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Communicating Science to Policymakers: Best Practices for Academic Societies

It goes without saying that if an academic society wants to make a long-lasting, real-world impact through its research, that research must grab the attention of those who have the power to act on it. In other words, scientists and research societies need to communicate with policymakers. However, for academia, the political world can seem murky and opaque, with limited clarity on decision-making processes. Naturally, there can be no “one size fits all” approach for science communication, because governance structures and legislative processes differ across countries and regions. Nevertheless, this article offers a few tips on how research societies can more effectively communicate with policymakers to shape public policy.

Clearly define your target

Before you can even formulate a communication or advocacy strategy, decide who needs to hear about the research: local vs. state vs. national groups, a specialized agency or ministry, etc. Not every topic needs to go to the national legislature; it often makes more sense to target ministries related to health, education, public infrastructure, etc.

Assemble strong evidence

Policymakers know they will receive flak for ineffective policies. Therefore, you need to assemble strong evidence in support of your recommendations, and make sure your target audience realizes how strong this evidence is. For example, if you’re trying to make vaccination mandatory for a certain group, you need to show not just the benefits of vaccination but also the very low likelihood of adverse events post-vaccination for that group. Thus, the studies you cite should have sufficiently representative samples, demonstrating that their findings are generalizable.

Show public impact

In most countries, policymakers are ultimately answerable to the public, either directly or indirectly. Therefore, your communications should explain in detail how your findings can improve public health or safety, increase revenue, spur investment, etc. Ideally, show that your research aligns with one of your target audience’s specific goals, be it improving the quality of life of their constituents, supporting a piece of legislation that they are developing, etc.

Communicate effectively

Clear, concise language is helpful for getting your point across. Summarize your key arguments in non-technical language. Avoid even those statistical terms you think are common (e.g., odds ratio, relative risk) because they could easily be misinterpreted; present data such that even an 8th grader can understand it. Make sure your recommendations are described clearly, with actionable steps. Use visuals to present quantitative information, so that it can be assimilated easily.

Time your communication

If your country is seeing rising SARS-CoV-2 case numbers and lockdowns are under discussion, this may not be the time to advocate for banning of X chemical in beauty products. But this could be the right time to present research on the benefits of text messaging campaigns to promote mask wearing. Keep tabs on what topics are currently being discussed in legislative bodies, what’s making local, regional, or national headlines, etc.

Pro tip: Engage with elected officials as early in their term as possible, rather than towards the end, when policies are likely to have been finalized.

Don’t stereotype

Reach out and engage with policymakers across party lines. Not all politicians totally agree with every part of their party’s agenda; for example, a right-winger might switch to a left-wing party a few years later. View all policymakers as your potential allies and don’t dismiss any as ignorant or bigoted. 

Conclusion

If there’s one lesson in policymaker communication that scientists need to take away from the years 2020 and 2021, it’s that science is only one of the factors that contribute to policy. For example, despite research on the effectiveness of masks, mask mandates are still not mainstream, particularly in the US. Societies engaging in advocacy need to be aware of the role of budgetary constraints, public sentiment, party ideology, and global forces. Working in harmony with policymakers means understanding their goals and needs. Keep your ear to the ground and be quick to adapt your messaging to changing circumstances.

Marisha Rodrigues

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