Disseminate the scientists—and the science will follow (Richard Andersson, December 2014)

Richard Andersson, a postdoctoral researcher in neurobiology from Stockholm, is worried about the gap between politics and science. How do we empower decision makers to make choices about our future which are based on science and logic?

Richard Andersson is a postdoctoral researcher at Karolinska Institutet, department of Neurobiology, Care sciences and Society, Alzheimer Research Center.

Richard Andersson is a postdoctoral neuroscientist at Karolinska Institutet. He is also one of the founders of Science Policy Lab.

The world is facing huge problems without straight-forward solutions. We will have to rely on science and innovation to solve them. But how do we disseminate science into the halls of power? My answer is: we need to disseminate the scientists!

Let me explain. Many of us – including myself – have turned to science advocacy and science communication because we believe that promoting and disseminating science will empower decision makers and the public to tackle complex societal challenges. Problems such as climate change, poverty, aging populations, food-security, infectious diseases, and urban over-crowding need a systematic and dynamic data-driven approach in order to understand what is working and why. In other words we need to apply the scientific method to solve these pressing issues.

But how receptive are decision-makers to scientific advice? I think a central problem is that scientific advice can often come across as abstract and impractical when it comes from a science professor. Improving the communication skills of academicians might help somewhat. However, even the best communicators will in some respect not bridge the gap because it is not single messages that need to be transmitted on occasion but an entire world-view.

One example that would perhaps illustrate this point is the climate-change problem. While there is an overwhelming consensus among scientists that we have to mitigate the effects, there is still significant resistance to tackle this challenge. The reason? The warnings are taken not seriously in the halls of power because most people working there don’t have a science background.

The scientists need to be part of the group that makes decisions. When they offer their perspective while fully informed about the situation the advice is more likely to be taken seriously than if it comes from the outside.

Science is what tells us how the world works and we can’t afford to have it be a blind spot anymore. It is time to climb down from the ivory tower and get science in to the board room.

Richard Andersson
Science Policy Lab

4 replies
  1. Julien
    Julien says:

    I am a scientist (PhD in neuroscience) and would love to transition to policy, help to make a change, and have a real impact on society and health problems. However, I don’t really know where to start, and I would appreciate any advice in that matter.
    Thank you!

  2. Olle Bergman
    Olle Bergman says:

    Hi Julien,
    As a communicator, I would point out three things which you surely could make use of:

    • Study some rhetorics – this book is a good start:

    • Learn to write op-ed’s and press releases

    • Start hanging out in the right discussion groups where you build ethos, respect and credibility by _sharing_ stuff and being focused on matters important to the group, rather than yourself. Always be polite, and never, ever push the Publish button when you are affected by strong feelings.

    That’s my 25 cents. What do you say, Richard?

  3. Richard H. Andersson
    Richard H. Andersson says:

    These are great recommendations from Olle. I don’t have a lot of time to write now, and I would really ike to develop a full length article about this topic but right now I would recomment the following 3 things:

    1) Build Knowledge. Find out what the “policy landscape” is where you want to be active. That is figure out how decisions are made in the field of interest. Typically goventment agencies and universities publish reports which is a great source of insight. Find out which actors are important. This could be funding agencies, regulatory boards, university boards, think-tanks, NGO:s science advocacy organisations, patient advicacy organizations etc.

    2) Pick a mission. As you learn more about the policy area of interest you will start to develop understanding as well as opinions (assuming you don’t have a cause already). It is a good idea to focus your efforts into a set number of goals so that you can prioritize what to read, where to go, who to meet. When you have a mission you can also figure out which organizations have goals similar to yours.

    3) Build a prescence. When you have knowledge and some degree of focus it is time to meet people. Many goverment agencies have open seminars where they present their reports. It is informative to attend these if they fall in your area of interest. They are also great places to network. Combine your physical presence with a presence online. You can blog about the developments in your “mission area” or about the seminars or about the situation in your field of research. Stay informed, polite and accurate and tie your blog posts in to the ongoing debate by citing relevant sources and commenting threads.

    You can reiterate these 3 steps in order to develop your policy presence and competence. It is presence, recognition and respect that will inspire organizations in the policy field to hire you. They always need people with intelligent perspectives that can reach out.


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