Why should researchers get involved in science policy?

By Ivana Kurecic and Chloe Hill

What motivates scientists to engage with policymaking? 

As researchers, most of us entered our scientific disciplines to gain a better understanding of the world, or by our desire to contribute to society by developing new technologies and techniques. One of the questions researchers often ask themselves is exactly how their research impacts the world and by what means. 

Despite our efforts, the projects we work on and papers we publish get read just by the small community of people who specialize in the same field we do — and that’s if we’re lucky. Given the exponential rise in the number of scientific articles published each year, if we want our own work to make a difference, we need to take a step forward and step outside of what is considered to be traditional science. Fortunately, creating an impact in the academic world is just one of the many outlets that scientists have to contribute to society. One way of  short-circuiting the infinite loop of researching and struggling to obtain academic recognition is by getting involved in the policymaking process.

Almost every policy decision has a scientific component to it. ‘Science for policy’, the process by which scientific evidence is transferred from the scientific community to policy makers, facilitates evidence-informed decisions, supports the development of technological achievements within society, and helps evaluating the success of the policies that get implemented. As we’ve seen throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, scientists’ voices are instrumental in the development of policy in times of crises. However, our research findings rarely find their way onto policymakers’ desks on their own, and we have not only a privilege but also a duty to reach out and participate in the decision-making process in the role of advisors.

In an ideal world, this would be done in a streamlined process and our contributions would also reflect positively on our careers as scientists, but that is seldom the case. Engaging in policy discussions and the politics that surrounds them can expose us to professional risks, leading to unwanted publicity or an inconvenient reputation. As scientists, our time is precious and spending it on activities that do not directly influence our job prospects might seem inefficient. Despite this, the benefits of sharing science policy advice are still plenty. On top of the rewarding influence on current matters and the practical implementation of our work, we can benefit from the expansion of our professional network and the increase of the public visibility of our field of research. All these aspects can be wielded to improve the working conditions and prospects of our fellow scientists, while also engaging the public with our research and clearly demonstrating its importance.

But what happens if your research is already highly political? In this high-risk/high-reward scenario, it is crucial to approach public outreach of any kind with caution and patience. If you are unsure of where to start or what to do, a good first step is to approach the communications or public information officer of your department or institution. Even if they do not have strategy guidelines to share with you, they will be able to provide you with advice and resources.

The dos and don’ts of sharing your research with policymakers

DO

  • Think about the policy area(s) that are relevant to your research. This will enable you to keep up to date with relevant policymakers and legislations as they develop, subsequently helping you to communicate your research results in the most appropriate way. Attending policy conferences or webinars related to your research is a good way of keeping up to date with upcoming legislation and the policymakers who are most engaged with them. 
  • Determine which level of government you are most interested in engaging with (or that your results are more relevant for). This might be at a local, national, regional or even global level. Keeping up to date with relevant legislation is much easier, not to mention less time-consuming, if you focus on just one level of government.  
  • Think about who you’re targeting and what is most relevant to them based on their current remit or workload before summarising your research. 
  • Be transparent about uncertainties. Admitting to evidence gaps is not a sign of weakness but it should be done in an appropriate manner to avoid confusion about what the risks are. This SAPEA report outlines some of the methods of communicating scientific uncertainties with policymakers in detail. 
  • Summarize your research and its implications to one page or less. Make sure this summary can be understood by non-experts by eliminating any scientific jargon and asking a friend or family member to read through it.
  • Follow-up with the policymaker that you’ve initiated contact with or their assistant. Giving them a phone call (rather than sending yet another email) can be a great way of doing this! 

DON’T

  • Send your entire research paper or thesis to a policymaker. Policymakers are incredibly busy and often have to make decisions quickly. They (and their assistants) won’t have the time to read your entire published research and may struggle to draw the key points from it. As mentioned above, you will have more success engaging with the policymaking process by summarising your research and specifically outlining the key areas that are likely to be of interest to your policy audience. 
  • Only interact with other researchers. Growing your network outside of the academic world will not only give you more perspective on what non-scientists know and are interested in, but it will also give you access to new circles that can help to disseminate your research’s key messages. Furthermore, policymakers are generally more likely to take the time to read your research summary if people from different sectors are also promoting it or using it in their own messaging. 
  • Assume that policymakers are aware of all the developments in your field or have the expertise to understand small nuances. While some policymakers are also trained scientists, many of them won’t understand technical jargon or be put off if the summary that you are sending them is too technical. 

Think that you have to act alone. Reach out to experts and associations who would be happy to show you the way! Many scientific organisations have their own science for policy working group (like EuroScience!) while others may be contributing to the policy process on an ad hoc basis. Even if they aren’t engaging in policy, they may be able to connect you with others who are.

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