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Scientists, policymakers need to talk

/ 04:20 AM April 19, 2020

In the halls of academia, it is not uncommon to hear scientists bemoan the lack of appreciation by policymakers of their research work. A professor from a state university once told me in exasperation that he gave up on interacting with politicians. As an academic, I can identify with his frustration.

Conversely, who can forget the words of one of our legislators chastising hapless government technicians for being “crazy” about research? As head of an NGO seeking to translate scientific findings to concrete action, I actually understand her impatience, because the fruits of research do not always lead to immediate application.

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Part of the disconnect is that the scientific community speaks a different language than policymakers. Yes, they may both be speaking the queen’s English, but the meanings of words are just different. Two articles tried to address this disconnect by giving tips to both communities so that they can decipher what the other is talking about.

The first paper appeared in the journal Nature in 2013. According to Sutherland and cowriters, policymakers need to understand the imperfect nature of science. They offered 20 tips to help policymakers make sense of what scientists are trying to say. For example, policymakers must remember that correlation does not necessarily mean causation. For example, our country’s population is highly correlated with my age, but clearly one is not causing the other.

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In response to the Nature article, Chris Tyler published a complementary piece in The Guardian, suggesting 20 things scientists need to know about policymaking. As an example, scientists need to know that policymakers are not interested in science per se, but scientific evidence that can help them make better decisions. And so when meeting with decision-makers, scientists should refrain from digressing into methodological details and other hardcore science issues that may detract from the main message.

While I don’t have 20 tips to offer, I do have a few nuggets of wisdom to share, gleaned from my years as a climate scientist with the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change and from the work we do at the Oscar M. Lopez Center.

To policymakers, if you take the time to ask, you will find a scientist who will take the time and effort to answer. Like any first-time acquaintance, conversations will need warming up, so don’t quit in the first five minutes (or the first five pages). If you get past this, you might realize that sometimes, we don’t really need to “dumb down” and laymanize everything. We just need to translate from the scientist’s English into the politician’s English.

To fellow scientists, if you invest in the time to work with a politician, you will find that they can be great allies. After all, as Tyler said in his article, politicians are experts, too, so they are kindred spirits in a way. As much as you hope politicians would have an appreciation for science, scientists must also learn to appreciate the complexities and difficulties of policymaking. For the sake of the nation, policymakers cannot ignore scientists, and vice-versa.

The pursuit of national and sustainable development could be accelerated if our legislators and policy implementers learn to effectively communicate with our scientists and technical experts. As the world becomes more globalized and as we face planetary-scale environmental challenges, decision-makers are faced with complexities never before experienced. Used properly, science is a powerful tool that could pave the way to wiser decisions.

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Dr. Rodel D. Lasco is a member of the National Academy of Science and Technology (NAST) of the Philippines. He is the executive director of The OML Center, a foundation devoted to discovering climate change adaptation solutions (http://www.omlopezcenter.org/).

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TAGS: Commentary, policy makers, Roel D. Lasco, scientific community
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