Good Relationships, Not Data, Link Scientists with Policy, Experts Say

International Forum Looks at Ways To Improve Science's Global Reputation
Peter Gluckman, science adviser to the prime minister of New Zealand, discusses the importance of science advice in a AAAS video interview. | Neil Orman/AAAS

At a time when scientific evidence is often disregarded by citizens and governments around the world, scientists must connect personally with policymakers, speakers said at this year’s World Science Forum.

“It is our role as scientists,” said Vladimir Šucha, director-general of the Joint Research Centre of the European Commission, to work together with policymakers “on a daily basis.”

“Policymakers are taking the evidence we provide if there is trust between us,” Šucha said at a WSF session entitled Science-Based Advice to Policymakers in an Era of Alternative Facts. “It’s not this model where we are dumping hundreds of pages of reports on someone who has no time to read it.”

This year’s WSF took place in Jordan November 7-11. Organizations including the American Association for the Advancement of Science, the Royal Scientific Society of Jordan, the Hungarian Academy of Sciences, UNESCO and the International Council for Science, among others, supported the biennial event, which brought together nearly 3,000 participants from 140 countries.

Several speakers at two different sessions on connecting science with policymaking emphasized the importance of developing interpersonal relationships, “finding the ways to get policymakers to want the science in their decision-making, which might be the toughest job of all,” said AAAS Chief Executive Officer Rush Holt in a session entitled Connecting Scientists with Policy and Diplomacy for Peace and Sustainable Development.

“The bridge is the people. It’s not the scientific information,” said Marga Gual Soler, senior project director at the AAAS Center for Science Diplomacy. “It’s the connections, the trust, the friendships.”

Gual Soler is the co-chair of a recent AAAS report that provides a map of programs, some that have been modeled after the 45-year-old AAAS Science & Technology Policy Fellowships, that place scientists in settings where they work alongside policymakers. Such programs, she said, “change the culture” of both groups and “generate that bridge” between them.

Speakers representing science-related organizations from around the globe lamented the devaluation of scientific evidence in recent years.

“We bring some extremely well-argued, well-measured fact, and people say they don’t believe it,” said Thierry Courvoisier, president of the European Science Academies’ Science Advisory Council. “We don’t know what to do with that.”

Courvoisier and Šucha spoke at the World Science Forum about the challenge of bringing science to society in the era of alternative facts. | 2017 World Science Forum

Reasons behind the dismissal of scientific evidence included the overuse of often misleading social media as a main source of news, one that tends to reinforce rather than question a user’s beliefs, speakers said.

More generally, though, speakers identified information overload as the culprit.

“There is a tsunami of data, information and knowledge, and people don’t know how to get oriented in this,” said Šucha, “so then you are instinctively reacting. You are coming back to your instincts, your emotions, your values.”

Šucha recommended that the scientific community rely much more heavily on the social sciences to “understand how the values are being formed, how they are being communicated, how they are being perceived, how the evidence is being perceived.”

Speakers also cautioned that scientists should follow certain recommendations, such as working in diverse groups of experts, when formulating the evidence they bring to policymakers to help solve problems. That encourages “rigorous debate about the evidence that is brought to bear on a problem,” said Roseanne Diab, executive officer of the Academy of Science of South Africa.

Several presenters also warned strongly against attacking the beliefs and values that might contradict scientific evidence. They suggested instead a strong focus on the science itself. 

“As soon as you attack people, they are stuck” in whatever beliefs they are defending, said Rolf Heuer, chair of the High Level Group of the European Commission’s Scientific Advice Mechanism. Heuer also suggested that scientists who engage with the public emphasize what principles they are for, such as striving for verifiable evidence, rather than what they are against.

Lovász | 2017 World Science Forum

László Lovász, president of the Hungarian Academy of Sciences, said scientific organizations need to connect with the public if they are to have influence on policymakers, because politicians’ futures are determined at the ballot box. He recommended that scientific organizations become regular sources of reliable information on issues of public interest, establish relationships with media outlets as well as communicate directly, communicate the scientific process and show how it is different from opinion.

Šucha recommended looking systemically at how to link science to policy, as is being done by such organizations as the International Network on Government Science Advice.

“This is where we need to experiment. This is where we need to invest,” he said. “If we follow the old, linear model” of simply providing more reports and data, then “science for policy is dead. It will disappear.”

[Associated image: 2017 World Science Forum]