December 16, 2016

How Scientists Can Reach Policy Makers: Lessons from Space Weather Scientists

Posted by Timia Crisp

Today’s post is part of a series written by student bloggers from the AGU Fall Meeting.

By Kim Quesnel, Stanford University


student-blogger-fm-kimWhen I entered the Science Policy 201: Advocacy in Action session at the AGU Fall Meeting, I was surprised to learn that we would be spending the next hour discussing space weather. One of the taglines for the session was “Come learn how science can be used to positively impact society,” and I was curious how anecdotes about space weather in the policy realm would translate to how I could use my own research to impact society. However, as the session progressed, I realized that scientists from all fields share similar goals of disseminating their research to a broader audience. The one-hour workshop consisted of four space weather experts (Daniel N. Baker, Seth Jonas, Bill Murtagh, and Delores Knipp) answering questions from the audience related to how they have bridged the gap between science and policy to enact change, reach decision makers, and communicate the importance of their research to non-scientists. All four panelists were clearly passionate about their work, and it was inspiring to hear about all they have achieved in bringing space weather to the forefront of state and federal policy. A recent example is President Obama’s Executive Order on Coordinating Efforts to Prepare the Nation for Space Weather Events, a policy in which Dr. Murtagh and the others played an instrumental role.

At one point, an audience member asked how each scientist had gotten involved in science policy. While each panelist followed a different career path to get where they are today, all agreed that they were happy to have entered the policy realm. After listening to the panelists’ advice, I gathered four main lessons that all scientists should keep in mind when bridging the gap between science and policy:

  • Communication is key: It quickly became clear that communication was the central theme of the hour. One question from the audience was “What skills can current students begin cultivating now to better ensure that they are able to advocate for their research in a policy context?” and without hesitation, each panelist responded that being able to communicate is one of the most important skills that we as scientists can learn.  Dr. Jonas specifically discussed the importance of being able to communicate with the public and those outside of your field if you want to truly enact change on a broader scale.
  • Above all, maintain integrity: At one point during the workshop, Dr. Baker mentioned the importance of integrity. If you are advocating for the importance of your research to enact a policy change, it is critical that you are seen as objective. Dr. Jonas pointed out that this also includes being open and honest about uncertainty and error in your research.
  • Make your research relevant: Many times during the conversation, the panelists stressed that in order to reach politicians and the public, you must make your research relevant. When talking to decision-makers, it is important to communicate why your research matters to them, and Dr. Murtagh emphasized that you must always tie your science back to societal needs. Conveying potential risks associated the findings of your research is also an effective way to get your message across to policy makers.
  • Utilize communication resources: Finally, as scientists we should all take advantages of the communication resources that we have available to us. To more widely disseminate our research, we must utilize communication professionals, funding agencies, journals, and other organizations that can help us share our message. For example, Dr. Knipp pointed out that many governmental funding agencies such as NSF and NASA are often eager to publicize the work that they are funding, and it can be fruitful to reach out to them when you release a manuscript. Additionally, she said, utilizing AGU Public Affairs and writing commentaries or other articles that are more easily readable by a wider audience are both good ways to reach policy makers and make your science matter.

To learn more about how to engage your policy makers, please see the AGU Science Policy page.