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The Art of Science Policy Advising

“We live in a society exquisitely dependent on science and technology, in which hardly anyone knows anything about science and technology.”

- Carl Sagan

In recent years there has been a growing disconnect between our advancements in scientific understanding, and their implementation into policy. One does not have to look that far for an example, as policies around vaccination or the environment immediately spring to mind. With scientific progress becoming ever more complex there is a need for people who can bridge the gap between science and policy implementation. On March 16, Brandon and I attended the Science and Policy Exchange’s (SPE) science advocacy workshop in collaboration with the International Network for Government Science Advice (INGSA). Our main interest in participating in this workshop was to learn how to offer scientific expertise to advocate for political policymaking.

Because of my scientific background, I believe that decisions must be made based on evidence, and for this reason, I believe that it is essential that scientists learn how to participate in the decision-making process more often. As a scientist, I am therefore strongly in support of evidence-based policymaking.

Approaching this workshop as a scientist, I had the common and naïve perspective that the “data will speak for itself”: should I show my methodology and findings that the Earth is round, people would undoubtedly reach the same conclusion by following my protocol and analysis. I thought that this would naturally follow through to the policy world. Moreover, in science, we often like to describe a subject matter with excruciating detail in order to avoid any scrutiny in our conclusions. However, as I quickly learned, these attitudes are completely incompatible with science advocacy. People do not want to be drowned with data or facts. Instead they like clear, concise statements with simple yet well articulated summaries of the facts and solutions to problems.

Scientists are not a privileged group. In the eyes of the policymakers, we are simply an interest group amongst many others. Although we have the scientific method and rigorous scientific evidence to support our claims and conclusions, deciding how to act in light of this information is a political action, and one that must be informed by other stakeholders. Therefore, when it comes to science policy advocacy, we must approach it not just as scientists, but as an advocacy group.

In particular, since we are one amongst many stakeholders, we aren’t allocated privileged time to explain the science in detail and advocate for our plan: we must condense a vast literature of science down to extremely short formats. Often, this may be in the form of a few bullet points, half a page, or five-minute conversations. As a science policy advisor, you are expected to advise politicians on a wide array of scientific topics, many of which you will not be an expert. The key to overcoming this barrier is to network with your peers. Establishing a network of collaborators who can inform you on the latest science and opinions of academics in different fields will strengthen and lend credibility to your pitches. Furthermore, scientists must understand that many policymakers aren’t interested in understanding the science. Fundamentally, they must propose, vote and execute legislation. That means that they want concrete proposals and solutions. Moreover, they want to be able to predict the outcome of these proposals and solutions.

After working through the case studies, my conclusion of the procedure for science advocacy is as follows. In terms of science, policy makers just want the bottom line: what is the consensus within the scientific community regarding this particular political question? E.g. does marijuana have detrimental health effects, what are the environmental effects of the use of shale gas as a source of energy, what are the detrimental effects of vaccination, etc. Keep it short: one or two sentences to state your conclusions, but make sure you understand all the vast scientific literature behind it to support your conclusions if and when it becomes necessary to elaborate. However, ensure that you choose your words carefully as Brandon discovered during the mock scenarios. The instructors for the day (current science and policy advisors) acted as the media during a mock scenario. What they highlighted was how important word choice is in politics, as one misspoken word can be misconstrued and used to discredit your opinion, no matter the strength of the rest of your argument. From there, offer your position on the political question, and make yourself very clear. Once you’ve stated your thesis, and this is where scientists start lacking expertise, offer concrete solutions that the policymakers can execute in light of the scientific consensus. Finally, prepare a response to the (political) consequences and fallout of your potential solutions. This will often be in the form of a public relations plan, one that scientists must help coordinate. From the government’s perspective, they are more interested in the last few steps, and therefore your presentation (time allocation or brief length) must match their interests. The science isn’t the main object of discussion: it’s simply a tool, an “argument” to support your political action plan.

Evidence-based policymaking is essential for a strong and sustainable society. However, communicating this evidence appropriately is arguably more important when it comes to science advocacy. For there to be a stronger trend towards evidence-based policymaking, scientists should become better at advocating for science in this manner. Attending this workshop and being exposed to the world of science advocacy was truly a humbling experience, and one that more students and research trainees should engage in.

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