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Making Your Science Relevant To Policymakers: Pondering Advice From Newt Gingrich

By Erica Goldman and COMPASS

Feb 10, 2017


Minute Read


I recently heard Newt Gingrich, former Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives and an academic historian by training, address an audience of environmental and health scientists at the annual conference of the National Council on Science and the Environment.

Gingrich, a staunch right-wing conservative whose relationship with science has been described as “complicated,” addressed a silent and visibly tense audience at a lunchtime plenary. He began with, “You can hunker down and decide you want to be oppositionist and that you are going to hate everything and life will be terrible, or you can dig in and work with the administration.”

His remarks struck a chord. Ever since, I have been reflecting on what this means for those of you who want to engage with policymakers.

Science does not have a direct pipeline into decision-making, Gingrich said. Scientists and policy makers need to talk to each other, and effective engagement requires more than just avoiding jargon and distilling your main messages. It takes close listening, framing, and considering what will be most relevant for   your audience. These ideas closely mirror advice to scientists from political scientist Paul Cairney at the University of Stirling in the United Kingdom, published yesterday in an interview in Science magazine.

Ultimately, Gingrich’s message left me cautiously optimistic, albeit challenged, about the role that scientists can play in informing policy. If you go in “…articulate enough and have thought it through enough, you are going to shape large parts of this administration,” Gingrich said.

The take-homes: 1) Keep engaging with decision-makers at all levels, including this administration. 2) Work to develop effective, relevant communication.

How do you know what is relevant? Only by truly reaching out. Don’t underestimate the importance of casual coffee meetings, happy hours, breakfasts, and getting to know policy makers as people outside of the office. Make human connections, don’t just share facts. Do the legwork to build, maintain, and nurture interpersonal relationships. Become a trusted resource.

None of this is new to me, but it helps shine light on the road ahead. Gingrich’s remarks align with some of the fundamentals of navigating the science-policy boundary and echo what scientists have shared back with us from their experiences meeting with decision makers.

Last year, Grist Magazine published a map that provides a visual of climate change impacts at the state level. When I first saw this, it seemed like a ready-made cheat sheet for scientists who want to talk about environmental change in ways that resonate with policy makers. For example, a scientist sharing their research on changing trout abundance in streams might click with a legislative staffer from the state of Wyoming, whereas a researcher studying diseased moose might spark interest from a staffer from Maine.

To promote authentic dialogue, scientists need to begin with where others are coming from. Ask questions. Try to understand the unmet information needs of policy makers (they have many!) and listen for potential connections. Think about how what you know can help them answer the questions that they have, even if those questions may not be the ones that your science set out to answer.

What does this mean for COMPASS going forward? We encourage you as scientists to get out there and truly listen. We will support you in building the skills you need to share your science with humility, credibility, and salience. And we’ll be out there too—listening to what we hear from policy makers and sharing back what we learn about the framing of issues, upcoming decision points, and opportunities for you to plug in and become resources.

Reach out to us—and we’ll do the same. Together we’ll navigate this dynamic boundary between science and policy to help ensure that credible science continues to underpin environmental decision-making in these changing and challenging times.

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