A career in environmental policy according to Marianne Kettunen

As someone in the middle of their master’s degree, I am often asked the dreaded question, “What are you going to do when you’re finished?” What follows is a series of identity crisis inducing questions: What should I do? What do I like to do? Who am I?! After completing my first year of environmental sciences however, I have found myself drawn to environmental policy. Could this be the career for me?

I was fortunate enough to get an intern position in the biodiversity team at the Institute for European Environmental Policy (IEEP), an environmental sustainability think tank. Here I met Marianne Kettunen, principal policy analyst, who has been with IEEP for over 12 years. Who better to ask, I thought, about the ins and outs and highs and lows of a career in environmental policy. Here’s what she had to say.

Could you tell me about yourself, what you studied and how you ended up at IEEP?

 I studied ecology, and at my university it was possible to link biodiversity research to society and broader environmental issues, and particularly policies and people. My interest was always global, focused initially in developing countries and the tropics. When you’re conserving biodiversity somewhere like the Amazon or East Africa, you very quickly get to the people and their dependency on and relationship with nature, which is what led me to policy. So with ecology as the starting point and from policies for biodiversity conservation at the global level, I worked my way back towards the EU level.

It took a while to identify myself and know I’m actually interested in policies that govern conservation rather than only understanding ecology. And that’s interesting from a career path perspective because as long as you don’t understand what your professional identity and interests are, it’s difficult to define and ‘sell’ yourself. A defining moment for me was when I did an internship at the EU level.

I saw you did a trainee certificate on EU agricultural policy, was that a part of the internship?

 Yes. I was at the General Secretariat of the Council which is much more political than a Commission internship where you work with a specific directorate, like environment. At the Council you can’t really choose where you go, and I found myself in a unit dealing with agriculture. However, I had a massively brilliant internship supervisor and so I became more and more interested in EU policy. So even though my internship wasn’t exactly focussed on biodiversity, it’s what inspired me to not only focus on global biodiversity policy, but also look at EU policy-making. When I summed up everything and was able to communicate what I’d done, it got me a job at IEEP. After the internship, I was on my way to Peru to do a PhD but then I saw the position at IEEP, applied, and got the job, so came straight back.

So you applied only to the IEEP job, and then got it?

 Exactly. So if I’ve ever gotten lucky in life, I think that was it! I saw the IEEP job advertisement and it was kind of an eye-opener - I thought ‘oh, that’s actually me’. Then of course I had to wait for a reply and I thought, ‘if they don’t even ask me to come to an interview, I have to seriously think about this’. Luckily I got the interview so I wasn’t entirely wrong in my self-assessment.

 It shows that you can always end up in different places from where your studies started if you are able to identify what you want and who you are. Even if at the end of an internship you walk out thinking ‘that wasn’t quite what I thought it would be’, it’s still an answer.

At IEEP, you’ve been involved with many different projects: invasive alien species, protected areas and now green economy. Is it difficult to switch between them?

 Our work is on the science-policy interface and for that type of work you’ve got to have a broad general knowledge of the whole policy area, like biodiversity and nature conservation. Within that you develop your expertise in certain areas you find interesting. My core expertise and interest was, and still remains, in ecosystem services, which I’d done at the global level. I happened to be in the right place at the right time when the EU picked up the approach, which was around 13 years ago. And then you think ‘well, I actually know this stuff and I might be helpful’. Hence my profile at IEEP is centred around ecosystem service projects, but that reaches out broadly. You also can’t be too precious about a specific area of expertise though because the relevance of that also depends on what the policy does next. Therefore, my expertise has also always been moulded by where the policies go.

So you have to be flexible to a certain degree?

 You have to be flexible. But it will help you if you can keep your head together in terms of knowing your core expertise and interests, because those are the ones that will be driving you on your career path.

What was the most challenging thing for you when you started out at IEEP?

 It was simply the sheer amount of interesting work. You can’t focus on one thing and you have to be able to manage your time and know when to stop. I think that anybody who ends up at a place like IEEP wants to do the best they can because they believe in what they do. I ended up after a year or so having physical problems because of the stress.

