Pressing concerns about protecting human and environmental well-being from climate change illustrates the need for public policy decisions to reflect scientific knowledge. Policy and decision-makers, local communities, and citizens depend on research-based information to make evidence-informed decisions. If scientific communities fail to engage with external audiences using appropriate methods of communication, the policy sphere is not able to understand and apply scientific findings when making choices. Lessons learned from communication case studies of research on climate change, sea level rise, natural resource management, and local implementation of the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (UN SDGs) highlight barriers preventing effective communication of research-based information, sector conditions and practices that enable scientists to share their findings, and communication skills researchers need to work with external audiences.
Barriers to Communication
Barriers to effectively communicating research-based information in public policy contexts stem from the inaccessibility of the science field, policymakers’ lack of capacity to understand and use research, and disconnects between researcher and user contexts. Paywalls and limited open-source publishing of papers and data prevent people outside of research communities from accessing information (Piczak et al., 2021). Open-source publications are often still inaccessible, due to jargon, complex methodology, and unclear statements of findings and practical application. In policymaking, even users with scientific backgrounds typically do not have time to collect, analyze, and apply information from numerous academic studies. A lack of systematic reviews that summarize current bodies of research limit policymakers from using the full range of findings available (Piczak et al., 2021). Policymakers seeking evidence to inform their decisions may be overwhelmed by the volume of information available, and lack the technical knowledge and organizational capability to process the breadth of research. Furthermore, research-based information may not be deemed relevant to potential user communities for a variety of reasons. Historic injustices perpetrated by researchers, disconnection from traditional knowledge, and a lack of exposure to scientific research may deter some groups from trusting scientific findings, sharing, and using information (Hajdu & Simoneau, 2020; Ningrum et al., 2022). Additionally, when it is unclear how research findings impact specific users, psychological distance (both temporal and geographic) may lead to citizens and policymakers dismissing the need to address issues, such as climate change. The public may understand that global temperatures are rising, but when research is dated, abstract, or regarding different areas, the impact on their communities or the urgency of action required is not obvious. Although accessibility, the capacity of policymakers, and disconnect between researchers and users pose barriers to communicating research-based information, collaboration between science, policy, and communication fields can enable effective exchanges.
Embedding communication strategies in the research process can enable effective communication between researchers and information users by fostering dialogue and trust-based relationships. Synthesizing and translating scientific knowledge for intended audiences, with appropriate framing and terminology are key to helping decision-makers comprehend complex information and understand its relevance (Fischoff, 2019; Moon et al., 2020). This synthesized information needs to be communicated through numerous mediums in addition to scientific journals, in order to reach diverse audiences. Communications specialists, press offices, and boundary organizations can help emphasize key takeaways through accessible pathways (Goffman, 2020). Boundary organizations have established connections and reputations with target audiences that can help translate scientists’ findings and stakeholders’ perspectives in both directions (Moon et al., 2020). Direct conversation is one tactic that successful boundary organizations and other effective science communicators use to build trust and dialogue with decision-makers. Especially when communicating findings with high risk and uncertainty, such as those related to climate change, relationship-building and active listening are key to enabling productive relationships. Strong verbal and written communication skills for scientists, in formal and informal contexts, are crucial to forming connections across these professional communities (Moon et al., 2020). These connections are vital to co-production of knowledge, which can only occur when there are numerous, flexible, and innovative channels in place for partners to collaborate with researchers (Ningrum et al., 2022). Structural support for co-production, including time, resources, and incentives for scientists to engage in work at the policy interface, is needed to establish co-production as an ongoing practice. These enabling conditions speak to a necessary fundamental shift in the way we think about the role of scientists. Strategic planning of communication techniques and relationships should be integrated in research plans from the onset, with emphasis on producing scientific work that is usable and accessible to the public policy world (Hajdu & Simoneau, 2020; Piczak et al., 2021).
