Script Practical Guide

How to brief policymakers on science issues

Speed read

  • Make the best use of every minute with policymakers
  • Don’t wait till your study is completed
  • Policymakers can notice you through the media

By: Bernard Appiah

As a researcher, you have conducted scientific research and you have produced findings that have implications for policymaking. These findings, and their implications, need to get to policymakers. This is because communicating science to policymakers enables them to use the information to make decisions that could have benefits for society. However, many policymakers don’t have a scientific background. How, then, should you communicate your findings to them?

This article focuses on factors that scientists should consider when communicating science to policymakers.

Who are policymakers?

Many different individuals work in government and decision-making institutions, including parliaments, local governments, non-governmental organizations, international agencies, and professional associations. Such individuals, including presidents, parliamentarians and ministers, are said to be policymakers.

The right time to engage policymakers

It’s important to know when to engage with policymakers, and how much time they are likely to have for interacting with scientists. These are the two main factors that could help you to effectively communicate science to policymakers.

Morankar Sudhakar, a professor of health behaviour and society at Jimma University in Ethiopia, advises scientists to start engaging with policymakers early on in their research. Sudhakar is the director of Jimma University Rapid Review Response Centre, which often conducts applied research and engages with policymakers.

“When we want to engage with policymakers, we involve them at the beginning of the research process,” says Sudhakar.

He criticizes scientists who wait until their research findings are available before engaging policymakers. He argues that the ultimate goal of a researcher is to use research findings to modify or implement policies. Therefore, it is necessary to involve policymakers early during the conceptualization phase.

“We involve policymakers in all the research processes, from planning to campaigns with communities,” he says.

He adds that early engagement with policymakers ensures that they won’t be surprised when the results are made available. This makes it easier for them to use these results in decision-making.

Policymakers are busy

Given how busy policymakers are, you will need to make your communication with them clear and concise.

Heather Beem, founder and chief executive officer of the Ghana-based Practical Education Network, recounts how difficult it is to meet policymakers. Beem’s organization empowers science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) teachers in material resource­limited settings to engage their students in practical learning.

“If you go through the normal process of submitting your letter to meet with them, it can take months before anybody reaches back to you,” Beem says. “But even when you get that meeting, you may only have only five minutes to communicate with them.”

The scientist’s perspective may not always be accepted

Communicating science to policymakers does not guarantee that your science-based advice will influence policy decisions. Thomas Amatey Tagoe, a neuroscientist and head of operations at GhScientific, a Ghana-based non-profit that promotes public engagement with science, captures this fact vividly:

“We were invited by a government institution to present perspectives and lessons learned on a particular science issue. We felt the meeting was very productive and well received. A few months later, we found that action was taken, and it was not what we had advised or suggested,” says Tagoe. “I reflect on that now and I conclude that … the scientist’s perspective is just one factor that is considered by policymakers in a myriad of other factors.”

Tagoe adds that decision-making involves feelings: the advice may be right, but decision-making is not always rational.

“A lot of research has provided data that seems to suggest that we think a little bit with our heart. It is not always with our heads,” he explains.

Thus, he is not surprised when policymakers do not always consider some scientific facts, despite having engaged with them.

“The way in which we as scientists may push back when decisions that don’t seem to be grounded in scientific facts are made by policymakers can have a bearing on how we can subsequently influence such changes,” he cautions.

Strategies for communicating science to policymakers

So, after considering all the above factors, you have decided to go ahead and engage with policymakers. Here are the top six strategies for doing so.

  • Make yourself available

Scientists should highlight and promote what they do, advises Thomas Amatey Tagoe of GhScientific.

People in policy are looking for answers to problems, and when there is someone who is readily available to provide the insights they need, policymakers are likely to contact them. However, if it is hard for policymakers to find you, then it is unlikely that they will contact you.

One way to make yourself available is to highlight what you do, especially through the mass media. If you comment on scientific issues that are relevant to policymaking via the mass media, the audience – including policymakers – will get to know about your work.

