Policy During a Pandemic: How to Make Research Accessible for Policymakers During the COVID-19 Pandemic

July 6, 2020 | 10:53 am
Matt Wildbore/Unsplash
Gary W. Kerr & Erin Heath

The COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted the importance of effective science communication – in particular, the vital importance of making research accessible for policymakers. Here, we present our top tips for researchers on how to write for policymakers.

1. Know your audience

Before you start writing anything, consider who it is that you are hoping to reach. Is it a legislator, an official in a government agency or NGO, or a community leader? This is the first piece of advice in a set of recommendations published by American University on science communication with policymakers (the research team included the co-author). Being clear on who the target reader is will help you decide which type of publication format is most appropriate. Perhaps an op-ed or blog piece will suffice, or perhaps a policy memo, policy analysis, technical report or workshop report is more appropriate. The key to deciding where to pitch an article is knowing who it is you want to read it.

2. Collaborate, collaborate, collaborate

“Many hands make light work!” You will be able to achieve more and have a more insightful contribution to the topic at hand if you collaborate with diverse individuals and groups to pack your proposals with expertise. Recently, the World Health Organization issued a statement on the importance of international cross-disciplinary collaborations in the global effort to develop a COVID-19 vaccine. Engaging researchers from other fields and those directly impacted by the topic will help give your article a wider impact and make it more relevant.

3. Take an ethical approach to science communication

Is impartiality and objectivity at the heart of your recommendations? Is there another side to the argument or a remote possibility that your findings could be caused by an alternative influence? These are some of the questions you should ask yourself when writing for policymakers. The UK Government’s Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (SAGE), which advises the Government’s approach to the pandemic, has faced questions about its composition, and a former UK Chief Scientific Advisor recently established a second panel of independent experts amid concerns over political interference. Even the appearance of partiality may undermine public trust in science and evidence, highlighting the importance of honest and ethical approaches in science communication to help scientists gain credibility from both the public and policymakers.

4. Think of the bigger picture

Talk about the bigger picture when discussing your research with policymakers. Make it clear why what you’re doing is important. What are the social, cultural, political, economic dimensions of your research? Recently, in an effort to share information relevant to a major policy issue, 600 behavioural scientists signed an open letter to the UK Government questioning “behavioural fatigue” as the reason to delay the introduction of social distancing measures. Policymakers tend to be generalists, not specialists, so although intricate details are important, so too are the broader aspects of your research and how those apply to current events.

5. Avoid jargon

You’ll have heard time and time again how important it is in science communication to avoid jargon, yet it persists. Yale School of Medicine recently published a useful coronavirus jargon buster to help with the increasingly widespread use of complex terminology that has developed as a result of the pandemic. Policymakers don’t have the time to try and figure out what you’re talking about when you’re using technical language, so keep it simple and use metaphors, analogies, or visual aids. Above all, be concise and get to the point!

6. Make clear your recommendations

Great recommendations are clear, concise, and most of all, they are supported by evidence. Scientific evidence is only one of many inputs in the policymaking process, so make sure that the evidence supporting your recommendations is clear and robust. If writing a report, don’t underestimate the value of an ‘Executive Summary.’ Indeed, this may be the only part of the report that a policymaker will read, so be sure to get the message across here.

7. Get your message heard!

So, you’ve written an opinion piece, policy memo or policy analysis. What next? You need to get people to read it. Find out what social media platforms or other methods of contact policymakers and their advisors are using and share your work with them. An International Studies Quarterly paper showed that policymakers find newspapers more important information sources than academic books and journal articles. Coordinate with your institution’s public or government relations office. A global pandemic is no time for modesty when you have research to share and something important to say. Step outside your comfort zone and put yourself out there. You’ll make a difference, and it will be worthwhile!

If you’re reading this and you think the world needs to know about the societal impact of your research and/or you have evidence-based recommendations for policymakers, then consider submitting an article to the Journal of Science Policy and Governance (JSPG). We are actively seeking submissions from students, early career researchers, post-docs and policy fellows that respond to the COVID-19 pandemic amongst other topical science policy issues. Please consider joining JSPG’s mailing list and connect with us on Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn. Together, we’ll strengthen the ability for students, early career researchers and policy fellows to shape the debate on science, technology and innovation policy.

Gary W. Kerr is Lecturer in Festival & Event Management at Edinburgh Napier University and a science communication and science events specialist. Gary’s research is focused on the role of science festivals and public engagement events. He is the Senior Advisor for Business Strategy at JSPG, having previously served as Chief International & Operations Officer, Director of Operations and International Outreach, Editor-in-Chief, and before that as an Associate Editor. Gary is a former Science Policy Fellow at the Scottish Parliament. Follow Gary on Twitter at @DrGaryKerr.

Erin Heath is the Associate Director of Government Relations at the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), the world’s largest general scientific society. Erin handles a range of policy issues of interest to the scientific community and is heavily involved in efforts to empower scientists and engineers to engage with policymakers, the media, and the public. She is Chair of the Governing Board at the Journal of Science Policy & Governance. In addition, Erin co-chairs the Coalition for National Science Funding, the Engaging Scientists and Engineers in Policy Coalition, and the steering committee of the Golden Goose Award. Follow Erin on Twitter at @PublicHeath.

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