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AAAS 2013: Communicating science to policy makers

Photo via Thinkstock.
Photo via Thinkstock.

Photo via Thinkstock.

Several Northeastern scientists are presenting at the AAAS meeting this weekend trying in part to connect with policy makers and science writers. “The hope is to have a tangible impact on the global challenges that the University’s use-inspired approach to science attempts to affect,” said Tim Leshan, vice president for government relations. But how can scientists get their message across? Turns out there’s an art, if not a science, to it all.

Here’s a great metaphor (first tip: if you’re talking to a science writer, always remember that we love this kind of thing):

You grew up playing in the woods behind your house. You spent so much time in those woods that you came to know them better than anyone else in the world. You know every rock, every tree, every pine needle. You can navigate them with your eyes closed and if anyone else gets lost in those woods, you’re the person they call to for help.

But if you’re to safely steer a castaway home, it’s not enough to know every rock, every tree, every pine needle. You also need to know where that person is standing. Otherwise, telling him to take three steps and turn right could send him smack into a tree.

Do you see where this is going? Even the most expert scientists won’t be helpful in their advice to policy makers if they don’t know their audience. The woods analogy comes from Arthur Lupia, a political science professor at the University of Michigan with a background in applied mathematics and research interests in the effective communication of science for the public and political sectors.

So, how do you get your friend out of the woods if you don’t where he’s standing? Well, you figure out where he’s standing. You tell the story from his perspective.

Another of the session’s speakers, David Goldston is the director of the government affairs program at the Natural Resources Defense Council. “The walk in the woods metaphor is great,” he said, “but I’d change it because they’re not your woods.”

Scientists trying to navigate the world will get lost themselves if they pretend that world is just like the one they’re used to. It’s not the world of science, but of all aspects of humanity he said.

From the policy maker or layperson’s perspective, it’s not the science that matters, but how the science will affect one’s life. Goldston had a great example: “People don’t want the government telling them what kind of light bulb to use,” he said, referring to the failed 2011 attempt to ban incandescent light bulbs. He reminded us that Susie Homemaker ovens used the bulbs to cook food and if you ban the bulbs, you ban the toys.

“You’re going to peoples’ houses and you’re taking away their toys!!” he implored. Even if those light bulbs are bad for the environment and will help destroy the planet of our kids and grandkids, this is clearly not the way to get your friend out of the woods (here the woods are the environmental impacts of incandescent light bulbs, in case that was unclear).

A better bet would be to figure out what the woods look like from your friend’s perspective: it’s not about science, it’s about toys. Those light bulbs give off “enough heat to bake a cake,” Goldston said. Just think about that. Isn’t that a little concerning? This is how you talk someone out of the woods: you figure out ways to convey the message that will be meaningful to the person you’re talking to.

But the woods are changing. “We’re amidst one of the most polarized political periods in American history, with the exception of the civil war,” said Goldston. And that’s why Bina Venkataraman, the third speaker in the session, said “it’s an exciting and interesting time to be working in science policy and influencing the policy agenda.”

Venkataraman is a member of the Presidents Council of Advisors on Science and Technology. She gave some straightforward tips for communicating with policy makers:

  1. Frame it properly (the woods again)
  2. Distill it to what’s relevant and urgent
  3. Make clear, specific recommendations

And how do you actually get in there and engage? How do you even start to have these conversations? She had her own clear, specific recommendations for that as well:

  1. Engage with your peers in science who have formal advisory roles
  2. Publish commentaries, not just in academic journals but also in the mainstream media outlets so you’re not always preaching to the choir
  3. Share your expertise with organizations whose mission aligns with yours (okay, this one was a little less clear to me, I’m waiting for Venkataraman to elaborate via email).
  4. Serve as a source for journalists, whose job is to convey your message to the person lost in the woods. “You don’t want the conduit through which you’re work is being filtered to policy makers to be only filled by scientists with whom you disagree.” Well said, Ms. Venkataraman.

And her final point, which I’ll leave you with now and which I think is probably the most ground breaking and exciting thing I heard all day:

The citizen science movement is all fine, dandy, and fun, but we also need to see a scientist citizen movement. “More scientists need to be empowered to engage in the community, and with policy makers,” said Venkataraman.

Basically, scientists need to be experts not just in their own woods, but in the woods of all the rest of us, too.

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