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Messages about the workings of policymaking should be easier to come by, and can inform how scientific evidence is presented.

You'd be hard-pressed to find a policymaker in most academic meetings. So when a former UK civil servant took the stage at the STEPS symposium at the University of Sussex last month, to offer a view on getting evidence into policy, my ears perked up.

Much like sighting a rare species, there was a hint of excitement at the prospect of hearing what this mysterious creature had to say.

I exaggerate — but not by much. For most scientists and science communicators, there is a real mystery surrounding the decision-making process and how to engage with it. Who are the policymakers, and what do they want?

The rare chance to get some answers directly from the source didn't go unrewarded. Jill Rutter, from the Institute for Government, a UK charity, offered a glimpse into the realities of how research features within policy decisions.

But are scientists ready to listen and learn? It takes a fine balancing act to adapt to the reality that policymakers operate in, while preserving the integrity — and complexity — of scientific information.

Scientists are not 'deciders'

Rutter had some clear messages for the audience. While we often speak of policy as a single, homogenous "lump", in fact policies are not equal, she said.

For example, appetite for evidence is fairly low on flagship issues that come with preconceived positions — but there's more opportunity to provide expert advice related to the roughly 70 per cent of less political issues.

In those less political cases, what do policymakers tend to look for? First on Rutter's list was emerging trends: issues likely to catch policymakers off guard, and which someone not trawling through academic journals would know little about.

Scientists must also be able to explain these issues clearly: to interpret the evidence, indicate how certain or disputed it is, and how seriously it should be taken. And they need to offer a range of technically sound options to help policymakers choose the path to take. "You are not going to decide," Rutter told the audience. "You need to be enablers, advisors; but not deciders."

Science is rarely a decisive factor in policymaking, she stressed. Even if the economics, politics and ethics surrounding a decision stack up, constraints such as international law, practicality and feasibility remain.

Understanding the game

Quite a reality check. But like a diagnosis of a long-standing ailment, a better understanding of how policymaking works is a vital first step to engaging with it more effectively.

For example, insights on what decision-makers need from scientists must be easier to come by.

The scientific community can do more to reach out to government officials, funders and practitioners — by inviting them to share platforms for discussion, for example, finding interpersonal networks and working with knowledge brokers or 'policy entrepreneurs' (though there are concerns about whether this is the right strategy to promote good local governance).

A recent UK government report offers a glimpse of how policymakers engage with science advisors: mainly through placements and secondments, advisory networks and commissioned research. [1]

A global SciDev.Net survey suggests that commissioned research is a preferred route in the developing world too. Policymakers around the world tend to access scientific advice through documents tailored to their needs. But they also engage with evidence informally through face-to-face exchanges and through communication channels such as policy briefs and news.

Multiple information paths

What this shows is that there are many routes to informing policymaking. Evidence that directly informs specific decisions is known as 'instrumental use', explained Philip Davies, head of 3ie's European office based at the London International Development Centre, in a seminar last month. [2]

On the other hand, using scientific research for general enlightenment or in a way that influences action in less specific ways has been labelled 'conceptual use', according to Davies. This more indirect path could involve sharing background data or ideas that affect how policymakers think about a problem.

It is here that the role of communication, by scientists and journalists, comes into focus. Openly discussing evidence online and in public forums can help scientific information find its way into policy or influence how a policymaker approaches a problem.

Evidence needs traction

The challenge, then, becomes how best to communicate science for policy.

SciDev.Net's surveys highlight the importance of explaining research implications by placing them in a social and economic context — a finding that resonates with Rutter's message that science must engage with politics and all the other considerations involved in decision-making.

Evidence gains traction with decision-makers when it tells a story with a policy-relevant, timely and clear message, according to Davies. This is in stark contrast to what evidence entails for scientists, who tend to focus on things such as empirical basis, theoretical underpinnings and caveats.

The process of simplification involved in formulating a message that policymakers can digest tends to worry scientists. These concerns, but also the need to do so, were discussed at the STEPS symposium, highlighting the importance of framing science effectively.

Chris Whitty, chief scientific advisor at the UK's Department for International Development, told delegates that some of the academic information that policymakers receive is almost incomprehensible. There are times when researchers need to focus on simplifying and being honest about the limitations of their work, he said — synthesising information is a vital but underrated part of such communication.

Regardless of the method, the trick to making communication work is achieving clarity without losing the nuance that puts science in perspective. It is a narrow strait to navigate, and it takes skill. Understanding and facing up to the realities of policymaking should make it clear why honing that skill can make a difference.

Anita Makri

Opinion & special features editor, SciDev.Net


[1] Engaging with academics: how to further strengthen open policy making (Government Office for Science, January 2013)
[2] Davies, P. Getting Evidence Into Policy (London International Development Centre, 2013)