Engaging With Policymakers: Why Scientists and Engineers Hold Back

Roughly 90% of researchers in a recent survey said scientists and policymakers don't communicate enough. But, only about 60% said they were sure of the names of their elected federal representatives. Experts probed this paradox at the AAAS Forum on Science & Technology Policy.
From left, Tobin Smith, Abigail Abrash Walton, Chad English, Cynthia Robinson, David Goldston, Pallavi Phartiyal, Samuel Brinton, Samantha White | AAAS/Robert Beets

Many scientists and engineers would welcome opportunities to engage with policymakers, but they hold back because they either lack confidence or doubt whether such efforts will be rewarded, a speaker at the 2014 AAAS Forum on Science and Technology Policy said.

The lack of contact between scientists and policymakers "is the number one barrier to effective science communication," said Abigail Abrash Walton of Antioch University, director of the Center for Academic Innovation and assistant to the president for sustainability and social justice. Scientists may sometimes lack confidence in engaging in the public policy process, she added. They may also be skeptical about whether contributions in the civic-engagement arena will pay off in terms of real impacts or recognition by their colleagues and institutions.

At a 2 May session on "Making Science Matter" at the Forum, Abrash Walton and others described an array of initiatives intended to better prepare scientists and engineers for interactions with policymakers. Session organizer Tobin Smith, vice president for policy at the Association of American Universities, urged attendees to team up with an ad hoc coalition called ESEP — Engaging Scientists and Engineers in Policy. The new group has so far been compiling resources, such as fellowship and internship opportunities, and convening scientists and engineers to highlight the value of policy contributions.

The demand for communication training is "fairly overwhelming," particularly among graduate students, said speaker Chad English, director of science policy outreach for COMPASS, a team of science-based communication professionals. Responding on Twitter to Forum comments by English, Tiffany Lohwater, AAAS director of public engagement and meetings noted that her group also has been inundated with requests for Communicating Science workshops.

Yet, beyond the D.C. beltway, said Pallavi Phartiyal, a senior analyst and program manager with the Center for Science and Democracy at the Union of Concerned Scientists, "Scientists and engineers often don't know how to get started with engagement activities." At the same time, said Cynthia Robinson, director of the AAAS S&T Policy Fellowships program, researchers may feel that time devoted to policy matters doesn't count with supervisors. "Anything you do that is not research is considered `non-traditional' or `alternative,'" said Robinson. "We need to stop describing it that way."

Uncertainty too often seems to engender a reluctance by scientists and engineers to plunge into the public-policy realm: Among 200 scientists and researchers who took part in recent Antioch Translating Research to Inform Policy training workshops, 90%, on average, said there is inadequate communication between the scientific community and policymakers or their staff members. Roughly half of those surveyed said they think policymakers are ill-informed about science. When asked if they knew the names of their elected representatives at the federal level, however, 42% said "maybe" or "no, " according to Abrash Walton.

From left, Abigail Abrash Walton, Chad English and Cynthia Robinson (right) | AAAS/Robert Beets

Tips for Engaging With Policymakers

  • Be clear about your motivation and purpose for engaging. (What do you want to achieve?)
  • Identify who the relevant policymakers and staff members are. (Remember that your identity and voice as a constituent is perhaps your most influential credential.)
  • Be accurate, brief, and courteous in your communication (the ABC's of effective engagement) — when communicating, think jargon-free abstract, not full-length dissertation or journal article.
  • Remember, you don't need to go to Washington to meet — and build relationships — with your federal policymakers; visit with them and their staff members in the district office.
  • Invite your federal representatives to your lab, campus or institution so that they can understand better what you do; ask them what their priorities are.
  • Get to know your city or town council, school board members, and/or state representatives and ask them about what policy development and other decisions they are focusing on.
  • Engage in public service where you live (for example, on the school board, conservation commission, planning board, or energy committee) and consider how to translate research to inform the policies and other decisions that these bodies make.

--Abigail Abrash Walton

This is a surprisingly high percentage and deserves further research," she said. "This figure tells us that even among scientists who have self-selected to increase their capacity to engage in the policy process, there is a surprising disconnect and knowledge gap that we need to fill. Because a primary factor facilitating the use of research by policymakers is personal contact between scientists and policymakers, it is important that we increase contact, build relationships, and close this knowledge gap."

Researchers have important opportunities to inform policy, and doing so provides a real service to society, she said, adding that "better decisions are made when they are based on data, and public policy should be evidence-based." More universities should offer policy-focused courses for science and engineering students, according to session organizer Smith, co-author of Beyond Sputnik: U.S. Science Policy in the 21st Century. Unfortunately, he added, advisors and curriculum developers may sometimes discourage students from taking time away from research.

Samantha White, program director for a new initiative called Emerging Leaders in Science & Society (ELISS), described efforts to pull science students into policy matters on four campuses: the University of Pennsylvania, University of Washington, Stanford University, and Purdue University. In a pilot class on each campus, she explained, students work on issues related to mental health, public spaces, food and nutrition, and more. Later, they will visit D.C. to meet with policymakers. The participating campuses were selected based on strong interest among students as well as institutional support, she added.

Samuel Brinton, a graduate student in nuclear engineering at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, cited the Stand With Science campaign, which has advocated for increased federal investment in U.S. innovation, as an example of successful student engagement on the policy stage. "As students, our voices count in D.C.," said Brinton, who added that his red Mohawk hairstyle ensure that policymakers will remember him. "We can connect with policymakers."

Science-communication training can go a long way toward enhancing a scientist's confidence level, English said. "Very few of us are born as naturally effective communicators," he said, but "this is a very learnable skill."

To be effective, communication between scientists and policymakers must be respectful and bi-directional, said David Goldston, director of the Government Affairs Program at the Natural Resources Defense Council. "It can't just be, `What are policymakers getting wrong?'" A communications disconnect can occur at times because "policymakers generally have too high an opinion of scientists, and scientists generally have too low an opinion of policymakers," said Goldston, who has more than twenty years of experience on Capitol Hill, working mainly on science and environmental policy. He served as chief of staff of the House Committee on Science from 2001 through 2006.

Breakout groups at the Forum session explored various strategies for preparing to engage with policymakers. Suggestions for ESEP ranged from a "hotline" offering quick tips for effective communication, to an online science-policy portal. The session was co-organized by Erin Heath, associate director of the AAAS Office of Government Relations, with Smith and Walton.

"There are many ways scientists and engineers can engage in policy without making a major career shift. Science policy training workshops or visits with elected officials require relatively small time commitments," Heath said after the session, "and don't forget about the local level: activities such as writing a letter to the newspaper editor on a policy issue, getting involved with a local advisory committee, or running for school board."