Interested in getting into science policy? Keep this expert advice in mind

Published: February 12, 2023

By Gavin M. Douglas, Science & Policy Exchange (SPE)

If you are like me, you might be interested in science policy, but are unsure about what policy work involves in practice. A recent panel at the Canadian Science Policy Conference provided some insight on this topic. My key take-aways (outlined below) were regarding what skills are most helpful and what challenges one might encounter when doing science policy work.

The panel in action: a discussion on engaging young researchers with science policy. From left to right: Dr. Madison Rilling (Moderator; Optonique), Dr. Pier-André Bouchard St-Amant (Prof. at École Nationale d’Administration Publique), Simone Têtu (Undergraduate student at McGill University), Dr. Amélie Quesnel-Vallée (Prof. at McGill University), Dr. Jérôme Morty (Executive Director, Council of Canadian Academies), and Dr. Pauline Pic (Postdoctoral fellow at Université Laval).

Policy and science work at different speeds

Policymakers often consult with experts to help guide policy formulation. This is a valuable process, and including scientists in these discussions is key. However, researchers often will not have complete answers for policymakers: in some cases policymakers’ questions might motivate a new scientific investigation. The issue is that research projects generally take years from conception to publication, whereas policymakers are eager to complete this process in the order of weeks or months. Early communication between researchers and policymakers (and better team integration) can help address this problem.

Policymakers come from diverse backgrounds and typically lack scientific expertise

The panelists agreed that there is a disconnect between the language of scientists and politicians. Most politicians do not have advanced scientific training, and so cannot be expected to evaluate or fully understand most primary literature articles. This means that science communication skills are key when discussing policies. This requires a balance between summarising information in a useful and intuitive way, without erasing key content.

Parliamentarians are provided with overwhelming amounts of information

In a separate panel at CSPC, the Honourable Senator Stan Kutcher raised an important point that is highly relevant to this discussion. Apparently, parliamentarians are provided a huge amount of material to read, so even if they do have a strong scientific background, they likely will not have time to investigate the subtleties of individual research projects in detail. This should be kept in mind when communicating about science policy: being succinct is key!

Policymakers may not always be receptive to scientific reports

Policymakers are generally interested in hearing from researchers, and respect their expertise. However, according to the panel, discussions with policymakers can also sometimes feel combative. This can happen if certain policymakers are unhappy with the level of evidence for a specific policy or issue they are championing. In such cases, these individuals might push back at what researchers are reporting. However, even if it is uncomfortable, it is important that researchers always stick to the facts.

Science is just one factor that policymakers consider

Policymakers engage with many stakeholders, researchers, and other experts from different sectors. It is important to appreciate that policymakers may be hearing contrasting opinions, which reflect the diverse backgrounds and expertises of the individuals involved. All you can do is present the evidence from your field of expertise! It is then up to the policymaker to weigh the relative importance and validity of the different stakeholders and experts they hear from. Ultimately it is up to them to make a decision, which should be respected.

A general knowledge-base is helpful

It is important to see the big-picture when considering science policy. As described above, policymakers hear opinions and evidence from many different angles. To interact cogently in this environment, it is important to have a knowledge-base outside of your specific scientific expertise. One panelist suggested that science policy analysts should also be aware of ongoing economic issues, and to stay updated on the news. This will also help you make connections with different policy issues, and improve the clarity of your science communication.

Government priorities can shift greatly following elections or other events: it is important to stay objective

It is common for newly elected politicians to have ideological beliefs that conflict with certain policy initiatives that the preceding party was working on. This can be very frustrating if you were contributing to such initiatives that never reached fruition. It is important to stay objective and to continue providing high-quality evidence, even if you disagree with a party’s policy priorities.

Closing thoughts

I would be remiss not to point out how young researchers can get involved with science policy: there are many options!

Our own organisation, Science & Policy Exchange as well as the Canadian Science Policy Centre are always looking for volunteers from across Canada! Depending on your age, you could also apply to become a member of the Prime Minister’s Youth Council. There are also regional organizations. In Québec, there is the Comité intersectoriel étudiant and the Actions concertées du Fonds de recherche du Québec. In Ontario, there are the Ottawa Science Policy Network and the Toronto Science Policy Network, respectively. Last, the USA’s National Science Policy Network accepts international members, and provides many resources that are valuable for understanding science policy in general.

But getting back to the forum: it helped me appreciate that there are many differences in what is valued in research versus practical policymaking, which are highlighted by the above take-home messages. However, it would be great to hear from others who are new to this field. If you disagree with any of these points, or were expecting other points to be highlighted, please let us know!