Knowledge and Action: Bridging the Gap between Scientists and Policymakers

Written by: Sabella Homenauth

The context and environment in which scientists and policymakers work continually increase in complexity. Scientists are expected to provide options and solutions to a wide variety of challenges. Meanwhile, policymakers are expected to understand and assess a growing range of knowledge on cross-cutting issues and to translate this knowledge into effective, efficient and robust policies. Furthermore, there is growing research to show that health, illness and diseases are not just about biology. There are many other contextual, historical and anthropological considerations involved, requiring interdisciplinary collaboration.

But how do we approach collaboration with the policy sector?

The American Association of Advancement in Science’s (AAAS) third president, Alexander Dallas Bache  said:

“While science is without organization, it is without power. Now, as then, we must work together with renewed energy across the full spectrum of the scientific enterprise—and across the sectors that advance it.”

The theme for AAAS’s 2018 annual meeting was Advancing Science: Discovery to Application. The meeting highlighted the critical roles of academia, government, and industry in moving ideas into innovations. It is no surprise that navigating the intersection of science and policy-making was heavily featured in the discussion.

Sir Peter Gluckman, the Chief Science Officer to the Prime Minister of New Zealand and a featured speaker at the meeting summarized what he thought are important realities that all scientists and researchers must keep in mind when approaching the policy sector:

  1. Facts, values, and emotions are intertwined in complex relationships that guide policy decisions. The ability to influence decision making depends on building trust through understanding these relationships.
  2. Science alone cannot inform the policy-making process.
  3. Policy is traditionally driven by anecdotes and politics where people can pick and choose what they claim to be evidence to support positions that they want to take.
  4. Timing is key. “More research is needed” is not an encouraging statement at decision-making time. The science that is available at the time it is needed is what matters in the policy making world.
  5. Scientist advocacy for a particular policy direction might be seen as no different as other forms of lobbying, in turn reducing trust in the scientific evidence.
  6. In a democracy, the political community has the option to override evidence.

His advice to scientists and researchers:

  1. Go beyond the single discipline to a more holistic approach – that includes contextual considerations that might influence decision making.
  2.  Trust is achieved with a brokered approach that analyzes the best options for a given scenario or context.
  3. Scientist and researcher efforts are best optimized at the beginning (when policy issues are being considered and discussed) and end of the policy-making process (to ensure that the policy produced accurately reflects the evidence).
  4. Research synthesis is key to strategic communication and translation of the evidence to policymakers.

Our friends at Knowledge Nudge also offered a few valuable tips on engaging policymakers in health research, including:

  • Building mutually respectful relationships with decision makers is beneficial because they can open doors to the world of policy and health systems. There is a huge potential in creating allies that can create opportunities to make an impact with your research.

Their tips also support the growing value of evidence synthesis in the policy-making process:

  • Peer-reviewed publications rarely make it into the hands of policy-makers. In a situation where time is everything, and everything is politicized, policymakers are looking for clear and concise information that links a problem to a solution, especially if it’s related to a current issue.

Knowledge changes with science over time. This is why evidence synthesis is so important. Not only does synthesis compile evidence-based recommendations for policymakers, but it also identifies the strength of the available evidence. The use of weak evidence is best highlighted when time proves that science and policy got it wrong the first time. A current example: our shift from strict low-fat diet adherence to recommendations around the importance of fat for brain and body function. Come back next time to learn about how the environment for the long-lasting beliefs around low-fat diets emerged, how that myth was recently busted, and what it means for public trust in science and scientist relationships with decision-makers.

Have you tangoed on the dance floor of science and policy?

What were some valuable lessons learnt?

Until next time!

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