Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Playing the Game

I just read a very insightful op-ed piece from The Guardian, in which the author explains to scientists the process that goes into policy-making and why scientists may often feel that their contributions are ignored.  

Many of the commenters on the article got caught up in point 9: “Economics and law are top dog in policy advice” and began vilifying the author for suggesting that scientists need to play the political game if they want their research to influence policy.  I know a lot of scientists who would rather work in silos, publishing their work, shoving it in the direction of policy-makers, and then going back to their labs.

Disclaimer: I am a scientist; I’m finishing my PhD in biochemistry right now.  I am also beginning to work in policy.  My job at my organization is to gather the evidence and brief my non-scientist supervisors.  Here’s what I’ve learned about playing the game:

  1. If you’re a scientist and you’re making important contributions to your field, and these contributions should influence policy, then it is your responsibility to make sure that your evidence is getting to the right people.  The lines of communication between research and policy need to go both ways.  I have attended several conferences in which top researchers seem to have so much disdain for communicating their research to people who are not in their fields.  This is not helpful.  It keeps scientists in their ivory towers and alienates people who want to use this evidence to inform policy-making.  It keeps people intimidated by scientists and afraid of science.  That’s a very bad thing! 
  2. It is naive to assume that scientific evidence should be held to a higher standard by non-scientists than economic, social, and political issues.  Again, we as scientists cling to this notion that science is king, and nothing else should matter.  In some cases that is true, but in others, we really could lighten up.  For example, with climate change (bear with me): It’s pretty clear that climate change is our fault as human beings, that was denied for a long time by politicians, but I don’t think many of them are denying that anymore.  And the problem is that it’s already too late for us to reverse it.  What we need to do is mitigate the damages we’ve caused – by reducing greenhouse gas emissions, working on ecosystem conservation projects, buying locally, etc.  The answer for a scientist is simple: cut back on greenhouse gas emissions.  Boom.  Problem mitigated.  That probably means cutting back on resource extraction, manufacturing and shipping, large monoculture farms, to name a few.  I’m not a climate scientist, so this information comes from my friends who are a little more eco-conscious than I am.  A policy-maker needs to look at a situation like climate change and think not only about the scientific/environmental implications, but also the implications on the people who will lost their jobs and their livelihoods, as well as the current political agenda.  Policy-makers have to juggle all of these factors and make the best decision possible – and that often depends on the people providing the context for these decisions.
  3. When I write grant applications, I always have to situate my research into the broader global context.  My work could lead to making GMO versions of crops that are really important to the Canadian economy – so I’m feeding the world and making Canada richer!  See what I did there?  Scientists need to communicate the context of their research, along with the research.  You can’t just say “I found this, it’s important because SCIENCE!”  We’ve all read those studies about bird migration or frog mating, and the common theme in the comments is “Who cares?/Why are we funding this?/go cure cancer!  That’s because the context isn’t there.  Yes, those studies are extremely important to science because the advancement of science for the sake of science is important.  But to people who don’t understand why that’s important (some of whom are policy-makers, I’m sorry to say), we need to give a context.  Research in bird migration contributes to ecosystem management, maybe the research in frog mating gives us a clue about heritable disease resistance – I’m just speculating here (because I’m not an ecologist), but giving a broader context for scientific research helps non-scientists understand why scientific evidence is important and should ALWAYS be considered in decision-making. 
  4. You have a better chance of being listened to if you’re playing the political game.  There’s been a ton of research coming out of Vancouver on the benefits of the supervised injection facility Insite.  Now, I’m not here to argue ideology (we can definitely have that discussion some other time though!).  But you really can’t ignore the evidence when it is placed in a context that non-scientists can understand.  For example, lots of research has shown that supervised injection facilities are extremely cost-effective.  The one in Vancouver prevents 35 new cases of HIV and 3 deaths per year, and provides a social benefit of $6 million per year (after factoring in its $3 million annual operation).  For context, Canada spends $2.3 billion on drug-related law enforcement and $1.1 billion in drug-related healthcare costs annually.  Seems pretty clear that keeping Insite open would save the Canadian government quite a bit of cash!  Now, the Canadian government is choosing to ignore these facts, but the point is they’re out there, they’re put in a context, and people are listening.  Several public health organizations are getting involved in the fight against closing Insite.  This is informing an evidence-informed advocacy initiative that probably won’t work with the Harper government, but may work in the future.  If we never provided any type of context for this information - if all we said is, yeah, Insite prevents new cases of HIV, we would only be dismissed.

I of all people can completely understand the frustration of watching your government ignore sound scientific evidence in favour of policies based in ideology.  But scientists have to take some responsibility for the way they present their findings.  Scientists: if you want your research to influence policy, then YOU need to open the lines of communication with policy-makers.  There is so much information out there right now; it’s easy for a non-scientist to get bogged down in what’s legit evidence and what isn’t.  Make it easier for them by communicating your research in an accessible way.  You’re the expert, now mobilize that knowledge!