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Science communication and policy making

by on 2019/05/08

The Young Academy of Scotland (YAS) is today launching an exciting new project that will bring politicians and academics together. Five YAS members will shadow their respective MSPs at Holyrood and in their constituency. The politicians will then visit the academics at their institutions. Through this approach each member of the pair will gain an understanding on how the other part works and what challenges they face. You can follow all the action on social media with this hashtag #YASMSPPairing. The scheme is inspired by the well-established and highly successful annual pairing initiative organised at Westminster by The Royal Society, in which I was lucky to participate during 2017. (See picture with paired MP, Stephen Gethins.)

The single most important thing that I took away from this experience is the complexity around evidence-based policy making and how well this aligns with the core mission of our blog. Here at Research the Headlines, we focus on how research is reported in the media. The main issues we tend to cover are exaggeration and sensationalism, together with over-simplification and selectivity. These are some of the ingredients used to build stories aimed at attracting readers. While it is great to make science exciting and accessible, quite often accuracy is lost and there are dangers of gross misinterpretations. The typical example is reporting relative risk in terms of absolute risk, which results in the magnification of otherwise negligible effects. See, for example, the misinterpretation of autism risk associated with c-section. Sensational headlines can have huge impact on public opinion with unexpected and occasionally catastrophic consequences. A case in point: the emergency we are facing due to lowered vaccination rates, fueled by media spin around the link between vaccines and autism.

Although the primary reason I joined this blog is my commitment to the promotion of accurate science reporting, it was not until I took part to the Westminster pairing scheme that I fully grasped the role that science communication can play in policy making. Up until then, I imagined that the key step would be providing the necessary evidence to the policy makers: they would be the ones who needed to be convinced by accessible, effectively presented facts. But things are not so simple. Politicians are elected upon their manifesto and when elected they need to respect their mandate. So, even if facts reach and convince them they may not take action, if their electorate remains unconvinced. Brexit, perhaps, provides a prime example – impact assessments do not predict positive outcomes associated with any type of Brexit for the economy, public sectors, businesses, research and international stand of the UK. And yet, Brexit must happen in order to respect the preference of electorate. Expert and informed opinion has clearly been dismissed. One question we could ask is whether facts could have been communicated in different ways at the time of the debate?

The Extinction Rebellion movement by climate activists has demonstrated alternative, creative strategies that may be able to offer more effective ways of communication. Scientists have been predicting the climate emergency for decades but very few measures have been implemented as a consequence of their reports and standard channels of communication. The activists are certainly raising the profile of the climate emergency and, despite the disruption they are creating, public support of the cause appears to be growing maybe more inspired by their commitment then the scientific data.

Our new YAS pairing scheme will give members to opportunity to learn about the intricacy of policy making, and understand better how to contribute to the process. There is no easy fix, but certainly  science communication beyond the academic sphere is a key step. Prof Andy Gardner, who is leading this initiative, has reinforced this commitment: “The motivation for this pairing scheme is that scientists have previously had opportunities to shadow parliamentarians at Westminster but not at the Scottish Parliament. We’re resolving this imbalance and, indeed, we’re going further, extending the opportunity not just to scientists but also to the whole of the academy. Our ultimate goal is to facilitate evidence-based policy making by building mutual understanding and lasting professional relationships between the academic and political worlds.”

Now more than ever it is important to establish trust, respect and positive channels of communication between experts and broader audiences. It is also important to remember that communications work better when information travels both ways. Scientists and experts should not limit their role within educational activities, but learn to have listening ears ready to capture questions, priorities and ideas from their audiences.

Ultimately, science move forward through evidence, while politics advances by consensus. Real progress might happen by building consensus around evidence. We are excited to see YAS creating a platform to pave the way to dialogue. We wish successful partnership to all participants.

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