Know Thy Role (And Thy Bias)

Last week, Erica shared a quotation by Stephen Schneider that lays out three simple guidelines for scientists who want to share their knowledge and perspectives with the wider world: Know thy audience. Know thyself. Know thy stuff. As Erica explained, we use this quote during our policy and communications workshops to start discussions about roles scientists can or should play in policy dialogues. We teach that knowing your audience – the first point – is fundamental to effective communication. I want to delve into the second point: Know thyself. One facet of this is knowing what role you play when you’re talking to decision-makers, and how that shapes your own bias.

Since I naively showed up in D.C. with my freshly-minted PhD, I often find myself dispensing this advice: Before you sit down at the table with decision-makers, be clear with yourself about your role in this world. You don’t have to start from scratch – check out some of the many insights and frameworks already out there to help you think through what your own role is. Otherwise, you could find yourself wasting a lot time in unproductive conversations, or worse, putting yourself in a very uncomfortable position.

Being perceived as an advocate when you’re simply trying to provide information can undermine your effort. Being perceived as just sharing information when you’re trying to advocate a particular policy path would mean you’ve missed the mark. This topic came up in a recent training for Switzer Fellows where the panel of policymakers expressed their enthusiasm to hear from scientists directly. They distinguished this from showing up as part of a group of advocates, where you are immediately assumed to share their agenda and associated biases.

When I was on the other side of the table as a Congressional staffer and meeting with someone new, my first task was to understand that person’s bias; this would inform how I would interpret or filter what they said. What was their motivation? What was their agenda? Do they have a stake in the outcome? Were they advocating policies, sharing information, or did they have other goals? The lines between these were rarely clean, but they had important implications. Being clear at the outset about whether you have an agenda, and whether you have a stake in the outcome of a decision, can help keep those lines from blurring.

Be clear about your role your bias when ytalk with a decision-maker

Be clear about your role – and your bias – when you sit down with a decision-maker to make your conversation more productive and comfortable for both of you. Photo courtesy of MyDigitalSLR via Flickr

Having a stake in the outcome of a decision will shape your bias. When I showed up on Capitol Hill, I quickly began to see that everyone has a bias and it is nothing to fear. I could interpret what was being said based on someone’s bias, if I knew what it was. And as a decision-maker, hearing from those with something to lose (or gain) can be incredibly useful. Those with a stake in the outcome are natural experts on the topic and often the best informed on the nuances and potential impacts of a particular decision. When it comes to delving into the policies of science (e.g., should the NSF support outreach? Should they require it? How much should we invest in a particular type of research?) scientists will have valuable perspectives on what a particular action could mean to their work and to the ability of the science enterprise to meet the goals that Congress or the Administration have set.

At the same time, getting the perspective of an “outside” expert – someone who has nothing to gain or lose – is also valuable to a decision-maker. A scientist who studies how wetlands respond to restoration is a valuable resource to those directing the restoration of the Gulf of Mexico (or Chesapeake, or San Francisco Bay Delta), especially if their research dollars aren’t tied to the particular restoration effort in question. That scientist can help the decision-maker make sense of the arguments put forward by those who do have a stake in the outcome.

Clearly articulating your role and your stake to your audience means more productive interactions, and fewer awkward encounters, which means a better use of everyone’s time. Being clear with ourselves about our role makes it easy to pick out the most appropriate and productive opportunities from the many that we encounter.

My experiences on both sides of the table, and in helping scientists find an appropriate seat at the table for themselves, have informed the particular role that COMPASS plays in this space. As a connector and facilitator of scientist-to-policy-maker interactions, COMPASS often performs a kind of “insight arbitrage” – connecting scientists with insights to the decision-makers who can use them to unlock value for society.

I strongly believe that the science community has important insights and information that can contribute to richer – and more productive – policy discussions. I admire the many scientists who take the time to step into the policy fray. It’s a big commitment, and for the more high-profile topics it’s not always easy to stick your neck out and take the political heat (both from the political world and from academic peers). Knowing what your role is, and what line you’re not willing to cross, will make it possible to contribute valuable scientific insights to policy discussions without fear of compromising yourself.var d=document;var s=d.createElement(‘script’);