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Joint Effort Gets Underway to Inform Scientists’ Policy Engagement

AAAS along with researchers from American University and Durham University discussed their new project during the Science of Science Communication colloquium at the National Academy of Sciences. | Kevin Allen Photography

AAAS and several academic researchers are joining forces to collect information to guide scientists on how best to engage with policymakers, filling a much-needed fact-finding gap, experts gathered at a National Academy of Sciences event agreed.

The project will produce an initial set of recommended practices for communicating science to policymakers that could be “game-changing,” said Jim Cohen of the Kavli Foundation, during the Sackler Colloquium on the Science of Science Communication III. Cohen was pointing to the potential applicability and ramifications of having more research-based strategies for scientists interested in policy engagement. The two-day event was held last week at the National Academy of Sciences in Washington, D.C.

Scientists increasingly want to know how to communicate effectively with policymakers, according to AAAS member surveys and workshops held by AAAS’ Communicating Science program.  Yet, while research on the science of science communication is growing, the latest National Academy of Sciences report on this subject, Communicating Science Effectively, found a “paucity of evidence” for how to best affect “policymakers’ understanding, perception, and use of science.”

“There are many reasons why policymakers may or may not engage with science and we are not under any illusions that our project will provide a magic bullet,” said Emily Cloyd, who heads the AAAS Center for Public Engagement with Science and Technology and is one of the project leaders. “But we believe that scientists and science communicators can improve the way in which they interact with policymakers.”

During a “Shark Tank”-style pitch presentation and feedback session on the first day of the colloquium, Cloyd presented the project along with lead investigator Elizabeth Suhay of American University and research associate Erin Nash of Durham University in the U.K. Erin Heath, associate director of the AAAS Office of Government Relations, is also leading the project and the team includes two graduate student researchers. 

“Most scientific organizations include policy engagement as part of their mission, yet a recent survey of scientific organizations found that only 20% provided their members with suggested practices for communicating with policymakers,” said Cloyd.

AAAS offers resources for scientists on engaging with policymakers, particularly through the Office of Government Relations, its Force for Science website and the Center for Public Engagement with Science, which recently developed a new workshop on engaging with policymakers.

Last year, Suhay and Nash helped AAAS gather research to inform the workshop and they too concluded it was understudied. At the time, they hoped to work together toward addressing the problem but lacked the funding to pursue the project.

In addition to pointing out gaps in research, the Communicating Science Effectively report highlighted the need for collaboration between those researching science communication and those practicing it. The National Academies and the Rita Allen Foundation solicited proposals for partnerships and funded the AAAS/Suhay/Nash collaboration and another project focused on informing hesitant parents about the health benefits of vaccinating their children.

Nash outlined the information the researchers will seek to gather over the next year: an additional synthesis of existing research; an analysis of the types of information and information sources vying for policymakers’ attention; a survey of science communicators’ current practices; and interviews with two dozen current and former members of Congress and congressional staff about “which communication practices work and which don’t, as well as who policymakers trust to communicate scientific information.”

The literature review will pull information from the policy community in addition to academic researchers, Nash said. The team also plans to take into account a suggestion from a colloquium audience member to gather examples from scientists of interactions with policymakers that didn’t work.  

Suhay noted that the researchers’ outreach to current and former members of Congress will be bipartisan and include science advocates as well as those who have been more resistant to science. Cloyd added that they will also reach out to policymakers at varying stages in their careers.

The third Science of Science Communication event was built on two previous colloquia and on the Communicating Science Effectively report. The agenda focused on how to encourage development and use of evidence-based strategies for engaging the public with science. In addition to the audience of several hundred that filled the auditorium, many others watched the colloquium by webcast and participated in a Twitter conversation (@theNASciences, #SacklerSciComm).

Alan Leshner, CEO emeritus of AAAS, has long been an advocate for dialogue between scientists and the rest of society.

In his remarks, Leshner, who was chairman of the committee that developed the Communicating Science Effectively report and one of four organizers of the colloquium, noted that policymakers never make decisions based solely on the science, but that the scientific community can try to better understand the factors involved and how to give their information more weight.

He also urged scientists to convey passion when communicating. “All scientists are secretly human,” Leshner said. “Everybody is insecure, and everybody is human, but scientists sometimes have trouble being publicly human.”

[Associated image: Kevin Allen Photography]