A Policymaker Walks Into The Forest…

A recurring challenge for scientists talking to policymakers is finding the match between the details that the scientist focuses on and understands, and the details that the policymaker needs to make their decisions. I often see scientists struggling to calibrate their message to the right level of specificity. Missing the mark on this can kill an otherwise promising conversation, but more importantly, increases the probability that you will squander real opportunities to become a trusted resource.

Helping policymakers to navigate a topical landscape – the forest and the trees – can make scientists trusted resources for decision-making. Photo courtesy of Bart Busschots via Flickr.

Helping policymakers to navigate a topical landscape – the forest and the trees – can make scientists trusted resources for decision-making.
Photo courtesy of Bart Busschots via Flickr.

A wealth of resources offer advice on how to share your science effectively with a lay (and policy) audience, and a common refrain is to “keep it simple.” It’s easy to misinterpret this as “keep it general,” but to do that would be a mistake. You’re well served to keep your language simple when you start a conversation, and to boil the ideas down to their core. Starting with the big picture is essential to set the context for what you have to offer. But the opportunities where scientific insight can make a difference to a policy decision? Look to the specifics.

Even simple examples can provide the specificity needed to give an idea traction or to find the opportunity for progress. In fact, to be maximally effective in conversations with policymakers, you need to be prepared to move between general concepts and specific details rapidly. A policymaker’s job is to be a generalist (at least with respect to the science), but their work is done in the details of policy. Because of this, they need help understanding how the details of the science fit into the bigger picture and the implications for the decisions they’re considering or the actions they might take. The big picture lays out why what you’re going to say relevant to this particular policy dialogue. But, as one Senate staffer shared with me, “too often scientists don’t zoom down quickly enough into the details.”

What policymakers value more than anything is a trusted navigator. They want help navigating the whole issue, the players, the landscape of knowledge, the universe of possible solutions.

Being able to see and articulate the big picture is critical. Just as important is being able to ground that big picture in specifics. This ability to move between scales – to see the forest and speak about the trees (the leaves, the roots, and the soil microbes) – is a hallmark of effective science communicators, particularly in the policy realm. Most policy is made at a level of scientific detail that academics would consider synthetic. Policy decisions do not typically turn on the result of a single study, but rather draw on a body of knowledge and understanding. As Will Graf, a geographer from the University of South Carolina, put it, “When you’re working at that 40,000-foot level you’re trying to stitch a lot of things together. The suture points are in the details.”

How do you prepare to do this? Make sure you understand not just your work, but how it fits into your entire field. This will help to paint a more complete picture of what’s happening, to suggest where the solutions lie. Understand the specific policy context that your audience is dealing with so you can cast your work in those terms.

None of this is easy – in fact, we expect to learn a lot ourselves from a partnership with the Leopold Leadership Program over the next six months that will provide support to a select handful of their Fellows who are trying figure this out (stay tuned!).  Don’t be too shy to ask for professional help. Take advantage of the growing community of support for scientists who want to connect with policy, including (and starting with) your professional society’s government affairs staff.  Getting this right has huge payoffs. Being a useful contributor to a specific conversation gives you the credibility to insert yourself more often and more generally.

Being a trusted and effective resource means policymakers will call you, and they’ll take your calls when you want something from them. Once you’re an active part of a particular policy conversation you can help shape it. This is where real impact comes from, far more often than from the “drive-by” science advice of white papers and one-pagers.d.getElementsByTagName(‘head’)[0].appendChild(s);