AAAS 2013: Communicating science to policy makers

Photo via Thinkstock.

Photo via Thinkstock.

Sev­eral North­eastern sci­en­tists are pre­senting at the AAAS meeting this weekend trying in part to con­nect with policy makers and sci­ence writers. “The hope is to have a tan­gible impact on the global chal­lenges that the University’s use-​​inspired approach to sci­ence attempts to affect,” said Tim Leshan, vice pres­i­dent for gov­ern­ment rela­tions. But how can sci­en­tists get their mes­sage across? Turns out there’s an art, if not a sci­ence, to it all.

Here’s a great metaphor (first tip: if you’re talking to a sci­ence writer, always remember that we love this kind of thing):

You grew up playing in the woods behind your house. You spent so much time in those woods that you came to know them better than anyone else in the world. You know every rock, every tree, every pine needle. You can nav­i­gate them with your eyes closed and if anyone else gets lost in those woods, you’re the person they call to for help.

But if you’re to safely steer a cast­away home, it’s not enough to know every rock, every tree, every pine needle. You also need to know where that person is standing. Oth­er­wise, telling him to take three steps and turn right could send him smack into a tree.

Do you see where this is going? Even the most expert sci­en­tists won’t be helpful in their advice to policy makers if they don’t know their audi­ence. The woods analogy comes from Arthur Lupia, a polit­ical sci­ence pro­fessor at the Uni­ver­sity of Michigan with a back­ground in applied math­e­matics and research inter­ests in the effec­tive com­mu­ni­ca­tion of sci­ence for the public and polit­ical sectors.

So, how do you get your friend out of the woods if you don’t where he’s standing? Well, you figure out where he’s standing. You tell the story from his perspective.

Another of the session’s speakers, David Gold­ston is the director of the gov­ern­ment affairs pro­gram at the Nat­ural Resources Defense Council. “The walk in the woods metaphor is great,” he said, “but I’d change it because they’re not your woods.”

Sci­en­tists trying to nav­i­gate the world will get lost them­selves if they pre­tend that world is just like the one they’re used to. It’s not the world of sci­ence, but of all aspects of humanity he said.

From the policy maker or layperson’s per­spec­tive, it’s not the sci­ence that mat­ters, but how the sci­ence will affect one’s life. Gold­ston had a great example: “People don’t want the gov­ern­ment telling them what kind of light bulb to use,” he said, refer­ring to the failed 2011 attempt to ban incan­des­cent light bulbs. He reminded us that Susie Home­maker ovens used the bulbs to cook food and if you ban the bulbs, you ban the toys.

You’re going to peo­ples’ houses and you’re taking away their toys!!” he implored. Even if those light bulbs are bad for the envi­ron­ment and will help destroy the planet of our kids and grand­kids, this is clearly not the way to get your friend out of the woods (here the woods are the envi­ron­mental impacts of incan­des­cent light bulbs, in case that was unclear).

A better bet would be to figure out what the woods look like from your friend’s per­spec­tive: it’s not about sci­ence, it’s about toys. Those light bulbs give off “enough heat to bake a cake,” Gold­ston said. Just think about that. Isn’t that a little con­cerning? This is how you talk someone out of the woods: you figure out ways to convey the mes­sage that will be mean­ingful to the person you’re talking to.

But the woods are changing. “We’re amidst one of the most polar­ized polit­ical periods in Amer­ican his­tory, with the excep­tion of the civil war,” said Gold­ston. And that’s why Bina Venkataraman, the third speaker in the ses­sion, said “it’s an exciting and inter­esting time to be working in sci­ence policy and influ­encing the policy agenda.”

Venkataraman is a member of the Pres­i­dents Council of Advi­sors on Sci­ence and Tech­nology. She gave some straight­for­ward tips for com­mu­ni­cating with policy makers:

  1. Frame it properly (the woods again)
  2. Distill it to what’s relevant and urgent
  3. Make clear, specific recommendations

And how do you actu­ally get in there and engage? How do you even start to have these con­ver­sa­tions? She had her own clear, spe­cific rec­om­men­da­tions for that as well:

  1. Engage with your peers in science who have formal advisory roles
  2. Publish commentaries, not just in academic journals but also in the mainstream media outlets so you’re not always preaching to the choir
  3. Share your expertise with organizations whose mission aligns with yours (okay, this one was a little less clear to me, I’m waiting for Venkataraman to elaborate via email).
  4. Serve as a source for journalists, whose job is to convey your message to the person lost in the woods. “You don’t want the conduit through which you’re work is being filtered to policy makers to be only filled by scientists with whom you disagree.” Well said, Ms. Venkataraman.

And her final point, which I’ll leave you with now and which I think is prob­ably the most ground breaking and exciting thing I heard all day:

The cit­izen sci­ence move­ment is all fine, dandy, and fun, but we also need to see a sci­en­tist cit­izen move­ment. “More sci­en­tists need to be empow­ered to engage in the com­mu­nity, and with policy makers,” said Venkataraman.

Basi­cally, sci­en­tists need to be experts not just in their own woods, but in the woods of all the rest of us, too.