Talk, Trust, and Time: Bridging the Gap between Science and Policy

By Seán Schmitz

Just two months ago I strolled up to the bank building of the IASS itching to start gaining practical research experience, but with no idea of what to expect. Coming from a background of environmental science and being enrolled in a Master’s program aimed at bridging the gap between science and policy, I was prepared to fit right in to the IASS community. Only, I didn’t realize just how motivating this experience would become.

Under the supervision of Dr Erika von Schneidemesser, I was tasked with documenting case studies of science-policy engagement. Last year she and her colleagues began developing a science-policy training program for early-career scientists that seeks to build capacity within the scientific community for engaging in work in the science-policy landscape. Following the principles of the IASS, this project will ultimately benefit young scientists of all disciplines, as well as stakeholders, policymakers, and all people that are consequently affected by evidence-based decision-making. My small role in this inspired project has been to interview researchers on the frontlines of the science-policy interface. It is through their experiences that I hope to impart some lessons I’ve learned on the value of science-policy engagement to the wider scientific community. What follows are a few of my takeaways from the interviews I conducted in this context.

Do we even speak the same language?

Perhaps the greatest barrier faced by people on all sides of the science-policy interface is that of language. Though scientists, policymakers, and stakeholders may literally be speaking the same language (e.g., English), much seems to get lost in translation between our different disciplinary vocabularies. One researcher I interviewed experienced that miscommunication with just one word: “uncertainty”. A scientist uses the word to describe the range in which their estimations, calculations, or data might fall, given the associated margin of error. But mentioning that one word to a government staffer, overworked and pressed for time, while explaining scientifically obtained results has the resounding effect of severing what little attention your science was awarded. “Uncertainty” to those working in the policy arena is frequently understood to mean that the scientist may not actually know what they are talking about. Communicating key messages of what we know, rather than what we don’t, can help complement a range of other sources of information that flows into policymaking.

Being succinct is not the only challenge associated with explaining scientific concepts across the aisle, so too is remaining a neutral third-party scientist. A policy arena such as the Montreal Protocol is filled with national delegates, industries, and NGOs all seeking to push their own agenda in highly politicized negotiation. As another interviewee experienced, all these parties are seeking to use the research of scientists to support their pre-existing claims. Every word spoken by a scientist in international negotiation is scrutinized under a microscope in an attempt to spin it favorably for a variety of perspectives. That researcher made the simple mistake of stating that his data could use “updating”, which later was referenced in plenary to counteract the significance of the research by claiming it was “outdated”. Trivial details can often be used to exemplify more than they were meant to in such an arena. It is in this regard that the importance of active, conscientious science communication must be emphasized as a critical component of interactions of science with policymaking.

Long-term goals outweigh short-term demands

In one of the more interesting conversations I have ever had, I learned about one of the key components of science-policy interactions: personal communication. A recognized challenge of scientific paradigms is the “knowledge deficit” model, where policymakers are assumed to be less well informed than scientists, perhaps even less intelligent, and therefore make improper decisions. In other words: “If only they had all the information, they would make the ‘right’ decision”. Such ideals lead to short-sighted demands made by scientists of policymakers, breeding communication focused on unilateral provision of knowledge. Though there may be a greater role to play for science in policymaking, it does not serve to approach these people from a falsely-instilled position of greater wisdom.

Instead, we can draw upon our long-standing relationships to provide us with a simple, but effective, lesson: there are no short-cuts in marriage; nor are there any in science-policy communication. To succeed at the science-policy interface, it takes time, trust, and truly effective communication between all parties. Two interviewees, both involved for 15+ years in capacity building in science-policy engagement, taught me that long-term goals far outweigh the short-term demands of policy advocacy. The glue holding the interactions between scientists and policymakers together in both examples is the hard work of establishing meaningful relationships based on trust and mutual respect. Demands for immediate action or change to benefit predominantly one party fall on deaf ears in such engagements the same way they might in a marriage.

Science-policy engagement benefits everyone

Perhaps the point I find most important to emphasize is that of the benefits of science-policy engagement. When scientists work with policymakers to better inform decision-making, especially regarding important topics such as climate change, sustainability, and our energy transformation, it is stakeholders and citizens that reap the rewards. As scientists, we owe a debt to our societies for lifting us up to our positions. Repaying that debt can begin with engaging in science-policy interactions on any, and every, level of governance. More importantly, the more scientists interact with policymakers, the more able they are to recognize the policy relevance of their research and communicate their results effectively to the appropriate audience. Concomitantly, the more likely it then is that policymakers will visualize science as an asset, and the greater the opportunities will be to receive funding for further research.

To learn the theory of science-policy engagement is easy; to practice it is hard. But if we wish to contribute to the societal transition, it must become a core part of scientific practice.

Header image: istock/erhui1979

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