How did you deal with that then?

 I dealt with it too late, I realised. I just continued working but without addressing the cause and it took quite a long time for me to bounce back. But that was the most difficult issue - having been able to focus on one project at university to juggling a lot of projects in environmental policy.

That sounds difficult!

 That’s the most challenging, but in the end also rewarding thing, and everybody at IEEP has gone through a similar learning curve. You learn your limits and to respect them and also time management.

How long did it take you to get to that point?

 I think everybody in the institute is still learning [laughs] but I’d say a couple of years. Don’t be scared by that though because when you know it’s an issue you’ll be able to discuss it and keep your head level. The risk for motivated people finding their place in a motivating environment is that they want to do well, always ready to pick up the next challenge. What we try to do better at IEEP is to tell you, ‘I see you driving but you have to put the brakes on now’, so your manager also has to keep an eye on that.

This is quite a specific question but how do you come up with good policy recommendations?

 This is something we still ask ourselves every day: what’s a good policy recommendation, what influences it and also how do you formulate it? You get an idea what they look like from reading other policy recommendations. But to make a good recommendation you also have to understand where the policy is at a given moment and where it’s going next.

It’s not a policy recommendation to simply say something doesn’t work. A good policy recommendation will be read, heard and actually taken up, and such a recommendation is often a bit of a compromise between an ideal action and the reality. For example, it’s not realistic to suggest changing the Natura 2000 network completely, but you can nudge it in some direction, and in a policy recommendation you try to identify where you can nudge it next. Equally important is that you use the best possible evidence as the basis of your recommendation, and your ability to interpret that evidence and make it relevant. Providing recommendations to a timescale is also important, so it’s easy for a busy politician or MEP to pick up something immediately relevant and achievable and say, ‘ok, we’re going to champion this’.

How do you know in which direction to nudge the policy next?

 That’s going to be your understanding of the issue you work with, and also understanding the policy. You have to be able to understand both. So read about the topic but talk and listen to people involved in different stages of decision-making. You really are between the two worlds of science and policy-making, and you’ll soon notice that not that many people are. In a way that’s the beauty of what we do, and that’s why I think things like EU internships are really good because you get to be in the room just listening in.

You’re making policy recommendations in an office. How connected do you feel to the real-world consequences of those recommendations?

 We are a couple of levels removed from the real world but the way you stay in touch with reality is your contacts to the practitioners, researchers and NGOs who work in the same area. The Member State people who work on the issue on the ground are the absolute key and those are the ones we go to for a lot of relevant information. We interview them on a regular basis and they keep us grounded in what does and doesn’t work. A considerable part of the information we need to do a good policy assessment isn’t documented anywhere so you have to talk to practitioners and experts. So it’s via people that you keep your head in the right place and understand what’s happening.

It must be really satisfying when you’re involved in policies or a regulation and you can then see the consequences of your work.

 Yes, so the day the alien species regulation was adopted was my field day. And then when an expert from a Member State comes and tells you ‘it was your piece of work that helped us to get this through’, it’s like, ‘yes!’ That’s basically our dream [laughs] - that’s the best you can do.

To sum it up, what is the worst thing and the best thing about being a policy analyst?

 The negative side for some people is that your hard work on improving a policy might come to nothing because of politics. But for me it’s always been that the everyday working pace can become hectic and so you become drained and tired because you deal with so many things every day. That’s the nature of the work as a policy analyst – but having said that, this might be the reality everywhere nowadays.     

 The best thing is being the bridge between knowledge and policy-making; being in the convergence of so many different worlds. You interpret science and information to policy makers and try to make it policy relevant. You interpret policy to the scientists or the NGOs with limited experience of how policies and EU policy-making works. And you get to work with all sorts of brilliant, motivated people, you see the whole process and how it fits together, and you’re able to see your handiwork within it. Your name might get lost in the process. When the Commission or Member State picks up the work it’s only an anonymous impact assessment, but you’ll know it was you.

Thank you very much, Marianne!

My pleasure!