As a scientist, I am frustrated. Attacks on scientific institutions, the existence of scientifically supported phenomena, and objective reality itself are rampant and seem to be gaining power. Reading about the emergence of the “Flat Earth” movement was the low point of 2017 for me in terms of taking stock on humanity’s intellectual progress. Fringe groups aside, the consideration of science in decision making, once considered commonplace, is increasingly questioned. From those who deny climate change, insist on a “balanced” teaching of evolution, or refuse to vaccinate their children, the distortion or undermining of science seems to be everywhere. Is there a silver lining to all of this? The current administration’s anti-science rhetoric and policies have fueled new movements like the March for Science, 500 Women Scientists, and others. And this frustration makes me (and maybe you?) want to do something about it.
How can scientists, especially graduate students, have a meaningful voice in science-relevant decision making? Can we be good stewards of science – including that of our work and others’ – to make a difference? I hope so, and I believe that we must seek opportunities to infuse and integrate our work into decision making processes. However, this will not happen automatically: we must be prepared, work strategically, partner with the right institutions, and communicate effectively. Here are some concrete steps graduate students and early career researchers can take to work toward these goals.
Making a difference is hard and you’ll need help. Throughout graduate training, find free resources to prepare you with the science-policy/communication/engagement skills that we don’t normally learn in the classroom. Here are some great resources for science-policy communication, advocacy, and opportunities to connect with mentors. Conferences also often have science-policy sessions or workshops that can provide additional training – for example, I’ve participated in workshops on social media from AGU and visual media and presentation skills from National Geographic.
Know the landscape
Recognize that the science and policy cultures are completely different. Scientists and policy makers ask different questions, operate on different time scales, use different jargon, and even dress differently. This great slide from Melanie Roberts (AAAS) sums it up perfectly:
Recognize that these are real barriers that may prevent decision makers from considering, accessing, understanding, or possibly valuing scientific input. Keeping these in mind will help to “bridge the gap” throughout the engagement process if, for instance, you’re writing a press release about your research or meeting directly with a decision maker. To make sure that your message resonates, you’ll need to translate the quantitative and technical to a more qualitative and narrative-form message. Meet your audience where they are.
Power-mapping is a tool can help prepare you before meetings with specific decision makers. This helped me and my team at the American Institute for Biological Sciences Congressional Visits Day – we pitched our “ask” (to increase funding for the National Science Foundation) to specific representatives in terms of benefits to their state and constituents. Focusing on the number of people, dollars, and jobs that NSF provides in a given district or state was key to reaching the target audience.
Seek out opportunities to collaborate outside of your academic institution and work with those who are interested in using your work to make a difference. These may include colleagues in government or non-governmental organizations. Collaboration can occur during many stages of a project, from conceptualization to data collection and analysis, to publication, and dissemination. As a researcher, it is critical to make sure that your science and its message is not diluted by those who would have a vested interest in its distortion; be wary of and avoid such collaborations (or funding sources). Despite this caveat, it can be extremely valuable to collaborate with such “boundary organizations” – institutions which both produce and translate knowledge for decision makers. For instance, colleagues in my department collaborate with scientists at Smithsonian, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and NASA who provide study design advice, technical expertise, and funding. I am collaborating with Conservation International, which has provided valuable resources including expertise, access to savvy and well-connected media staff, and connections with a network of experts who are integrated with national and international institutions. Collaborations like this can also help you achieve the next goal: publishing!
Publish (open access, if you can)
This is an obvious one, but unpublished dissertations are read only by a committee (and perhaps devoted friends and family) and then collect dust on a shelf. Publishing gives your work legitimacy and permanence and acts as a springboard for broader dissemination. Most decision makers or journalists won’t consider or cover your work unless it has been published in a credible peer-reviewed journal. Seek out opportunities and funds to publish your work in an open access format so that it can be read and used by anyone. Open access fees may be prohibitive, but some universities (like Mason) have funds to support this and journals may waive fees if requested. If you can’t publish open access, at least share the full text of your work with colleagues, on listservs, and upon request. Not only may your work be valuable as a stand-alone manuscript, but also it can be used by non-governmental organizations (who often do not have journal access) as part of literature or issue reviews.
How has open access publishing helped me? As a fellow at Oceana, I completed a literature review of seafood mislabeling and fraud worldwide and was thankful that some of the articles were open access! I was able to extract information quickly and efficiently without waiting on responses from authors for full texts of articles.
Open Access Explained! From PhD Comics: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=L5rVH1KGBCY
Publication of your research in a scientific journal is not enough to change the world. Decision makers do not have the time or the journal subscriptions to access your work, nor the ability to translate findings in a way that resonates personally. You must translate your work to make it useful; translation can come in several forms. Before your paper is published, prepare communication and outreach materials, like a press release or briefing that can be shared with journalists and decision makers. You can work with your university public relations/communications office to refine this and leverage the skills and networks of collaborators to disseminate it. When translating your message, use the “flipped triangle” model: start with the headline and follow with the “why should I care” message. Fill in the details later.
If you want your work to be used in decision making, or simply consumed by a non-scientific audience, you can’t just do outreach to your peers via scientific conferences and publications. For instance, if your goal is to influence a particular policy decision, you’ll need to target your communication efforts to key stakeholders, including decision makers and those who have access to decision makers. If you can, allocate time and funding to do this in your research plan and budget.
Take advantage of policy windows
Is your research relevant to a policy or process that is currently being developed or deliberated – like the listing of a species or the establishment of a new protected area? You can position your work strategically to try to influence these decisions. You may want to leverage partnerships you’ve formed or find new ones to identify policy windows and contacts with whom you can share your work.
One way to do this is to pitch your work in a press release during a particular political event that serves as the “hook.” For instance, my work on regulatory rollbacks to protected areas influenced the tagline that the reductions to the Bears Ears and Grand-Staircase Escalante National Monuments were the largest in U.S. history (technically, Bears Ears alone was the single largest downsize). I’ve also timed the publication of my research to align with key events; my article on boundary changes in Yosemite National Park was published on the 100th anniversary of the National Park Service. This provided a hook that enabled us to get media coverage in Vice, Mongabay, and other outlets. Not all publications and presentations will necessarily line up perfectly with policy windows; this is one of the main barriers to the integration of science and decision making. However, if you are lucky to have such opportunities, seize them.
On whether scientists should scientists engage in policy
There is a spectrum of opinions on the question of whether scientists should bother engaging in policy and decision making; opinions vary by field. Conservation biology for instance, was founded as a mission-oriented discipline – we do our science in order to prevent extinctions and preserve life on earth. This has shaped my opinion that scientists must engage – either in our communities, in the public sphere, and/or with decision makers. We are experts that can provide valuable, high-quality information that can influence important decisions and make a difference in the world. It is understandable that not everyone is interested in all aspects of science-policy engagement, such as direct advocacy. It can be nerve wracking and uncomfortable to meet with decision makers and ask for something. However, I believe that all scientists can play a role along a spectrum, from pure knowledge providers to direct advocates on specific issues. A remaining question, however: are there incentives in academia to encourage science-policy and communications work? Usually, tenure and promotion models do not often reward time spent on these activities, which is unfortunate. This is one reason why I am personally seeking careers outside of academia with the goal of integrating scientific knowledge into decision making.
On speaking truth to power
Scientists are stereotyped as nerdy and shy – uncomfortable with speaking truth to power directly. Translating and communicating your research to new and possibly unfriendly audiences may be difficult, but nothing worthwhile is ever easy. If you stick to the science and draw conclusions that follow from your results, you will be fine. Be clear, direct, and the best steward of your science: if you don’t do it, who will?