A call for improved science advocacy

Plenary Symposium III: Navigating science policy through effective advocacy for science

The plenary session on Navigating Science Policy through effective science advocacy for Science was held on Monday, June 20, 2020, from 10am – 12.30pm. Wayne Parrot welcomed participants to the event and  Nathan Springer introduced the session and the speakers. Attended by over 100 participants this session captured the need for scientists to engage in advocacy and be actively involved in policymaking.

I’ll start with a quote by John F. Kennedy “One person can make a difference, and everyone should try”. This reflects the key message from this year’s first plenary session and captures the ideas of the four plenary speakers. The need for good policies connects to the urgency to solve problems threatening our global food security, including how can we feed a world carrying 9+ billion people while reducing the impact of climate change on the environment.

This plenary presentation was kicked off by April Burke, who immediately identified the challenges with science and policy advocacy. First and foremost, the difference between the two is that science advocacy involves promoting powerful tools used to solve the challenges around healthcare, agriculture, climate change, etc. while policy advocacy involves reaching out to policymakers to trash out issues related to science policies in congress – which can influence the conduct of science in terms of funding and public opinions. Therefore, scientists need to dispel science skepticism by illustrating how it has benefited the world in the last couple of decades. For scientists to be good policy advocates, they need to know these basic key rules- know your audience; understand the legislative process you are trying to influence; create a relationship and keep it going; present a united front and don’t feel obligated to make a political compromise.

As a final piece of advice, Burke told scientists not to act as lobbyists, but to find a government relations officer or someone in their organization responsible for federal advocacy to give them pointers and maybe even go with them to meet policymakers. In that way, they would bring the heft of the entire institution behind them.

Following this introduction, Rob Horsch gave a provocative talk on “Innovation and equity are key drivers of progress and are driven by good policy”. Although there is still a question of how to feed 10 billion people by 2020, technological advancement has brought about an increase in agricultural productivity in most parts of the world. Innovation will continue to advance all areas of agriculture especially in the areas are photosynthesis, nitrogen use, and pest control. Food security is a social justice issue, and equality does not mean the same thing as equity. Good scientific policies can disarm the trap of poverty and food insecurity, especially in developing countries. There is a need to reach out to more smallholder farms and bring them into the modern agricultural age so that they can develop and get out of this deep life-shortening, life-crippling poverty.

Moving further into policymaking and science advocacy, Jane DeMarchi gave an outstanding talk on the title: “Making the connection between innovation and advocacy”. Policymakers desperately need the information from scientists to create policies that will solve world problems and scientists need to utilize every opportunity they get, to share what they have observed as the critical challenges and opportunities for agriculture. In addition, lobbyists can make it easier by building an overarching lobbying strategy and creating messages that will resonate and influence policy. The following lessons from lobbying could help scientists become better advocates: never give up and be prepared for a long road ahead; recognize the importance of public-private partnerships both big and small; remember that lobbying is about education, engage policymakers in the area of science they do not understand; get the support of a large coalition of organizations to keep reminding Congress of the importance of the issue at hand; and finally,  develop consistent messaging and utilize social media tools to get those messages across to a broader audience.

To wrap up the plenary session, was a question and answer session with Tom Kalil on the role of policy entrepreneurs in science policy, moderated by Shandrea Stallworth. A policy entrepreneur is one who builds upon an idea to bring about something happening in the world. To be an effective policy entrepreneur, you need to build a coalition of supporters using a multi-disciplinary approach to help you achieve the goal you have in mind. In addition, a policy entrepreneur needs good communication, public speaking, and press skills: “Try to understand what people care about and why they should care about your advocacy; identify what drives different funding agencies and their mode of appropriation; develop goals that people can get excited about, especially scientific advances that can solve current world problems and accelerate the pace of scientific research.  An example is tools that can help feed over 9 billion people in the future”.

In conclusion, Kalil reminded participants that not all scientists have to be science advocates, but civic scientists can get on board and inform policymakers why we need investment in science and technology. There is a need for more civic scientists to get involved in science policy.

These inspiring talks led to an engaging discussion and questions from the audience and a number of key points were raised. Firstly, in order to effectively influence policy-making, scientists need to be more persuasive advocates.  They need to use less jargon and be willing to learn about policy-making processes while being open to building relationships and answering questions. Secondly, technology and innovations are really important drivers of food security, and effective science policy-making can enhance the adoption and use of innovation and create access to quality food for poor and malnourished people of the world. It is also clear that key messaging is relevant to policymaking. Scientists do not need to be lobbyists but can engage lobbyists in their respective organizations and institutions, and work as a team to ensure their voices are heard and their advocacy is impactful. Finally, the world needs more policy entrepreneurs and civic scientists to drive science advocacy and promote informed decision-making in congress.

I come back to the quote by John F Kennedy: “One person can make a difference, and everyone should try”. One scientist can make a difference, and every researcher has the responsibility to bridge this existential knowledge gap between scientific innovation and policymaking. This plenary session was a call to action for all scientists to include science advocacy in their research goals, as good policy-making will improve the products of research and ensure its use in solving major problems threatening global peace, food security, and a healthy environment.

You can watch the policy summit here.

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