Policy Idol: Toryn Whitehead on his ‘Locally Extinct Keystone Species Act’

The Policy Idol competition has been an exceptional platform for young policy enthusiasts to showcase their skills and ideas, providing them with a unique opportunity to refine their communication and analytical abilities. The experience gained from participating in the competition is invaluable and will undoubtedly add an extra edge to their performances in their future paths. Today, we hear from Toryn Whitehead, who completed an undergraduate in Chemistry, then did a master’s in international development, and is now pursuing a PhD in Geography at King’s! Toryn was awarded ‘Best Analysis’ in Policy Idol 2023!

What’s the ‘Locally Extinct Keystone Species Act’ all about? 

As the world grapples with the unprecedented decline of wildlife, exacerbated by the climate crisis, vital ecosystem services such as food production are becoming increasingly strained. The threat is particularly salient in the UK, where the government has failed to fulfil 14 out of 20 targets agreed at the UN Convention on Biological Diversity in 2010. I propose a new, innovative policy approach focused on reintroducing locally extinct keystone species, ones which are proven to play a critical role in rewilding biodiversity and landscapes. This policy will:

  1. explicitly recognise that these species are native and that we have an obligation to actively explore their reintroduction; and
  2. remove the requirement for these species to be ‘controlled’, channelling finances towards public engagement, compensation schemes and wildlife conflict prevention techniques.

As such, this policy has the potential to reconcile social, economic, and environmental objectives whilst simultaneously transforming economically stagnant rural communities. 

What motivated you to join Policy Idol? 

I stumbled on Policy Idol through an SSPP Faculty newsletter and thought that it was a great opportunity to give my research a platform.  

What notable skills or experience did you gain from this event? 

During my PhD journey, I realized that it’s easy to get trapped in the “academic bubble.” So, when I participated in Policy Idol, it provided a fantastic opportunity for me to apply my research in the real world and helped me develop better communication skills. 

One of the key lessons I learned was the importance of striking a balance between providing sufficient details to make a convincing argument while avoiding too many technical terms. As someone passionate about my topic, I could easily spend hours discussing my policy. Still, condensing it into a concise three-minute pitch is essential. To accomplish this, I presented my pitch to peers and incorporated their feedback to improve its effectiveness for a general audience. During this process, I learned that it’s critical to prioritize the essential aspects of my presentation, as there may not be time to cover everything. For instance, in the initial version of my pitch, I discussed “shifting baseline syndrome,” an important concept that I ultimately had to omit from the final version in favor of more critical elements. Furthermore, I attended a training session for journalists where I learned essential tips, such as the use of killer facts and soundbites, to enhance my presentation skills. 

After the first round of auditions, I was fortunate enough to have a fantastic mentor who helped me fine-tune my pitch. One of the things we worked on was amending my PowerPoint slides, particularly my funding slide, to explain better how I intended to fund my policy and why it was economically viable. Another critical aspect we addressed was the color scheme to ensure that it was readable for the audience and color-blind friendly. 

What would you like to do in your career/after you leave King’s? Would it be something to do with Policy? 

I’ve still got 3 years to go on my PhD, but I might be interested in staying in academia, or to work with an NGO, or who knows the possibilities are endless! 

What would you advise potential students who are looking to participate in Policy Idol? 

Don’t hesitate, take the plunge and participate! Even if I didn’t make it past the initial heats, the preparation, the process, and the feedback from the judges were incredibly valuable.  

One of the most significant takeaways from this experience was that interdisciplinary research is essential when addressing current issues. Therefore, we shouldn’t limit our policy ideas to our academic fields alone. Instead, we should be open to exploring different approaches and collaborating with experts from other disciplines to solve complex problems.