A Meeting of the Minds: Scientists and Policymakers Engage in Dialogue
Scientists and policymakers are usually assumed to inhabit different worlds, each with its own processes, priorities, and even languages. But a roundtable discussion involving African scientists and government officials at the second annual ASADI international symposium brought these two different worlds together. The participants' goals were to learn from one another, to determine where their interests and objectives overlap, and to see if a more productive bridge could be built between the two communities.
One official noted that though research provides a useful basis for formulating policy, his ministry's relationship with research is more of what he'd call a "firefighting" relationship, in the sense that when the ministry thinks there is a need for scientific guidance, only then does it call upon scientific advisers to come and advise its officials on the subject in a spur of the moment fashion. Too often, he said, researchers are doing their own thing, while the ministry is doing its own thing.
It is often a complaint that non-scientists do not understand how the scientific process works, but another participant noted that researchers seldom understand how the policy process works. It is a tedious process, requiring many conditions to be met. The best point to intervene in the process is at the beginning, he added. Wait too long and it can be difficult to incorporate the bright ideas that scientists can bring, however relevant and valuable they may be.
A policymaker acknowledged that turnover among politicians can present a significant obstacle to ongoing engagement with science academies and enactment of evidence-based guidance. In Cameroon, the percentage of elected officials who return for a subsequent term is just 3 percent to 20 percent. He also noted that the education level of politicians affects the extent to which they are open to hearing or reading about scientific matters and using evidence-based guidance.
Cultural factors can inhibit the uptake of evidence-based advice. One individual noted that research shows that female genital mutilation is harmful, but the intensity of deep cultural beliefs have kept his country from fully accepting and acting on the advice. Therefore, he said, when scientists come up with an issue that is important enough to ask people to change their ways, they should find persuasive ways to speak about the root causes of the problem within the community.
Scientists often find themselves constrained by funding, said another participant. Scientists in his country frequently do research and publish their results at their own expense. In absence of funding, the findings are not published and remain with the scientists alone. Even when results are published, policymakers seldom pay attention to or use them.
Some ways that scientists could help improve the relationship are to put their findings and guidance in simple, jargon-free language and to appreciate that policymakers often have little scientific background. They should make sure that policymakers understand how the guidance they are recommending can produce results that are measurable in concrete ways. For example, if a science academy were promoting an immunization policy, it might explain that the nation could see a drop in disease similar to the one that came about through wide-spread polio vaccination. And researchers should emphasize the positive outcomes for society as a whole as well as for the politician who enacts the policy.