Once barriers and enablers are understood, communicators and scientists can work together to improve communication in the future. Factors to consider include clear writing and effective data visualizations, engaging with audiences and making information accessible, and presenting information differently depending on the target audience. Employing these strategies will lead to better communication, build trust between communicators and scientists, and improve the reputation of the research organization (Hajdu & Simoneau, 2020). Introducing writing training will help researchers communicate their work clearly to non-science audiences. Hajdu and Simoneau (2020) recommend implementing training programs in research organizations, focusing on reducing clutter and targeting audiences, to improve future communication and to increase trust in the organizations. Additionally, the use of clear data visualizations can be effective to convey important figures and statistics in a straightforward way to a variety of audiences. Before information is published, it should be tested beforehand to ensure that it has been conveyed appropriately (Fischhoff, 2019).
Greater engagement with the target audience, including building relationships with policymakers and connecting with the public, will improve research communication and trust. The science-policy interface has been shifting to include input from the public, particularly when policy will directly affect communities. While traditional peer-reviewed journal articles are not easily accessible by non-science audiences, research can be made available to the public through other methods. By providing data sets to the public, compiling systematic reviews, and funding more research that will be available on government websites, public audiences can interact with and further understand the research shaping policies in their communities (Ningrum et al., 2022). Another way to make information accessible to non-science audiences is the use of attribution. Attribution is primarily used when studying climate change to quantify the statistics and measurements of climate change events, such as putting a number on how much more dangerous a storm is due to climate change (Goffman, 2020). Using numerical statistics communicates the information more effectively than verbal quantifiers, such as “more likely” (Fischhoff, 2019). By using clear statistics or numbers, the data becomes tangible to non-science audiences.
Targeting information communication depending on the audience type ensures that audiences will understand the key points. Depending on the objective and medium, the same evidence can provide the basis for different messages. Senior policymakers and politicians require highly tailored and resource intensive research briefs. Information communicated to them should not merely focus on the science, but also include narratives about how the research can resolve difficult policy issues and improve the lives of citizens (Hajdu & Simoneau, 2021). The information must be conveyed in plain language with a degree of certainty and framed for a policy context. Communication style for information directed to news outlets will vary depending on regional interests and concerns. When presenting research to media outlets, the research should be framed around a story or “hook” that will capture audiences’ interest and connect to the issues of the day (Hajdu & Simoneau, 2021). Communications in news outlets will have a wider audience, particularly when shared through social media. Social media influencers, including scientists, politicians, and journalists, can reach audiences that are not reachable by traditional news media, and they can utilize striking data visualization and infographics (Hajdu & Simoneau, 2021). Finally, the public includes both local communities and individual citizens. Communication relies on building a relationship with a community and engaging citizens in research outcomes, primarily with information that relates directly to them. In addition to broad structural changes to integrate strategic communication planning into the broader research process, these targeted improvements to scientists’ communication can assist those in research fields to overcome communication barriers to information.
Fischoff, B. (2019, September). Tough calls. How we make decisions in the face of
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Hajdu, M., & Simoneau, C. (2020). Communicating science in a policy context to a broader audience. In V. Sucha & M. Sienkiewica (Eds.). Science for policy handbook (Chapter 15, pp. 167-179). Amsterdam: Elsevier. http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/B978-0-12-822596-7.00015-2
Moon, T., Scambos, T., Abdalati, W., Ahlstrøm, A. P., Bindschadler, R., Gambill, J., Heimbach, P., Hock, R., Langley, K., Miller, I., & Truffer, M. (2020). Ending a sea of confusion: Insights and opportunities in sea-level change communication. Environment: Science and Policy for Sustainable Development, 62(5), 4-15. https://doi.org/10.1080/00139157.2020.1791627
Ningrum, D., Malekpour, S., Raven, R., & Moallemi, E. A. (2022). Lessons learnt from previous local sustainability efforts to inform local action for the Sustainable Development Goals. Environmental Science & Policy, 129, 45-55. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.envsci.2021.12.018
Piczak, M. L., Kadykalo, A. N., Cooke, S. J., & Young, N. (2021). Natural resource managers use and value western-based science, but barriers to access persist. Environmental Management. https://doi.org/10.1007/s00267-021-01558-8
Authors: Bronwyn Cole, Brendan Petrasek, and Courtney Svab
This blog post is part of a series of posts authored by students in the graduate course “The Role of Information in Public Policy and Decision Making” offered at Dalhousie University.