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Panel Lays Out Ways to Build Bridges between Science and Policy

Science and science policy appear to embrace distinct cultures each with its own customs and languages, according to experts at a weeklong course that serves as a guidebook for scientists, engineers and other professionals in academia, industry and government seeking to bridge science and technology policy.

“When you go visit a foreign country, you do a little bit of research and learn a few phrases and customs so you can be a good visitor, and it’s no different when you’re talking about policymakers. You want to understand their culture, and at the same time, you’re hoping that they will understand your culture,” Joanne Carney, director of the AAAS Office of Government Relations, told attendees of the 2016 AAAS Leadership Seminar in Science and Technology Policy that began on Nov. 14 at AAAS headquarters.

The seminar, now in its 12th year, brings participants to Washington, D.C., to learn from key players in science and technology policy about the inner workings of the White House and Capitol Hill, science diplomacy, lobbying, the regulatory process and the many ways participants can make their voices heard in the world of policymaking.

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Tobin Smith
Tobin Smith, vice president for policy at the Association of American Universities, speaks at the 2016 AAAS Leadership Seminar in Science and Technology Policy. | AAAS

Tobin Smith, who has spent his career commuting between the “two totally different worlds” of politics and academia, illuminated some of the challenges that scientists face as they get involved in policy and communicate with policymakers.

Scientists “often confuse science policy with science, and they’re very, very different,” said Smith, the Association of American Universities’ vice president for policy. He cited a distinction drawn by mathematician Phillip Griffiths: “Science is objective, based upon fact, value-free,” said Smith, while science policy “becomes largely based upon values.”

“It is also important to note that, when it comes to policy, there is no wrong or right answer,” Smith added. 

Such ambiguity often makes scientists hesitant to contribute their expertise in service of science policy, Smith said, but he encouraged scientists to share their knowledge with policymakers, the majority of whom are not scientists themselves – just 5% of members in the 114th Congress have a college degree in any science, Smith said.

To communicate effectively with policymakers, scientists must impart information differently than they would when communicating with their peers or students, Carney said. While scientists set the scene with background, methodology and supporting details before concluding with the results, busy policymakers are looking for the bottom line first, she said. After all, policymakers are usually swamped with information on all sides of an issue, Carney said. “It’s hard for them to gauge the validity, the credibility and the usefulness” of the information they receive, she said, which presents an additional challenge for scientists presenting evidence to policymakers.

“Language matters,” said Tim Fenton, vice president of government affairs for Thermo Fisher Scientific, a biotechnology product development company, during a panel on lobbying. “Use language and words that are going to immediately resonate with the listener. You can use different language with different audiences and still say the same thing and not be disingenuous.”

“A change of words can make a big difference,” Michael Waring, executive director of federal relations for the University of Michigan and executive director of its Washington office, agreed. He cited the example of “basic research” – that is, research that seeks to improve and deepen scientific knowledge without a specific application. The scientific community understands the term, but non-scientists misinterpret as simple and less valuable research. “When you change it to ‘scientific research,’ all of a sudden they understand,” Waring said.

Experts encouraged participants to make it a priority to connect with stakeholders first and roll out data later. “The bottom line is it’s about building relationships,” Carney noted. “Numbers are good,” said Smith, adding that using such facts to tell a story is an approach “that will make a difference.”

The lengthy legislative process offers scientists multiple ways to build relationships with policymakers and their staff, particularly when lawmakers are more accessible when they are in their districts and states. Scientists, for example, can attend member-hosted events or organize their own event by inviting lawmakers or their staff members who specialize in science and technology policy to visit their institution’s facilities, said Josh Shiode, senior government relations officer at AAAS.

Panelists also encouraged attendees to make use of government relations professionals at their institution or their scientific society. “We’re door-openers,” Waring said.

[Associated image: Kevin McCoy/Wikimedia Commons CC BY-SA 2.0]