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AAAS EPI Center Launch Brings Evidence to Policymakers

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Instead of lobbying for a particular law or offering a years-long exhaustive study of an issue, the EPI Center hopes to create timely, well-communicated evidence narratives. | Davide Bonazzi/Salzmanart

The Center for Scientific Evidence in Public Issues at the American Association for the Advancement of Science began work on 24 September to share scientific and technical evidence with policy-makers working at all levels of government in the United States.

The EPI Center, led by director Michael Fernandez, is a new initiative by the association to make nonpartisan information available to decision-makers as they act on issues from clean water to the opioid crisis. Instead of lobbying for a particular law or offering a years-long exhaustive study of an issue, the center hopes instead to create timely, well-communicated evidence narratives—what scientists know about a topic, how they know it, what the evidence means, and how it relates to other public policy issues.

“We want to have an impact on policy and policy-making, not by advocating for certain policies but ensuring that when decisions are being made, the evidence is being appropriately considered and evaluated,” said Fernandez.

The center’s launch was driven in part by the desire of AAAS members to have another outlet for shaping public policy and sharing their work in ways that bear on larger societal challenges, he said. “Our members are an amazing resource of expertise and commitment, and they will be the center’s best ambassadors.”

“At a time when decision-makers too often ignore, misunderstand, or misuse relevant evidence, we need new ways to communicate policy-relevant scientific evidence to decision-makers and influencers in all areas of government and society,” said Rush Holt, chief executive officer at AAAS. “The AAAS Center for Scientific Evidence in Public Issues will connect scientific expertise to the decisions and policies that affect our lives.”

Holt, a former congressman from New Jersey, has long supported the idea of such a center as one way to fill in the gap left by the 1995 elimination of the congressional Office of Technology Assessment, said Kei Koizumi, a senior science policy adviser at AAAS who guided the EPI Center’s development.

“We know it is not automatic for decision-makers to be able to access information,” said Koizumi, who served in the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy from 2009 to 2017. “But with AAAS as the world’s largest general scientific society, we have the opportunity with our community to give policy-makers the access they need.”

Fernandez’s new role at AAAS is something of a homecoming, he said, since he first came to Washington, D.C., as a 1991–1992 Congressional Science & Engineering Fellow sponsored by the American Society of Plant Physiologists working in the U.S. Senate Committee on Agriculture, Nutrition, & Forestry. Since then, he has worked in the federal government at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the Department of Agriculture, on the nonprofit Pew Initiative on Food and Biotechnology project, and in the private sector at Mars, Inc.

With the guidance of an advisory board that is still being assembled, Fernandez and the EPI Center staff will analyze issues that are already at the heart of public policy discussions or are likely to become the focus of policy in the near term. “One of the first things I’m going to do is go out and ask people about the issues they are facing as governor, or as mayoral associations, or as congressional committees,” said Fernandez. “We need to be in listening mode.”

The science policy ecosystem is crowded and diverse, he said, noting that one of his goals as director will be to ensure that the EPI Center’s work gets noticed. “The idea of narrating the evidence is a different approach than anyone else I know is taking,” he said. “Our goal is not to commission a bunch of white papers and release them to an audience where they sit on someone’s shelf. This will be more nimble, more dynamic, and more interactive.”

The narratives will be crafted with specific audiences and specific delivery tools in mind, Fernandez said. For instance, an evidence narrative about self-driving cars could be aimed at state regulators as well as congressional staff and might be best delivered to those audiences through local workshops.

Fernandez’s daughter worked this summer as an intern in the office of the mayor of Boston, reminding him of the need to “be outside the Beltway as much as we can,” he said. “If you want to have a big policy-making impact, you can’t ignore the federal government, but frankly there is a bigger need for support and help in understanding what the evidence is and the narrative around evidence that regulators and policy-makers are grappling with.”

During his leadership of the Pew initiative, Fernandez and his colleagues partnered with the U.S. Food and Drug Administration and the U.S. Department of Agriculture in small workshops to discuss biotechnology in animal agriculture. The center may look for similar opportunities to share its findings, he said. “I find that kind of participatory and interactive event to be a good way of helping to inform a policy-maker audience. Reports can be enormously influential, but I think that you can’t underestimate the value of face-to-face interactions.”

The center may also use interactive media and multimedia to communicate its narratives, he said. “From my work in the private sector, we saw how social media and other kinds of communication tools have really changed the landscape in the policy-making arena, and I think that we will absolutely need to understand how to leverage those tools to reach a broader audience.”

One of the biggest challenges “is to be as unbiased and neutral as possible” and to avoid any notion that the center is advocating for scientists as “just another special interest group,” said Fernandez. Positioning the center as a source of trustworthy information, he said, is important in light of “the erosion of trust in science and scientific evidence in policy-making broadly, which is particularly critical at a moment in time when so many of the issues that we’re addressing have a strong scientific and evidence-based component to them.”

While there are some decision-makers who willfully disregard or undermine scientific evidence, Fernandez said, “I think there’s lots of reasons evidence is underappreciated, underevaluated, underutilized in policymaking that are not just people ignoring it.” Some policymakers may not fully consider the evidence because it’s not being presented or provided in a way that is compelling or relevant to them and their districts and their constituents, he said.

“There is a real hunger for this kind of thing among the community,” he said. “As long as we can establish ourselves in a way that will be taken seriously and trusted, we will have an opportunity to do something that will make a difference.”

The center is funded by the Gordon and Betty Moore, Rockefeller, Alfred P. Sloan, David and Lucile Packard, and Rita Allen Foundations; the Hellman family; the Carnegie Corporation of New York; and the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative.

Author

Becky Ham