What is science policy?

“An area of public policy concerned with the policies that affect the conduct of the science and research enterprise, including the funding of science…; also refers to the act of applying scientific knowledge and consensus to the development of public policies.”

 

ϮOften, when not organized, science and policy have trouble communicating with each other; not surprisingly because they seem to be two very different cultures:

SCIENCE

 

POLICY

Often very long

Time horizon

Often very short

Seeks precision

Language

Seeks flexibility

Scientific jargon

Lexicon

Policy jargon

Tolerant

Uncertainty

Discomfort

Peers

Audience

Public

Horizontal

Accountability

Vertical

Specialists

Practitioners

Generalists

Usually open

Transparency

Often closed

30 years

Tenure

30 months

In the regions

Location

At HQ (“Ottawa”)

 Ϯ The onus is on both sides to make the relationship work between science and policy, which involves learning how each other operate and how to speak the other sides’ language and communication style.

  • Science wants clear questions; provides thorough and precise research; can be lengthy to conduct 
  • Policy needs quick facts, in a simpler language, delivered in a timely manner; often with many competing interests

Ϯ Bringing issues forward

It is best to be concise and realize that your issue will pass through many filters before reaching the intended recipient.

Identify the knowledge system in which your issue takes place. A basic system may look like this:

Knowledge generation < --- > Societal decisions

EXERCISE

  •  Pick the issue: be specific, state exactly what you want

*Practice formulating an issue on which to advocate for or around which policy can be developed.

e.g., Highlighting the importance of mental health research funding in Canada; more funding for psychology research

  •      What does the issue in the system currently look like? Who is involved?

e.g., Two general parties are involved in the system. Decision-making bodies: granting councils (i.e., SSHRC, CIHR, NSERC), community stakeholders (i.e., general public, knowledge users) who exercise voting power or are influenced by policy. Scientific community: psychology/mental health researchers, academia, clinical psychologists.

The system is complicated; we do not all know how the system works as a whole and within the other part of the system (i.e., researchers are not necessarily familiar with the internal processes of the granting councils; granting councils are not necessarily familiar with the needs of the scientific community or how to communicate with them).

  •       Who needs to know what in the system that they currently do not know?

*Target your issue more specifically; pick one thing that could be improved.

e.g., The scientific community needs to know that there are many competing interests for funding. As well, young researchers do not necessarily know how the funding process works, how decisions are being made, how funding is decided, how to get involved in the decision-making process, or how to get more targeted funding.

  •        Why do they not know this already? (What is missing from the knowledge system?)

           What can we do to change the landscape on a broader level?

*Very important to remain concise in this message; these will often be the “talking points” you use to convey the important elements of your issue to key decision-makers.

*Identify the incremental changes that need to take place to nudge the system towards a slightly better state. (It is important to remember that you will never have a perfect system, but you can try to make it better one step at a time).

e.g., Trainees and young researchers are not necessarily aware that they can be involved in the funding process. It is important to get information back to researchers about what is available; the information is available on the decision-making side and there is a need to know on the scientific community side. BUT there is a gap in communication for this information. Who is responsible for transmitting the information? A trifecta solution that involves individual researchers, granting councils, and institutions (academic and other public institutions, like hospitals) might be able to fill the gap.

The onus is on the researcher to seek out the information; however, granting councils can do their part to create easier access to the information, targeting young researchers to get involved in the process (e.g., decision committees). As well, every university typically has a granting council delegate. They can become more active in translating this information to researchers and students and making the information readily available in an active way by advertising the information more explicitly. 

Ϯ What a BRIEFING NOTE might look like:

An example structure for transmitting issues for policy consideration; it is a tool to communicate with the system (e.g., politicians, other government officials) in a concrete manner:

*Indicate at the top of the (one page or less) document whether the brief is “for information” or “for decision”

*When speaking directly with decision-makers (and often your time is very limited):

- clearly identify the key message and/or the key ask (give an option or two)

- try to link your specific issues to the broader issues at play (consider the context of the decision in that time-frame)

- find links between your issues and the issues they are currently dealing with

- find the leverage point; engage the public domain to help convey your issues because politicians are not always available; politicians also like to hear how specific issues impact their constituents

*Remember that policy “templates” do not fit all problems. These can be used as guidelines, but there are no guaranteed approaches that will fit all issues.

  1. State the issue: be succinct; one or two phrases
  2. Provide background information on the issue; again, be brief, only provide the necessary contextual issues
  3. List the considerations: implications, impacts; be brief yet again
  4. Conclusion: Very briefly summarize the issue and the response/action your issue requires

Useful skills for early-career science policy workers

  • Science networking (knowing who to go to for what issues and why)
  • Ability to explain science to the general public or to persons with no science background
  • Ability to communicate with different audiences
  • Get involved with the associations in your specialty
  • Invite MP/MPP/other government employees to do a lab tour; make yourself available as an expert (i.e., someone they know they can consult on issues in your specialty)
  • Go to events, conferences you would not normally attend
  • Write an editorial for a big newspaper, somewhere that could have an impact
  • Attend local toastmasters clubs to develop speaking skills

Four (4) things to keep in mind with policy work:

  1. Know the information
  2. Know who needs to get the information
  3. Know how to “sell” the information
  4. Be sensitive to the timing of the issue

 

Ϯ = Adapted from Science Policy 101 workshop, by Jeff Kinder (NRCAN), Canadian Science Policy Conference 2011; Ottawa, ON