Talking with policymakers about science

12 September 2019

Myths and insights

We have the knowledge to solve many of society’s most pressing challenges including climate change, but many of these issues persist – good science communication can be part of the solution, Ruth O’Connor writes.

Some common narratives exist around the apparent gap between knowledge and action. The first narrative – and myth – is that if only we effectively communicated the scientific facts to policymakers they would ‘see the light’ and quickly incorporate the latest research in their strategies and plans.

This idea of a ‘knowledge deficit’ that science communication can fill has been widely debunked by science communication scholars. Understanding the available evidence does not necessarily lead to changed policy or behaviour. I’m reminded of this every time I have another glass of red wine.

 

This leads to the second narrative around a crisis in trust and de-valuing of science and experts. Such views are reinforced by political leaders – like British MP Michael Gove, who infamously claimed ‘people in this country have had enough of experts’.

But is there empirical evidence of widespread mistrust and de-valuing of science? Well, no. While the anti-expert rhetoric gets a lot of limelight, public surveys consistently show high levels of trust and interest in science both in Australia and overseas.

My research – which focused on environmental managers – suggests that they too both value and trust science. Australian and South African environmental managers commonly saw science as ‘fundamental’ and ‘critical’ to their work. “How do you work without science?” mused one interviewee.

So if re-stating ‘the facts’ to decision-makers more slowly and loudly is not the answer, and decision-makers – at least some of them – value science, what are the causes of the knowledge-action gap and its solutions?

An important step is recognising that science on its own isn’t enough to develop policy solutions for our gnarly issues. Decision-makers have important knowledge to contribute.

 

In my research, the knowledge of regional decision-makers was critical in applying science to climate change adaptation in Australia. This knowledge went beyond so-called bureaucratic knowledge of political and administrative procedures. It also included practical knowledge of local ecosystems and stakeholders.

These results also suggest we need to think about science communication in public policy in a more sophisticated way.

Information dissemination has its place in addressing complex issues like climate change and biodiversity loss. However, dialogue and deliberation involving scientists and decision-makers can facilitate the application of research through the development of mutual understanding and trust.

The value and function of interactive dialogue between scientists and decision-makers is twofold. Firstly, it is about producing and negotiating meaning. Secondly, dialogue performs the social function of building professional relationships.

A key barrier to this kind of dialogue is a lack of time on all sides. Effective facilitators or ‘boundary spanners’ with knowledge of both the academic and policy realms can minimise this hurdle by planning interactive sessions at key decision points in a process.

 

Short-termism is another barrier. In Australia, three or four-year projects had no follow-up to build upon goodwill and knowledge. This is compounded by high levels of staff churn in government agencies.

This need not be the case. The South African river managers I interviewed had been involved in a series of collaborative projects with scientists spanning more than 10 years.

As a result, they had excellent communities of practice that effectively applied both years of decision-maker experience and cutting-edge science to river management.

Finally, political factors will always be in play in the public policy space, as will balancing competing priorities.

Ultimately, science communication that doesn’t consider its policy audience is unlikely to address the knowledge action gap.

On the flipside, dialogue between scientists and decision-makers that acknowledges the valuable knowledge of all can help build respectful relationships. Then science communication can move from trying to sell science to enabling our best minds to work together to find solutions to society’s challenges.

 

 

This piece was first published at Policy Forum, Asia and the Pacific’s platform for public policy analysis and opinion. Read the original here: https://www.policyforum.net/talking-with-policymakers-about-science/