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Communicating in a Political Context

Remember Science is One INput of Many in the Policy Process

Many factors in addition to scientific conclusions shape policy outcomes, and this is a feature, not a flaw, of our government.1 Consider that there are always many serious problems - and opportunities - facing the country (and world) simultaneously. Yet, governmental time and resources are finite. This means that difficult decisions must be made about what to prioritize. Further, there normally are multiple avenues for addressing any given challenge, introducing debates not only over which method is most efficient but also which method is most appropriate given policymakers’ - and their constituents’ - value commitments.

For example, some may prefer state-level to federal-level intervention (or vice versa); some may believe that government should not be involved at all and things are better left to industry or the not-for-profit sector.

Other factors that influence legislative decisions are more controversial, such as professional advancement, party loyalties, and donors and other powerful outside interests. Political scientists have documented the fact that political parties, businesses, and affluent individuals have become more influential in government in recent years.2

While conclusions based on research in the natural, physical, and social sciences are not the only legitimate influences on policy, they are critical to sound policymaking. Our interview and survey data suggest that more communications by scientists and other technical experts themselves will help policymakers to better recognize the benefits of evidence-based policy and make expert perspectives harder to ignore.

Respond to Political Diversity Productively

While we are living through politically polarized and contentious times, we advise the scientific community to continue to engage with a wide range of policymakers. Prioritize your engagement - for example, spending less time with individuals with well-known resistance to priorities you are championing. But do not interpret lack of interest or resistance in one area as a lack of interest in science or expertise more generally.

Avoid stereotypes

One Congressmember expressed frustration that some people lump politicians with a wide range of views together into simple categories, such as “climate change deniers.” Such assumptions, especially when accompanied by name calling, tend to prevent productive conversation.

As you engage with diverse policymakers, you may choose to tailor your communications to highlight local impacts and shared values. It is often best to craft a message using subtle frames that evoke multiple, widely shared, values - such as public health, safety, and overall well-being; economic growth and progress; national security; or American leadership - and then shift your emphasis as needed to better appeal to a specific audience.3 This said, it is unethical to tailor your communications in a way that exaggerates or obscures aspects of your research agenda, findings, or policy proposal. From a more pragmatic perspective, narrowly tailored messages may backfire if you have made a problematic assumption about what your audience values, leading you to miss an opportunity and perhaps even alienate your listener. For example, despite party stereotypes, Democratic and Republican policymakers both tend to find arguments about public health and economic growth appealing, and both care about the costs of potential actions. Also, consider the possibility that staff members with whom you are meeting may hold a somewhat different value set than the official for whom they work.

The party line

The “party line” isn’t always what you think. In our interviews, Members of Congress and staff from both parties mentioned working on legislation that would improve the economy, environment, and public health. And every one of our bipartisan interviewees supported science and the scientific community.

Finally, there are some topics that are known to be controversial, or at least controversial with particular audiences. Avoid raising controversial issues that are irrelevant to the topic at hand. If you find yourself in an unproductive exchange, try to “agree to disagree” and move on, especially if it is not central to the discussion. Of course, sometimes points of controversy are integral to a topic. Strategies for more productive conversations under these circumstances include anticipating, and preparing answers to, likely counterarguments; asking questions to identify precisely where disagreements lie; and waiting to discuss controversial topics until after common ground has been established. You might also make sure your meeting is private and confidential, which will encourage frank exchange.

  1. To understand better why multiple inputs into the policymaking process are legitimate and necessary, see Evans et al.’s “Embrace Complexity to Improve Conservation Decision-Making” Nature Ecology & Evolution (2017) and Montuschi’s “Using Science, Making Policy: What Should We Worry About?” European Journal for Philosophy of Science (2017).
  2. For example, see Frances Lee’s Insecure Majorities (2016, Chicago); Martin Gilens’ Affluence & Influence (2012, Princeton); Benjamin Page, Jason Seawright, and Matthew Lacombe’s Billionaires and Stealth Politics (2019, Chicago); and Lee Drutman’s The Business of America is Lobbying (2015, Oxford).
  3. For a general overview of framing scientific research, see McKaughan & Elliot’s “Voles, Vasopressin, and the Ethics of Framing” Science (2012) and Nisbet & Mooney’s “Framing Science” Science (2007).