit society, but it also might well never be used.

For some STEM academia, I would say that a kind of market research approach, oriented to the usefulness of science production, is needed; one that more accurately predicts who the end-user might be, whether that’s another scientist, the media, a national level government, a subnational government, a decision maker. Even drawing on demographics like where the decision-maker is from, what their age group is, and what their vision and political orientation might be. Knowing more about the world of politics, big industry, lobbying and other influences on how science is understood, misunderstood and used is incredibly important.

The relationship between policy-making and academic science

I think that this is why I’m interested in the relationship between policy-making and academic scientific research, because it’s where you can bring science-based knowledge into practice and reality. Research might be recognised in the world of academia but end up staying in a fancy database on the internet. We need to bridge the gap, build an arm between both domains, working more collaboratively, if not together in the same space.

My first experience of the peer-review process

I recently published my first co-authored, peer-reviewed paper, which was a very exciting and exhausting experience! It feels good to see your paper out in the world, but it’s surprising that it can take so much time. On the one hand academic publishing warrants quality and rigor – this is obviously incredibly important. On the other hand, the time that this process takes sometimes doesn’t cope with the pace and timing of life in the “real-world”. Things move fast, the world moves fast, people and leaders act quickly. The science world can often move at a different speed. In terms of my own research, there is a mismatch between the academic publishing process and the reality of short political cycles. So, perhaps once something that I investigate is finally published years later, the case on the ground has moved on – it’s not the case anymore because circumstances in that city/region have changed – there might even be another political administration in office.

But I would also say to students who aim to publish research: be patient and keep trying. Rejection doesn’t necessarily mean it’s not a good piece of work – there are a lot of other potential factors. It could, for example, mean it’s just not the right timing, no reviewers could be found, or it’s not a match with journal interests right now. So keep in mind your reason – know why you are passionate about the work and what you’re publishing it for. In academia you have to genuinely be passionate about research, but it also helps if you’re open. Make sure you are open to criticism and feedback in your work. Sometimes it’s difficult to accept others’ ideas, but it will give you another angle.

Find out more

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *