This is the start of a new series of Guest blogs where we invite outside contributors to share their own expertise from a broad range of specialities, enabling Sparks & Co to deliver content from all areas of science communication. The following post is written by Aubrey Paris, Co-Host, ISGP’s “The Forum” (Podcast), Senior Fellow, Institute on Science for Global Policy, NSF Graduate Research Fellow, Princeton University.
Let’s play a game. Let’s pretend that you’re a young scientist at a university working on the most efficient solar panels developed to-date. The potential impacts of your work are enormous, but to realize those impacts, it will be necessary for policy makers to develop incentives that facilitate widespread public adoption of your panels. You now have a decision to make. Someone must communicate the scientific details of your solar panels to the policy community. Will that “someone” be you?
The short answer: probably not. This was a reality I learned while working at the Institute on Science for Global Policy (ISGP)’s “Communicating Science for Policy” conference held in the summer of 2015. I’m a Senior Fellow of the ISGP and a Co-Host of its podcast called The Forum, and at this particular conference I was surrounded by a diverse group of scientists and science communicators…professionals who had gathered to hash out the best way to put the “science” in science policy. While the conference attendees had conflicting opinions on many occasions during the two-day event, one consensus point became abundantly clear to me: effective science communication is 100% necessary for enacting effective science policies. It was even suggested that the public is put at risk if science communication is poorly performed, leading to a lag in—or lack of—societal implementation of new technologies.
How important is science communication in policy making?
As it turns out, science communication is both directly and indirectly crucial for policy making. The direct implication is perhaps more obvious. If policy makers are expected to create policies based on credible science, it makes sense that they would need some understanding of the science itself. But scientific advancements are churned out faster these days than a teenager’s Instagram posts, leaving a policy maker little time to decide how to act on the new information. Couple this with the fact that science-based decisions aren’t the only issues requiring the policy maker’s attention, and you quickly discover an age-old problem called, “so much to do, so little time.”
What can science communicators do to help?
The good news is that science communicators can fill the informational gap by digesting the jargon-filled science for the policy maker, regurgitating just the information that is important for the policy making process, and not the nitty-gritty details about your solar panel’s circuitry. Put another way, while other scientists might be concerned with experimental details and standard deviation calculations, a policy maker will find much greater value in the lifetime and reliability of your solar panel, as well as whether more improvements will be possible in a certain time frame.
But in the end, policy makers are not making decisions based solely on scientific data, or even economic projections and diplomacy reports, for that matter. Policy makers—particularly those doubling as politicians—also care a great deal about incorporating the views of their constituents. This is where the indirect connection between policy making and science communication begins to appear. In short, members of the public frequently have dramatically conflicting views regarding scientific issues, often because they receive loads of information claiming to be scientific from a myriad of sources. Information overload easily leads to confusion, or even a reflex to seek out information affirming previously held beliefs. In the end, the policy maker seeking to incorporate constituents’ views ends up receiving mixed signals about what the public actually wants.
Thus, as so many discourses on science communication often do, we recognize a need to communicate science more effectively to the public. But this time we recognize the need not just because we want people to stop sharing scientifically inaccurate click-bait on Twitter, but because we want to cultivate a population of citizens who can inform science policy in a positive way. Effective tactics for engaging the public are numerous (stories, metaphors, and analogies have been given a thumbs-up by social scientists), and the digital, print, and live platforms that can be used for dissemination are only expanding. Now it’s just a matter of getting the right science communicators to adopt those tactics and use those platforms. And who knows the science better than the scientists themselves? Who is better qualified to speak on your hypothetical solar panel than you?
What are some of the barriers to communicating science for policymaking?
At the ISGP conference on communicating science for policy, I learned quickly that scientists are often reluctant to wear their communication hats for one or more reasons. Maybe they were never trained to write articles not destined for scientific journals. Maybe they are systematically disincentivised from starting a blog or a YouTube channel—or from talking with policy makers—because science communication efforts will not be factored into their tenure decisions. Whoever the communicators may be, they must aim to effectively convey science to both policy makers and the public; inform one, and you inform the other. If the science fails to reach policy makers’ ears, your hypothetical solar panel goes unadopted, a symbol of very real situations such as those that happen with vaccines, alternative energy strategies, food security solutions, and life-saving genomic technologies going unapproved, unused by our global population.
Waiting to be acted upon, new science knocks at our door every day. Will our policy makers be prepared to answer?
For podcast episodes from ISGP’s “The Forum” derived from the “Communicating Science for Policy” conference, please visit the following links: Episode 10: Stories by Scientists, Episode 24: Curricular Conundrum, and Episode 30: Audience Knows Best.
The Institute on Science for Global Policy (ISGP) is a non-profit organization that convenes international meetings bringing together scientists, policy makers, industry leaders, students, and other stakeholders to discuss pertinent scientific issues facing society. The ISGP has no opinions and does not lobby; therefore, the preceding article reflects the views expressed by the presenters and debaters at our conference. For more information, please visit the ISGP’s website at www.scienceforglobalpolicy.org.
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