Speak Policy

Last month, Nature published a Comment titled, “Policy: Twenty tips for interpreting scientific claims” describing how to better educate policymakers to understand the imperfect nature of science.   The author’s theme was that scientists should help policymakers better understanding science.  They outlined twenty steps for doing so.

The authors wrongly assume that the answer is to make policymakers into scientists – or at least help policymakers understand the intricacies of science and technology.  They cite, as an example, the need to help policymakers understand the imperfect nature of science.  Our lawmakers and leaders already believe that science is imperfect.

Instead of trying to make policy makers into scientists or engineers, we (scientists and engineers) need to learn to speak in terms policymakers understand.  We need to help policymakers understand the impacts and implications of our science.  We need to articulate these impacts and implications in policy terms, not science and technical terms.

How egotistical are we, the scientists, to assume that understanding the impacts of science requires the technical training that we have.  If we are not able to articulate the impacts of our work, then it is because we don’t understand those impacts in the first place.  If we want the world of law and policy to appreciate our science we need to learn to speak their language instead of trying to make them understand ours.

We offer not twenty steps, but four easy principles:

  1. Scientists need to be able to take a step (or five steps) back from their immediate research and articulate the global impact of their field.  Communicate the impact in terms that focus on society rather than on science.
  2. Articulate how the science will affect the general public today and five to ten years in the future; this is what matters to policy makers.  Policymakers are overworked addressing the issues of today, much less tomorrow.  Articulate your science in terms of the impacts on society today and in the near term.
  3. Write backwards.  Policymakers need the conclusions and message up front; justification can follow.  This is the opposite of how scientists are trained to write for publication. Scientists write all of their reasons and justifications before they reach their conclusions. Policymakers have limited time so tell them up-front what you’re trying to say and justify yourself later. If they care one way or another, then they will read the rest. If you wait until the end to tell them what they need to hear, they will never get around to reading it.
  4. Explore recommendations outside of “provide more funding for my project.”  Just studying the problem more is neither the most satisfying nor often the most appropriate policy option.  Recommend policy and law that directly address the issues at hand.

It is far easier to teach scientists and engineers to write and speak in words that policymakers relate to than try to teach all the basics of science to the entire policy apparatus of our society. In an ideal world, our policymakers would have technical backgrounds to supplement their legal training, but that is not a realistic solution in Washington, DC today.

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3 thoughts on “Speak Policy

  1. I am teaching a general science communications course to graduate students, one hour per week. I have one lecture focused on communicating to policy makers and I like to split the hour into half lecture and half exercises. The exercise is usually short and sweet, practicing skills. Can you suggest a good exercise short of writing a brief?

    Thank you

    • Policy makers are served best when you do their homework for them. Often they need more than just a briefing on some topic. They need the actual policy proscription to address the issue at hand. Challenge your students in an exercise to actually write a concise policy document. Perhaps, an Executive Order or bill language that enacts the recommended policy.

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