Science communication key to policy development

By Ruth Klinkhammer
CMC Communications Director

As an undergraduate, I had a communications professor who loved to say “You cannot not communicate.” Despite, or perhaps because of, the double negative she drove her point home.  Communication is an inescapable part of life.

So it was not surprising that the subject wove that its way through many of the panels at the 4th annual Canadian Science Policy Conference held in early November at the Telus Spark Science Centre in Calgary.

The conference brought together a renowned group of national and international panelists to examine the science, policy and innovation nexus. Integral to this effort is communication – between scientists, policy makers, elected officials, industry stakeholders, NGOs and, of course, the public.

More public awareness needed

While discussion focused on policy and science, conversation also circled around the need for better communication efforts, especially between those working in science and the public. In the Monday morning panel Fundamental Research as a Driver for Long-Term Canadian Innovation, Tony McBride, Director of the Royal Society’s Science Policy Centre, noted it was important for the science policy community to develop a more credible account of the role of science in Canada’s future. Government, industry and the public should be aware that scientific activity can and does lead to societal gain.

In that same session, Robin Winsor, President and CEO of Cybera, said there is a lack of public relations efforts from people practicing basic science. Winsor reiterated McBride’s message by saying the story of science and benefits that innovation/commercialization bring to society should be more widely known.

In the afternoon, at the Science and Government session, Alan McHughen, a Jefferson Science Fellow with the U.S. Department of State, also said the public needs to better understand science. “Public opinion drives policy . . . we need public understanding of science for good policy.”

Moving communication efforts forward

Several experts offered their opinion on how to bridge the communication gap between scientists and industry/government/public stakeholders.

One strategy, identified by Preston Manning, CEO of the Manning Centre for Building Democracy, was that scientists, on publication of a research paper also draft three one-page briefs – one aimed at investors, one for politicians, and one for the media. Why three pieces? To be effective, said Manning, messages need to be tailored to the specific needs and language of each audience.

At the same evening plenary session Eric Newell, former Chair and CEO of Syncrude, discussed the importance of tailoring messages to the needs of audiences. Scientists, he suggested, should be explicit about the benefits research will bring to society – people need to know what the real-life impacts will be.

But communicating science involves more than talking about and writing research stories. It’s also about getting the public involved in and excited about science through engagement. At the Thinking Big session Rob Annan, Director of Policy Research and Evaluation for Mitacs, reviewed efforts to make math more relevant to youth through Math Out Loud, a Mitacs initiative using theatre to show connections between math and everyday life. These kinds of hands-on programs foster science literacy in youth and may also encourage them to choose careers in science.

Final thoughts

In the end, science communication is part of complicated and integrated web. Public acceptance does help move policy forward, but gaining that support is not as simple as embarking on a program of education. Providing more information about a particular science or technology will not necessarily lead to approval. A wide variety of factors, including values, religious beliefs and personal experience, are involved in decision-making processes.

This does not mean that efforts to communicate exciting new advances in science and technology are ineffective. It does mean that expectations should be realistic; there are limits to what can be achieved in terms of influencing public opinion.

Science is fun and exciting and, at times, mind-boggling. Science stories and hands-on activities can instill a sense of wonder and fascination out of which flow multiple benefits. They can boost science literacy. They entice people into science careers. And, in the end, they may advance policy efforts by creating a public that values and supports science because people understand its relevancy to everyday life.