At the UCL IRDR 5th Annual Conference this year, Sir Mark Walport, Chief Scientific Adviser to HM Government, gave a presentation on communicating risk and hazard to policy makers. He summarized the challenges and common pitfalls that scientists often come across, and gave advice on how to look at the issue in a more mutually-beneficial way.
“The single biggest problem in communication is the illusion that it has taken place.”
– George Bernard Shaw
Put yourself in their shoes
He began by pointing out that from the policy makers point of view, they do not have the expertise or time to research particular topics, which is where expert scientists and advisers come in. Scientists are employed to do the research and then communicate it in such a way to help the policy makers make decisions. The first thing to remember is that policy makers have time commitments, which means that scientists need to communicate risk quickly and clearly, particularly in an emergency situation. They are intelligent people, but they won’t necessarily have your expertise, so conveying the information in a simple (but not overly simple way) is necessary. They understand the concept of uncertainty, error, and risk, so these issues do not need to be swept under the carpet, but don’t need to be explained in such a detailed way as you would in an academic paper. Policy makers are also different. So they may prefer different means of communication – therefore be prepared to explain things in a variety of medium.
Another key point to keep in mind is to think about what your audience cares about, and then translate your information into a way which is relevant for them. For example, the government is primarily concerned with the health, wellbeing, security, and resilience of the population, followed by economic advantages to the country. Think about how the information you have will impact on those things they care about, and convey that information. There is always a risk with trying to convey all the information you have ever gathered on the topic all at once – this is trying to boil the ocean. You will lose their interest. Instead, tell them only what is relevant for them to make a decision. The other information is not wasted – it has increased your understanding of the topic, and will provide a good back-up store of information should it be needed in the future.
There is often a confusion in the terms used by scientists, compared to policy makers (and even compared to “normal” human language). Scientists are renowned for having a specific definition of every term they use. Indeed, that is how science works, it requires careful and systematic labeling and defining of things, to avoid confusion and ideally to allow for better understanding of precisely what you mean. Ironically, in the non-science world, this can lead to misunderstanding if the exact terms are not fully understood, or are completely different to those used by the other party. Use of a common language, or at least awareness of the differences is needed, to be able to communicate effectively. Scientific precision needs to be balanced with the need to be understood by non-specialists.
Scientific concern vs public attitudes
The policy maker is not a scientist. Their concern is not making decisions solely on the scientific evidence. If it was, they would be scientists. Instead, policy makers need to balance a range of demands, including (but not limited to) public attitudes, economic implications, international relations, and scientific evidence. So scientists need to realise that they’re not have the same conversation. For example, the majority of the scientific evidence suggests nuclear power is low risk, it also suggests hydraulic fracturing or “fracking” is low risk. However, the majority of public attitudes are against having a nuclear power plant or a fracking station in their back yard. Policy makers have to balance the scientific evidence with the public attitudes (etc) before they make a decision.
Differences in values
There is confusion often when science turns into advocacy. This is often experienced in the Environmental Sciences, probably because we are passionate about our topics. But we need to recognise that our values may not be the same as other people’s values. Things in this world are rarely black-and-white. Whilst science strives to define and logically evaluate evidence in an objective manor, we must remember that the non-science world is hugely subjective and opinionated. Scientists can help to provide evidence and guidance on topics, but must remember that ultimately, decisions are rarely made in policy based solely on the science.
Our job is to try to communicate that evidence in such a way that the message gets through as clearly and with as much impact as possible. By developing our communication skills, hopefully we can better influence and advise those whose job it is to make the decisions.