  • Use a policy brief

You should identify key policymakers who could benefit from your findings, and then craft policy briefs targeted at them. When writing such briefs, you should ensure that a policymaker can quickly identify the main points of your message.

While providing the rationale for your study can help policymakers understand the context of your findings, resist the temptation to provide too much information. You don’t want policymakers to bin your treasure! Remember that policymakers don’t have much time, and so you want to quickly get the message to them.

“It’s not just policymakers. Everyone’s attention span is so small so you have to try and catch people’s attention quickly,” says Heather Beem of the Practical Education Network.

  • Don’t overwhelm the policy brief with data

It is also key to ensure that the data does not overwhelm policymakers. For example, Beem describes policy briefs — a one-page brief and a five-page brief — that the Network created on STEM education.

“We tried to make them very visual. For example, the one-page document had pictures, quotes and the data had a colourful graph so it doesn’t look so intimidating. It is inviting to look at,” she explains.

It is good practice to have an individual from your key audience review the policy brief before producing it. This helps you to ensure it’s culturally appropriate, relevant, clear and understandable. If you are a fan of “big” terms or acronyms, remember that you are not the audience. Ensure that you don’t overload your policy brief with such terms and with many acronyms.

Keep in mind that you have to be concise. Ensure that you focus more on your key findings, and why policymakers should care about them. Providing accurate and unbiased information will also help your cause, especially in terms of building trust with policymakers.

Morankar Sudhakar, from Jimma University, calls on doctoral students in African universities to be trained in how to write and use policy briefs so that they can better engage with policymakers.

  • Establish formal or informal relationships with policymakers

Thomas Amatey Tagoe of GhScientific says that connecting informally with policymakers can have some benefits. “It makes everything else easier. Your policymakers are not machines. They are people.” He explains. “We engage better with people we know.”

As you get to know your policymakers, you can leverage those relationships to get your scientific findings to them.

Heather Beem of the Practical Education Network adds that knowing people who can directly request a meeting with policymakers can also be helpful.

  • Use social media

While publishing in peer-reviewed journals can help you reach other scientists, policymakers may not read these publications. GhScientific’s Tagoe advises researchers to find creative ways of sharing their work on social media after publishing in journals.

“There are lots of government appointees or policymakers on social media. Some are actively making sure that they are connected to people within their constituencies,” he explains. “Just publish it online, and find them in their social media and tag them directly.”

But he cautions that some politicians have social media accounts that are managed by other people. This can make it difficult to reach them directly. Nevertheless, Tagoe suggests that tagging politicians’ social media accounts with some key findings might eventually catch their attention.

  • Invite policymakers to attend meetings, but also follow up with them

Getting a platform to communicate with policymakers should be on scientists’ radar. Policymakers can be invited to attend dissemination meetings.

Heather Beem of the Practical Education Network explains: “With the impact study that we did, we held an event with at least 80 people. We invited quite a number of key people within the ministry of education and other ministries. But most of those high-ranking people didn’t come to that event. At best they sent someone else from within their office.”

Beem followed up with the representatives to find out what else her institution could do to make the directors aware of the issues that were discussed.

“This enabled us to get one of those deputy ministers to attend another presentation,” she recalls.

  • Go to the policymakers

It is not enough to invite policymakers to attend meetings that you have organized. You should also go to them. If you are lucky, policymakers will invite you, as happened with GhScientific’s Thomas Amatey Tagoe. But you can also request an appointment with members of parliament, for example. Some politicians are eager to hear more from their constituents such as you! Why not take the opportunity? But don’t go with empty hands: you should at least have some copies of policy briefs to share and leave behind.

Some final thoughts

Celebrate when policymakers use your findings when making their decisions. But if policymakers don’t use your work too, don’t lose heart.

As a scientist, your overall goal is to impact lives positively.

“From my perspective, I think that policy has its place. It is important but we also can’t wait for policymakers to decide what they are working on,” the Practical Education Network’s Heather Beem says. “We have to keep pushing the agenda forward, and making impacts, and then as the impacts become more evident, it becomes easier to drive the policy conversation.”