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A Navigator to Get You Across the Policy Chasm

By Chad English and COMPASS

Sep 16, 2013


Minute Read


Why is it that some scientists seem to have an easy time getting the ear of policymakers? When it comes to engaging decision-makers, we’ve told you to find the story in your science, to prepare yourself to answer the “So what?” and to keep it simple but not lose the details. But how do you get involved in that initial conversation in the first place? More specifically, how do you get involved in the RIGHT conversation? The one where you have a willing and interested audience who want to talk about what you actually know?

COMPASS staff have been working at the boundary of science and policy for over a decade, and have identified some key elements in navigating a network. Earlier this month, I presented some of COMPASS’ recent policy connectivity work as a case study – in what to do and what not to do – at an NSF-funded workshop put together by Angela Evans at the University of Texas-Austin’s Lyndon B. Johnson School of Public Affairs. One of the takeaways from our work (and the workshop) is particularly relevant to individual scientists: Successful engagement with policymakers often starts when scientists take advantage of their network to help them plug in effectively.

For many scientists, developing the insight that could transform the way we manage nurdles (or fish, or forests) is the easy part. Actually connecting these insights to policymakers often seems much harder. We hear a number of frustrations from scientists stuck at this stage: “How do I know who to talk to first?” or “Why are all the conversations I have with policymakers one-offs and why is there no ongoing discussion?” Even more fundamentally, “Where do I start?”

We’ve found that the best way to find yourself in the right place at the right time is to find someone who can help you decode the landscape you’re stepping into – a navigator. Navigators can help you through all stages of science-to-policy connectivity work:

1)     Finding the science-policy nexus. Policy discussions turn on individual decisions – it’s not often that a piece of research is so groundbreaking that it can change the shape of policy conversations en masse. Generally, you need to know when and how a piece of information can inform a particular decision or policy discussion. A good navigator can help you do this by showing you when the timing or issues are aligning. For example, if you want to talk about how to reform fisheries management right now, consider talking about the role Maximum Sustainable Yield has played in fisheries rebuilding over the last decade and what that means for reauthorization of the Magnuson-Stevens Act.

2)     Identifying and cultivating champions. Champions are the people who can bring the policymakers to the table and provide access, helping to make the space amid busy schedules. They can be on the outside (brokers) or on the inside (policymakers themselves). Policy advisors will know what the Assistant Secretary of their department cares about and how to get them into the room. Navigators can help you find your champions, or in some cases can even act as your champions.

3)     Assembling and preparing the right players. It’s rare that a single person (particularly a single scientist) will be able to drive a policy conversation very far in a new direction. Getting the right perspectives in the room together – and getting the people who represent them appropriately on-point and coordinated – can mean the difference between an awkward, one-off meeting and a meeting that kicks off an ongoing dialogue. Someone who knows the political and policy landscape, a navigator, can help you identify the other players you need to connect with. If you’re an ecologist, they might suggest talking to economists, lawyers, or policy experts.

4)     Timing, framing and structure. Once you’ve identified the science-policy nexus, found the champions to bring the right people to the table, and brought appropriate perspectives on board, you need to make sure you convene with your audience with some savvy. The timing needs to be relevant (e.g., before a decision is made, not after), the framing needs to resonate (are they thinking about restoration, or new development?), and the structure needs to work for them (if you’re talking to just three people you want to converse with them, not lecture at them). A navigator who knows your audience’s work culture and needs can help you negotiate all of these.

5)     Follow-up.  This may seem obvious, but no single conversation is likely to result in deep and lasting change. Follow-up keeps your audience’s focus on the topic and helps ensure that the conversation doesn’t go cold. It also gives you the opportunity to return the favor to your navigators by sharing the insights and connections you collected throughout the process. Giving them something back means they’re more likely to think of you when future opportunities arise.

Below are some examples of places to go to find navigators. Many of them are boundary spanners, like your professional society or the government affairs office at your institution. If you haven’t already gotten to know them, do so… they’re happy to help. One woman recently shared that playing the role of navigator – helping scientists find the “way in” to policy discussions – is a favorite aspect of her job.

So introduce yourself to someone new at that next conference, get on the phone or fire off an email. Find your way to a navigator and see where they can take you.

Places to look for your navigator(s)

Your professional society’s public or government affairs staff is a good place to start. Some examples:

• AAAS covers a wide range of science topics and issues

• Ecological Society of America (ESA)

• Society for Conservation Biology

• American Association of Civil Engineers

Also, be sure to think about:

• Your institution’s government affairs staff

• AAAS Science-Policy Fellows (see this post for more) and this link.

• Your colleagues. Start letting people you know that you’re interested in making these connections. You might be surprised by what you turn up!

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