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New Research to Help Scientists Better Connect with Policymakers

Betsy Fischer Martin, Elizabeth Suhay, Rep. Haley Stevens, Vicky Wilkins
WPI Director Betsy Fischer Martin, SPA Associate Professor Elizabeth Suhay, Rep. Haley Stevens, SPA Dean Vicky Wilkins

Elizabeth Suhay believes scientific information is too important to get lost in translation.

Suhay, an AU School of Public Affairs (SPA) associate professor, and her coauthors, developed a new guide for scientists to best share their expertise with policymakers.

The report was written in partnership with Emily Cloyd at the AAAS Center for Public Engagement with Science and Technology, AAAS Government Relations Associate Director Erin Heath, and Erin Nash of Durham University in the U.K. The team was granted nearly $40,000 by the National Academy of Sciences (NAS) and the Rita Allen Foundation to explore ways to improve science communication with policymakers.

Suhay introduced the new guide called, “Recommended Practices for Science Communication with Policymakers” at a Jan. 30 event sponsored by SPA and the American Association for the Advancement of Science, which funded the project.

“Scientific evidence does not play a prominent enough role in policymaking,” said Suhay. “The result is a missed opportunity. We are failing to address pressing problems, climate change being among the most important.”

Suhay explained that while many researchers want to communicate about their research, they are political novices.

For the report, the researchers conducted interviews with 22 members of Congress, 20 staff members, and surveyed 600 scientists. The final product provides tips on how to approach lawmakers effectively and convey a clear message.

At the event, U.S. Rep. Haley Stevens, SPA/BA ‘05 and CAS/MA ‘07, praised Suhay’s work and said concern over science policy was a motivating factor in her decision to seek office.

Elected in November as a Democrat in Michigan’s 11th District, Stevens serves on the House Committee on Science, Space, and Technology and is chairwoman on the Subcommittee on Research and Technology. She said the new Congress is committed to investing in science research and improving the nation’s global competitiveness.

“We are going to hold hearings, and we are going to show the world what scientific research means in America,” said Stevens. “I challenge all of you to weigh in and continue to bridge the divide between the arts and sciences because the story of American greatness is codified in ability to innovate.”

During the event, Skip Lupia, director of Social, Behavioral, and Economic Sciences at the National Science Foundation, noted that important research being done at AU and other campuses is making a real difference, and applying science to improve policy decisions is vital. The challenge, he said, is to take complicated ideas to diverse audiences.

“We live in an age where people value communicating science effectively, and we need a deeper bench of people who can tell true stories,” said Lupia. “I think this report is an opportunity to be a real focal point and change. People from around the world will benefit from what you’ve done for generations.”

Building relationships with lawmakers was key to becoming a trusted source of information, she added.

“Engage with a diverse group of policymakers,” said Suhay. “There is a natural connection between scientists and policymakers. The ethos of both communities is oriented toward solving public problems. However, you can’t solve problems without quality evidence, and you don’t have quality evidence without quality science communication.”

Also appearing at the event was a panel of experts that included AAAS Government Relations Associate Director Erin Heath; as well as John Neumann, managing director, Science, Technology Assessment, and Analytics Team, Government Accountability Office; Anna Maria Ortiz, acting director, Financial Markets and Community Investment, Government Accountability Office; and Samantha Warren, legislative director for Congressman Bill Foster.

Next week, Suhay and her coauthors will present their findings and share their report at the Communicating Science Seminar during the AAAS Annual Meeting, Feb. 14 to 17.