UKERC Inclusive Writing Retreat 2023: Calm, Inspiration and New-found Friends in Northern Ireland

30 Nov 2023

“Being ‘out of office’ is critical – it really worked for me.”

Stepping off the bus into a neatly clipped garden, we entered a world ideally suited to an escape from the bustle of university and city life. For the next two days, we would be free from the distractions of emails, lectures and spreadsheets. Amidst the green fields of Country Antrim, surrounded by beech trees clinging on to their russet autumn leaves, we had come with one purpose: to write.

Reflective pause with attendees and Christine Bell

‘Reflective pause’ session with retreat facilitator Christine Bell.

Keen to strengthen UKERC’s links to Northern Ireland, we chose to hold our second Inclusive Writing Retreat ten miles from Belfast and three miles from the seaside resort of Bangor. Here, in the cosy setting of the Clandeboye Lodge Hotel (pronounced “Clan-de-boye”), we welcomed 20 academics from across the UK, chosen at random from 68 applicants, all working in energy research across an array of disciplines. A third of the places were reserved for locally based researchers; the rest came from far and wide: Glasgow, Durham, Leeds, Liverpool, Wolverhampton, London and Bath.

UKERC offered participants an unmissable opportunity: the chance to hone their writing projects on a residential retreat under the expert guidance of Christine Bell, from the Centre for Facilitation. For extra inspiration, we invited experts working in energy and sustainability to join us and share their writing tips, real-world experience and career guidance. In this blog, we explore the insights our participants gained, interspersed with some of the feedback they gave us at the end of the retreat.

“I learned that going for a walk outside every now again helped me focus.”

The writing retreat group at work

Writing retreat participants hard at work.

But before we go into details, you might wonder how 20 people from diverse backgrounds, working in different subject areas, at career stages ranging from PhD to professor, with different ways of working, and unique goals and ambitions, could all benefit from a single programme. The answer is down to Christine’s skill as a facilitator. She uses a carefully choreographed programme and a zen-like atmosphere tailored for quiet study. It combines introductions, small group tasks and dedicated writing slots from 15 to 60 minutes with carefully timed speaker slots – a technique perfected over many years, which even the most experienced academic could learn from.

“Having a timer and alarm was a great trick.”

Ryan Scarrow speaking about publishing with Chrsitine Bell

Nature Editor Ryan Scarrow discusses journal publishing with Christine Bell.

On Day 1, our first guest speaker was Ryan Scarrow, Senior Editor at Nature Sustainability, who has worked at Nature since 2017. With a PhD in sociology from Ohio State University focussing on the political economy of water scarcity in the American West, Ryan has a long-standing academic background in sustainability and culture. Here are his top tips for submitting a paper to a high-profile journal:

  • Have a clear purpose to your paper: what question are you seeking to answer; what challenge you are looking to address? Are you showing how society can solve a specific issue? Does your work tell a compelling story that will engage readers of the journal in question?
  • Avoid jargon and make your language accessible to a wide audience.
  • Make sure your writing is clear, concise and demonstrates a capacity to be easily edited.
  • Don’t oversell your findings at the outset if you don’t have the evidence to back it up; research that is honest, even if it isn’t ground-breaking, is more likely to be interesting.
  • Don’t make your research interdisciplinary for the sake of it.
  • Editors are not looking to reject papers – but they can only help if you help yourself by being clear about what you want to communicate.
  • Be open to new ways of presenting your work.
  • Make sure you have read the submission guidelines on the journal website.
  • Take editors’ suggestions on board and be prepared to work with them to make changes.

“Ryan’s ‘fireside chats’ helped demystify the publication process. I had never considered sending my work to a major journal, but now I will try it.”

At the end of Day 1, we heard from policy-maker Katrina Duddy, who works in Energy Management at the Northern Ireland Department for the Economy.

Kartina Duddy speaking at the fireside chat with Christine Bell hosting

Katrina Duddy discusses policy-making in Northern Ireland with Christine Bell.

Katrina has a background in law, then moved into social policy and healthcare, where she gained a wealth of experience before taking a senior policy role in the energy for the civil service. It’s a controversial area of policy development and a challenging time for her and her colleagues. Katrina leads policy development in energy management across government, and is currently focussed on a project to help small and medium enterprises in Northern Ireland deliver energy efficiency. As the head of the team that relies on academic studies to inform initiatives that will be rolled out in a real-world context, she had a number of tips for academics seeking to see their research feed into government policy:

  • It’s easy to find poor research through a quick Google search, so policy-makers want to see research that is demonstrably reliable, well-referenced and thorough.
  • The bigger the sample size, the better. Policy-makers won’t trust in something with a small sample size that may only be valid in a specific context. The more universal, the better.
  • Keep the end-user in mind when presenting research. Is this something government can practically implement?
  • Has your research been produced collaboratively, involving the end-users? Policy-makers want to know that you’ve accounted for the lived experience of people who will be affected by what you are advocating so they can be sure it will actually work on the ground.

