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Communication Content

Practice Ethical Communication

It may go without saying that scientific experts should engage in ethical communication; however, ethical communication is more demanding than many realize. You should provide information that is accurate and complete - conveying the range of quality expert knowledge on a topic, including points of disagreement or uncertainty.

Disclose any conflicts of interest. Even if there are no formal conflicts of interest, science communicators should reflect on possible biases stemming from their personal and professional interests, social and political values, and background assumptions linked to social class and identity.

Two scientists looking at computer Finally, science communicators should resist the temptation to speak as “experts” beyond the boundaries of their expertise. If you don’t know the answer to a question, say so. (If you will be able to obtain the information at a later date, make that clear to the questioner and follow up promptly.) This rule also includes policy advocacy: If you are not an expert in the development and evaluation of policy solutions, then it is best not to advocate (as an expert) for any particular one.1 Of course - policy expert or not - you are free to speak your mind about anything you wish as a citizen; just be sure your audience knows which “hat” you are wearing at any given moment. In other words, be clear when you’re stating a conclusion based on a systematic evaluation of relevant evidence, and when you’re stating an opinion or preference.2

What makes a scientist trustworthy?

When we asked our interviewees about trust, many mentioned the importance of neutrality, as opposed to having “an agenda.” One Congressmember described their experience working with a group of biologists on legislation regarding biodiversity. The Member appreciated the fact that the scientists avoided expressing partisan sentiment.

Make Sure You Are Understood By Nonexperts

When communicating outside their field, scientific experts should remember to speak and write in ways that a person who is not trained in their field can understand. This includes minimal use of acronyms and jargon (and any such terms must be defined). Note that terms that seem like everyday language to you (e.g., “seismic waves,” “carbon sequestration,” “half-life,” or “correlation”) may be jargon to others.

Communication aimed at policymakers should also be concise and well-organized, as your audience is likely absorbing considerable new information. In general, use concrete, real world examples to illustrate your empirical points, particularly examples in narrative form. Quantitative information presented visually, through the use of graphics, tends to be better understood and retained than comparable information presented in tables. Finally, to ensure a key point is not only understood but remembered, use repetition: state it toward the beginning of your communication and repeat it at least once.

Making Your Point

At least a dozen Members of Congress and staff stressed the importance of using concise and colloquial language when communicating with policymakers. Additional suggestions included focusing on problems and solutions and structuring memos so that they begin with your recommendation, followed by well-organized supporting information.

Be Relevant

Experts should communicate the importance of the topic at hand. First, be sure you have an answer to the question: Why should I care? As discussed previously, communications aimed at policymakers should be in sync with their goals as legislators and representatives. Second, briefly state why your topic is important explicitly and up front, using it to frame your communication.

You can increase interest by using examples that will resonate with policymakers and their staff, such as references to their district or topics linked to their committee work. For example, if you want to highlight the positive economic impact of some type of investment in scientific research, don’t just focus on GDP; discuss likely economic benefits to the policymaker’s home state or region.

Narratives, or stories, are another technique to increase the impact of your communication. Well-chosen narratives not only aid understanding and demonstrate relevance, they also can evoke empathy. For example, you might tell the story of one person or community affected by an environmental problem. If you are seeking funding, you could tell the story of what drew you to your area of study or the story of a previous researcher in your field whose publicly funded research led to a breakthrough with great public utility. This said, be sure to employ narratives ethically. Illustrative examples should reflect typical experiences or outcomes, not unusual ones. To make this clear, follow up your story with relevant quantitative data on the phenomenon.3

Be Human

A number of Members and staff noted the importance of storytelling and emotion in persuasive communication. Stories help policymakers see the human implications of scientific topics. Some of those stories may even be about your own experiences.

Communicate Credibility

Whether you are perceived as a credible expert depends on several factors, including your educational credentials, your grant and publication record, the reputation of your employer, and (if relevant) your track record advising policymakers. You should not feel shy about (briefly) discussing or otherwise conveying your qualifications and subject expertise if you feel those credentials are not apparent.

Policymakers, especially staff, will often look over written communications for signals that the information can be trusted.4 Are the claims well-cited? Are the citations to peer-reviewed literature? Is a short “one-pager” or policy memo supported by a longer, traditional research report? Does the scholar make available information on the study’s funders? Your perceived credibility also depends on interpersonal and other social phenomena.

  1. In addition, if your affiliation with a particular organization or institution is known to your conversation partners, make sure you know that entity’s position on the issues you are discussing. If your personal opinion differs (or if the entity does not have a position) on certain topics, either do not opine on those topics or explain that you are not speaking on behalf of the entity.
  2. For further reading on ethical communication, see Keohane, Lane, & Oppenheimer’s “The Ethics of Scientific Communication Under Uncertainty” Politics, Philosophy, & Economics (2014); Fischhoff & Davis’ “Communicating Scientific Uncertainty” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (2014); and Gerken’s “Expert Trespassing Testimony and the Ethics of Science Communication” Journal for General Philosophy of Science (2018).
  3. On the utility of narratives see Brownson, Dodson, Kerner & Moreland-Russell’s “Framing Research for State Policymakers Who Place a Priority on Cancer” Cancer Causes & Control (2016); with respect to relevance, see Blair’s “Congress’s Own Think Tank: Learning From the Legacy of the Office of Technology Assessment” Science & Public Policy (2013).
  4. Anderson provides a helpful framework for how laypeople can make reliable second-order assessments of scientific consensus in “Democracy, Public Policy, and Lay Assessments of Scientific Testimony” Episteme (2011).