In workshops that the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) has held for scientists since 2008 on communicating research findings, a frequent request has been for more information on how to communicate and engage with policy makers. In 2016 the AAAS began work on a new module for the workshops that would meet this request, said Emily Cloyd, project director for public engagement at the AAAS. The organization began by bringing in Elizabeth Suhay, assis-
tant professor of government in the School of Public Affairs at American University, and Erin Nash, a doctoral candidate at Durham University in the United Kingdom, to produce a literature review that would inform the new module. The work on the literature review revealed that “not much is known about how policy makers, as a specific subpopulation, form their beliefs about science or science information,” said Nash. In the Communicating Science Effectively report, for example, just 4 of 100 pages are devoted to the topic of communication with policy makers, and the report points to the paucity of research on this subject. Furthermore, policy makers and the general public have some important differences in how they engage with scientific communication. First, policy makers are more exposed than the average person to multiple channels of information, including actors with deep political motivations. Second, elected officials have greater access to sources of information from specialists, such as the testimony of experts and information analyses provided by the Congressional Research Service. Third, representatives and their staff routinely consider political strategy when forming their policy preferences. Fourth, the decisions of policy makers are one of the most powerful influences on the general public’s beliefs about scientific issues and their attitudes toward science-informed policy. “Attention to policy makers as a group is an especially important gap to fill,” she said.
However, the ability to fill this gap has been limited, said Cloyd, because few sources of support have been available for this kind of work. Before the third Arthur M. Sackler Colloquium on Science Communication, the National Academy of Sciences, with support from the Rita Allen Foundation, announced a competition for proposals from research-practitioner partnerships to investigate the priority topics identified in Communicating Science Effectively. The project led by Suhay was one of two that were selected from the submitted proposals. (The other is described in the section “Countering Vaccine Hesitancy” in Chapter 3.)
Recommended practices from the project, which is just getting under way, will be partly based on several stages of empirical research. Building on the literature review, the team will summarize research on the communication of science more broadly where it might apply to policy makers. Two key types of literature are being reviewed: the academic literature, and literature from policy, science, and science communication–based organizations, such as guidance material that has been developed to provide scientists and communicators with advice on how best to communicate science to policy makers.
The second component of the project will use a survey to better understand the practices of those who communicate science to policy makers. A representative sample of AAAS members, as well as, more narrowly, people within policy and government relations teams of the 250 scien-
tific organizations that are affiliated with the AAAS, will be surveyed to answer the following questions: Who is most likely to engage with policy makers? Who is communicating with whom? What information is communicated? How is it communicated, and with what goals in mind? What ethical concerns are involved? What defines success or failure in these interactions?
The third component is an influence-mapping study that will aim to provide a better understanding of how macroscale structures and environments, rather than just microlevel practices, affect policy makers’ perceptions, understanding, and use of scientific information. These maps will describe the pipelines through which information, knowledge, and sometimes misinformation flow to pinpoint key points in the process.
In the final component of the project, 20 to 30 members of the U.S. Congress and congressional staff will participate in semistructured qualitative interviews that explore their perspectives on science communication. The team will draw from their networks to target and contact staff members and lawmakers. Interviewees will be selected based on several criteria, including partisan balance, level of scientific engagement in their congressional committee, and the degree to which scientific evidence is relevant to the legislation they deal with on a regular basis. The team hopes to enlist a mixture of participants, including both advocates and skeptics of science.
In these interviews, participants will discuss their viewpoints on contrasting case studies: those with contested or politicized scientific claims, and those with lower levels of contestation. Members will be asked whom they rely on for information and their rationales for trust. Time permitting, the team hopes to interview staffers of the Government Accountability Office, the Congressional Research Service, and the Congressional Budget Office, all of whom regularly provide science-based information to members of the U.S. Congress and their staff and who are under professional obligations to present nonpartisan and objective information and evidence.
The project aims to share its findings through scholarly articles; a report to the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine; and blogs. The AAAS will use the findings to update and expand its science policy training programs for scientists, engineers, and students; to expand the resources available in their fellowship programs, including the Leshner Leadership Institute for Public Engagement with Science and Technology; and to share materials with its 250-plus affiliate societies. In addition, the project has been designed to be mutually beneficial to policy makers and scientists, Nash said. Its recommendations can guide scientists in effective communication with policy makers while policy makers can better understand how their opinions are formed and spot potential blind
spots. Results could lead the way to deeper discussions from both sides on how scientific policy is made.
All three of the discussants of the project praised its objectives and design. The project could “create communication strategies based on facts instead of gut instincts,” said James Cohen, director of communications and public outreach for The Kavli Foundation. Focusing on the U.S. Congress as a specific audience will help clarify approaches and messages. The study will also lay the groundwork for subsequent studies that could investigate more specific questions, such as how the scientific community and policy makers in specific districts or states interact.
David Herring, program manager of the Communication, Education, and Engagement Division at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Climate Program Office, observed that members of the U.S. Congress value science but often on a selective basis that aligns with their motivations and agendas. Thus, a major research question is how their agendas color their ability to receive, hear, and understand science. In addition, differences in culture, values, faith, and perceptions of risk may influence policy makers’ interactions with scientific information. Policy makers’ unique characteristics call for research that recognizes their unique position in relation to science and the scientific community, Herring said.
The project will not be without challenges, noted Fay Cook, assistant director for the Directorate for Social, Behavioral and Economic Sciences at the National Science Foundation. Response rates are always problematic with survey research and can be especially difficult when surveying elites. The year-long timeframe planned to conduct the three sequential studies will be equally challenging. Cook recommended ensuring that each study focuses on the same questions and that enough time is left after each study for analysis and subsequent planning. Finally, the project will have to resist the broad, sweeping conclusions that often result from this type of work in favor of specific, evidence-based recommendations, she said. Ideally the three sequential studies will give rise to a contingency theory of science communication that can be further honed and tested: “Under what conditions, with what kind of issues, and for whom can certain kinds of science communication make a difference?”