Just The Facts Please: Scientists’ Role in Policy

policy word cloud mungai“Science and the scientific process must inform and guide decisions of my Administration on a wide range of issues, including improvement of public health, protection of the environment, increased efficiency in the use of energy and other resources, mitigation of the threat of climate change, and protection of national security.” —President Barack Obama, 2009.


In his memorandum on scientific integrity, the President of the United States laid out guidelines for how policy surrounding the practice of science should be developed. He stressed, “The public must be able to trust the science and scientific process informing public policy decisions,” and that, “The selection of scientists and technology professionals for positions in the executive branch should be based on their scientific and technological knowledge, credentials, experience, and integrity.” In this way, credible experts would be able to inform public policy with evidence-based decision-making. Subject matter experts play an active role throughout the federal government in forming policy on scientific issues, deciding what can be studied and how, and selecting which scientific studies should be funded. This process can be defined as Policy for Science, and the role of scientists is clear.


The President’s statement also touches on the fact that all policy has a scientific component, and the scientific method should be generally applied to policy-making. On a very basic level, policy is determined by facts and values. Scientists are fact people! Therefore, scientists can bring much to the policy-making process. We can analyze data to uncover facts that will inform policy decisions. This is what is meant by Science for Policy, and it underscores the important role that scientists can play.


Successful application of Science for Policy depends on two key factors: the ability to skillfully transmit factual information, and the behavior of those receiving the information. In this case, the latter group reflects the constituents, and the broader context is between science and the rest of society. As President Lincoln correctly observed, “Public sentiment is everything. With public sentiment, nothing can fail. Without it, nothing can succeed.” If science and the scientific method are to inform policy, society must understand the value of science.


While the climate for science seems rocky in the U.S. right now, there is some good news and a few challenges that scientists interested in working on policy should not ignore. Generally, the public has confidence in the scientific community and a great regard for science, but has little understanding of what it is or what scientists do. As we know, the purpose of science is to tell us about the nature of the natural world. Where policy is concerned, scientists are stuck with what science tells us (the facts), whereas the rest of the public can disregard this. The tension between factual, empirical, reproducible evidence and constituents’ core values can make it difficult to apply Science for Policy. This tension is evident in many current policy debates, and can complicate sound policy implementation.


So what is a scientist who wants to effectively inform policy to do? The answer is to better educate and communicate, but a correct approach is necessary. As scientists, we often feel that we have critical information that simply needs to be transmitted, and that just telling others what we know should be enough to convince them. Unfortunately, this approach is not sufficient. We need to communicate with the public, not at the public. Science for Policy requires public engagement! It is important to listen to the public’s concerns, priorities, and the questions they would like answered. Engage, don’t lecture!


Whether providing specific expertise to inform Policy for Science, or using Science for Policy to make evidence based policy recommendations, scientists play an important role in the field of policy-making. Your science training is valuable beyond the bench. It has made you a fact person, and good policy decisions require fact people!

About the Author:

Paul T. Mungai, PhD, is the Science Officer in the Office of UNESCO Affairs at the U.S. Department of State where he uses his scientist training daily to inform policy regarding U.S. engagement in UNESCO science programs. He also serves as a member of COMPASS and is a 2014-15 Fellow in the AAAS Science and Technology Policy Fellowship Program. The views expressed in this article are the employee’s own and do not necessarily reflect those of the U.S. Department of State or the U.S. Government. Email: ptmungai@gmail.com

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