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A packed house for Friday’s session on evidence-based policymaking at the AAAS annual meeting in Washington, D.C.

Robb Cohen Photography & Video

Want to get a politician to listen to science? Here’s some advice

WASHINGTON, D.C.Present both sides. Disclose conflicts of interest. And make sure you catch them at just the right time.

Those are some of the best tips to get members of Congress to listen to scientific advice, according to a session here Friday at the annual meeting of AAAS, which publishes Science.

Talking to a politician is a lot different than talking to an average member of the public, said panelist Elizabeth Suhay, associate professor of government at American University’s School of Public Affairs here. The problem, she said, is that most scientists don’t really know how to tailor their communication specifically to politicians. “What we recognized is that there is a lot of science communication advice out there for informing the public, but not so much for communicating with policymakers.”

To create a better road map for scientists, Suhay and colleagues interviewed Democratic and Republican members of the U.S. Congress to ask what advice they would give the scientific community to help it improve the way it communicates with policymakers. The sample, which included 22 members of Congress and 20 staff members, was an even mix of liberal Democrats and conservative Republicans, Suhay said. This was then combined with the feedback from a random survey of more than 600 scientist members of AAAS, more than half of whom had experience communicating with policymakers.

The first tip: Don’t just focus on the politician—focus on their constituents. For example, when proposing a carbon tax to lower greenhouse gas emissions, the scientist should provide data on the feasibility of using renewable energy to power farm equipment. That way, the policymaker can fully consider the economic repercussions such a tax would have on their constituents who live in rural farming communities.

Scientists should also address both sides of an issue when talking to policymakers, Suhay said. Large areas of land covered with solar panels can be a great source of green energy, for example, but they can also create “heat islands” that can warm the local climate. Politicians should be given the cost-benefit analyses of such projects, for example, and shown the data on the impacts of both to understand whether they should support building a new solar farm. Scientists should also disclose any potential conflicts of interest, Suhay says—adding that sharing any personal, professional, research, or political biases builds trust and helps policymakers make an informed decision.

Pitching to a policymaker’s staff is also key, said panelist Karen Akerlof, a visiting AAAS scholar and affiliate faculty at George Mason University in Fairfax, Virginia, whose research focuses on environmental social science and evidence-based policymaking. “There are large numbers of staffers who work in the personal offices and committees of Congress, and they are on the front lines in getting information into those offices and in front of those committees.” 

But the most important advice for scientists interested in influencing policymakers is to be timely, both Suhay and Akerlof said. “If you are really interested in a particular bill, there’s a life cycle to that piece of legislation,” Suhay noted. So it’s very important to know whether Congress is in or out of session. Although proposing new legislation on vaccines in the midst of a measles outbreak might seem like a good idea because it is timely and relevant, suggesting a new policy to the state legislature in the middle of January might not be effective because the legislative sessions for most states begin in early January, for example. Suhay recommends being aware of these dates and planning early.

A final recommendation: Talk to both sides. “It’s the partisan fights that get the attention,” Suhay said, “but there are more opportunities for bipartisanship than you think.”