“New ideas formed, which I didn’t expect.”

As well as our speakers, we were joined at the end of Day 1 by four additional guests for a drinks reception and dinner: The Deputy Lord Mayor of Belfast, Councillor Áine Groogan (Green Party), David Surplus (Managing Director, B9 Energy Storage), Clare Bailey (Director, Sustainable NI and former leader of the Green Party in Northern Ireland) and John Barry (Professor of Green Political Economy, Co-Director of the Centre for Sustainability, Equality and Climate Action at Queens University Belfast and Co-Chair of the Belfast Climate Commission).

Dinner table with guests at UKERC's Writing Retreat

Dinner guest Prof. John Barry sits alongside retreat participants.

Seated at small tables, our guests answered pre-prepared questions and engaged with our participants over a three-course vegetarian/vegan meal in a relaxed, convivial setting, where opinions could be shared freely (especially after a drink or two), and the world put to rights. The conversation flowed until it was time for the hard-working hotel staff to go home and our participants to retire for the night, ready for an early start the next day.

“By setting myself fewer goals, I actually managed to achieve them.”

Day 2 began with an informative talk from Rob Gross, Director of UKERC and Professor of Energy Policy and Technology at Imperial College London. Rob originally led UKERC’s Technology and Policy Assessment theme before taking over as Director in 2020. He has made a substantive contribution to UK energy policy development, acting as an advisor to Select Committees, preparing reports and chairing committees for Government departments and non-departmental public bodies, and as a consultant.

Rob Gross delivering session on communicating complexity

UKERC Director Rob Gross delivers a session on communicating complexity.

Following a one-to-one meeting over breakfast with Richard Rodgers, Deputy Secretary and Head of Energy at the Department for the Economy (Northern Ireland), Rob spoke to the group about communicating complexity and influencing policy in a fast-moving political landscape.

  • Can you anticipate the needs of government with forward-looking research that will land at the right time?
  • Don’t expect people in the civil service to be waiting patiently for your outputs – government priorities can change rapidly, and researchers need to be poised to respond to current events if they want to influence policy-makers seeking to make a quick impact.
  • Build relationships with government advisors and civil servants so they know they can come to you when they need help – don’t underestimate the importance of building networks and maintaining contacts as you progress in your career.
  • Taking the example of a UKERC policy proposal that was picked up at a high level in government during the energy crisis in 2022, Rob explained the importance of being wired into the right people in government, having the backing of influential contacts and a strong reputation (intellectual capital) to draw on; and acting quickly to formulate ideas.
  • Sometimes you have the right solution at the right time, but the fickle nature of politics also means that however good your idea is, it may fall out of favour if the wind changes.

“I learned the importance of being strict with timing and scheduling to ensure no distractions.”

We started out as a group of 20 strangers, sharing only a connection to energy research. But by the end of our two days at the Clandeboye Lodge, new friendships had been formed, valuable contacts made, and experiences shared. Everyone seemed energised by the intensity and freshness of the retreat experience, and many were keen to take what they had learned about better, more focussed ways to write back to their colleagues and institutions.

We look forward to following our newfound friends as their careers unfold, and hope they will stay in touch both with each other and with UKERC well into the future. From the UKERC HQ perspective, we’ve come away with a renewed ambition to continue delivering events like these to even more energy researchers. But we know we’ll be lucky to find another venue as tranquil, welcoming and picturesque as the Clandeboye Lodge Hotel.

“I’ll be leaving with new methods to approach writing, networking opportunities and very good contacts.”

Post-It notes of key lessons learned by participants

At the end of the retreat, participants wrote down top tips they had learned.

A special thanks to everyone who made the event such a success: to Christine, our Facilitator; to Ryan, Katrina and Rob for their talks; to our dinner guests Áine, David, Clare and John; to the staff of the Clandeboye Lodge Hotel; to our UKERK HQ colleagues Lara (who set up the retreat before moving on to pastures new) and Diana (who arranged catering and travel); and to all our brilliant participants, who made running the retreat such a pleasure.

Finally, if you applied for this year’s Writing Retreat but were unsuccessful this time, we hope you will take the opportunity to attend a future UKERC event. To stay in the loop about all our plans, make sure you sign up to our newsletter – and look out for our next Inclusive Writing Retreat.