Policymakers require access to cutting-edge scientific evidence in order to formulate or revise policies about issues based in science. This could include issues regarding fishing quotas, mining rights, health services, biodiversity conservation, drought relief, etc. When relevant research is communicated effectively to policymakers, it can influence their decisions and actions to the benefit of millions of people, as well as the natural environment.
However, policymakers – typically members of parliament, government ministers or officials and civil servants in government departments – mostly do not have science backgrounds. They rely on the evidence, insight and honest-brokerage of scientists (and research communicators) to bring the relevant information to their attention – in the right format, the right style and at the right time.
Scientists, on the other hand, are often unfamiliar with the complex science policy terrain and processes. They may also not be aware of the most appropriate bodies, such as science academies, that could engage policymakers on their behalf.
Communicators who are able to assist research leaders to engage policymakers are much in demand. Here are some of the challenges that you need to think about in order to be able to support science-policy interactions.
The most effective ways to engage policymakers and shape science policy vary from country to country, meaning that you will need specialised local science policy knowledge.
You need to be clear about which relevant policymaker(s) to target and exactly why you want to engage them. Ask yourself: what is the outcome you are looking for.
You must determine the relevant timelines and cycles in policymaking, since the opportunity to impact on a specific policy may be fleeting.
Policymakers do not, as a rule, read scientific journals, but they do read newspapers, listen to the radio and browse online for information. Getting media coverage for new scientific findings can therefore be an important step towards getting the attention of policymakers.
These days, an increasing number of policymakers are also active on social media. This provides another powerful channel to engage them directly, or to alert them to new scientific evidence.
In some countries scientific societies and science academies – representing the collective voice of a large number of researchers in a specific field of research – are the most readily accessible platforms for researchers to engage with policymakers.
Policy briefs are also used as a tool to bring a particular issue and relevant recommendations to the attention of policy makers, or to translate new knowledge into context-relevant messages and guidance that policy makers can use. A policy brief is about more than just the science. It should focus on the current importance of the issue, and its impact on people. Instead of just focusing on problems, the policy brief should spell out policy options and solutions, as well as the benefits of adopting the proposed policy changes. It must be a clear, concise and professionally-designed document.
“Science communication can be an effective advocacy and lobbying tool to enable policymakers to effect change. The introduction of a sugar tax in some countries around the world and the introduction of AIDS drugs in South Africa are some examples of how science communication can help to facilitate change in society.” Shirona Patel, communication manager at the University of the Witwatersrand
Science Policy Africa
This newsletter of the African Academy of Science based in Kenya, carries information on science and policy issues on the African continent
Points to think about
Are you up to date with the policymaking cycles, processes and role players in your region or country?
What tools and platforms are available to your university’s researchers to influence policymaking based on scientific evidence.
A good starting point may be to create opportunities where researchers at your university can listen to the science policy needs of policymakers in your region. Instead of bombarding them with information, ask them to tell you what kind of information they need, at what time and in what format?