Influencing Science Policy: Headlines Alone are Not Enough

4 November 2011


Report prepared by Francesca Day.

From climate change to stem cell research, science policy plays an important and controversial role in modern politics, scientific research and media. On 4th November 2011, Diana Garnham, Chief Executive of the Science Council (an umbrella organisation for academic and professional scientific bodies), presented a refreshing take on how scientists can best influence science policy. This seminar was given as part of the Cambridge Public Policy Seminar Series.

As a self-confessed campaigner, Ms Garnham knows first-hand that scientists are not always skilled at political engagement. She argued that successful campaigns need scientists who can explain complex issues with a minimum of ‘ologies’ and without arrogance. They also need effective leaders, communicators and public affairs specialists. Ms Garnham went on to advise that such teams must make the careful choice of an appropriate time to hit the headlines. Headlines, she asserts, should be used to raise awareness of an issue and bring it to the attention of policy makers only when all aspects of a campaign are in place, including clear aims and policy detail. Headlines that are not backed up by clear arguments serve only to feed media frenzy.

Ms Garnham argued that, rather than slogans and headlines, real political influence follows from carefully constructed campaigns that clearly articulate an issue of wide public interest. In her talk, she highlighted the recent flurry of articles urging the government not to cut science spending. In this instance the message in the headlines was not supported, policy details were lacking and much uncomfortable subtext resulted; and it raised counter arguments on what should be cut instead.

Ms Garnham’s talk was followed by lively discussion. Questions ranged from the use of the internet in science communication to the challenges of working with a coalition government. Ms Garnham emphasised the importance of using the internet not only as a form of publishing, but as a medium for real communication, in particular by using the terminology most familiar to the target audience. For example, members of the public searching for information on genetically modified foods may Google ‘Frankenstein Foods’, a search term that will not bring up most of the literature intended for them by scientific communicators.

It is clear that those who hope to influence science policy have a difficult and complex path ahead of them, but one that should ultimately lead to genuine conversations with policy makers rather than a short-lived headline.

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