Davide Bonazzi/@Salzmanart

Do's and don'ts for scientists who want to shape policy

Paul Cairney, a political scientist at the University of Stirling in the United Kingdom, has a message for those who want facts and research findings to guide policy. "‘Evidence based policy making’ is a good political slogan, but not a good description of the policy process," he writes on his blog, which has become a popular read for policy wonks. "If you expect to see it, you will be disappointed." It's a typically frank assessment from Cairney, who last year published a well-received book entitled The Politics of Evidence-Based Policy Making. But his goal isn't to discourage efforts to inject evidence into statecraft; rather, he aims to arm scientists with some practical advice about the policymaking world that might help them do better. In a recent interview, Cairney offered some do's and don'ts for getting involved.

Beware feeling left out.

Events like the election of fact-averse President Donald Trump can leave scientists feeling "that science has lost and feelings have won," Cairney says. But many, if not most, government policies are developed by specialists, deep inside offices and departments experienced in policymaking. "That's where scientists tend to have an easier ride and more of a place in the discussion." And in some specialty arenas, such as analyzing drug risks or highway safety, "the scientific way of thinking" often dominates.

Don't think the evidence speaks for itself.

"Well, it never does," he says. "Don't assume anyone cares." Moreover, policymakers are already swimming in white papers, reports, and studies. A common refrain, Cairney says, is "I don't have the time to consider all the information. How do I decide?" In that situation, scientists can play an important role as sifters, synthesizers, and analyzers.

Dispense with the idea that the policymaking process is orderly.

"If only life were so simple. It's like a spirograph. A thousand cycles that interact in a big mess." But don't let the muddle prevent you from getting involved.

Don't imagine that if you publish, they will come.

"You don't drive a decision by the production of the evidence, by when you've published a paper or had a breakthrough," Cairney says. Instead, for scientists who want their evidence to influence policy, it helps to be persistent, develop networks, and find the right moment. If you study better ways to prevent oil spills or reduce deadly medical mistakes, for example, be ready to reach out to policymakers at the next headlinemaking disaster. "If there's huge attention, that's the time to present your findings."

Cultivate a mentor, and do your homework.

"It takes a phenomenal amount of time to work out who is powerful in the political process," Cairney says. So look for experts who are already involved, particularly insiders who are trusted by policymakers because they provide reliable information, are predictable, don't make excessive demands, and don't get upset if their advice isn't always acted on. "Find these people and ask what you can do."

Pick your battles.

"If you're a scientist and you want to be influential, you either avoid those areas where emotions are highly charged, or find another way to engage," Cairney counsels. Scientists who do get involved in highly politicized debates, such as those over stem cell research or genetically modified crops, should learn key techniques. They include ways of presenting technical information in persuasive and accessible language and images, and methods of recognizing and addressing an audience's pre-existing concerns, values, and biases. "Unless you do that," he warns, "your audience will switch off."

Have patience, and lots of it.

Even in areas where researchers have developed strong evidence of cause and effect (think smoking and cancer), it can take decades to see a proportionate effect in policy, Cairney says. "That should be an anchor for scientists: Profound change will take 2 or 3 decades. That thinking would make people profoundly less dissatisfied with the process."