Even though scientists are oftentimes lost in the ivory towers of their scientific work, academic research in any discipline – and especially psychology – is tightly connected to the society. It contributes to the improvement of the living conditions in the population. It supports the decision-making process of policy-makers with scientific evidence. And it is paid for by the tax-payers’ money. In an attempt to ensure that this natural relationship between science and society is always well-balanced, we make policies – governmental policies, international policies, institutional policies. The field at the interplay between science and policy-making – very intuitively coined ‘science policy’ – therefore concerns itself with topics such as the allocation of resources for scientific research, the careers of scientists, and the systems of efficient communication between scientists and policy-makers (Pielke, 2005).
Precisely this area of science communication is the field of interest of Dr Toby Wardman. He works in SAPEA – Scientific Advice for Policy by European Academies. SAPEA is a part of European Commission’s strivings to efficiently communicate with academic researchers and inform the decisions on new policies with scientific evidence. Its role is to provide timely, independent and evidence-based scientific opinion on a diverse set of relevant topics to both the EU policy-makers and the wider public. By bringing together the knowledge and expertise of scientists from Academies and Learned Societies in over 40 countries across Europe, SAPEA plays a crucial role in bringing the scientific findings from the lab bench to the policy desk.
When it comes to big questions, such as genetic modification, or cybersecurity, the quality of the policy will necessarily depend on the quality of the scientific evidence. In an attempt to gather comprehensive evidence and policy advice in a robust and efficient system, European Union relies on an in-house advisory body called Scientific Advice Mechanism. This body is run by 7 prominent scientists, and through SAPEA (and several other mechanisms) it provides independent scientific advice directly to European Commissioners. By acquiring scientific evidence on relevant policy initiatives and debates from many hubs of expertise in different European countries, this mechanism optimises the objectivity of evidence-based policy recommendations.
The scientists’ role in this process is pivotal; after all, each researcher is the best connoisseur of their own research. Communicating research outside narrow academic circuits is also a highly valuable skill within the academic community – it improves academic prospects and brings new perspectives into researchers’ scientific work. Yet many believe that scientists still do not engage enough in public outreach, and call for more education on science communication (including strategies to counteract the post-truth culture that propagates misinformation). In an interview following our meeting at a workshop on science communication, I talked with Toby about science, policy, communication – and everything in-between. Enjoy the interview! (And want to know more? Check out the ‘Further readings’ below.)
You started off as an academic studying philosophy of science, but then took a turn towards science and policy communication. Tell us a bit about your background, where did you start from, and how did you end up where you are today?
Actually, I started work in communications straight after my Bachelors degree and have worked full-time ever since – I studied both my masters and my PhD part-time alongside working. My jobs have been a mix of science communication (which I do now) and political communications, mostly in the UK. I worked on the EU referendum on the Remain side, and when it all went wrong, my wife and I decided that enough was enough and we moved to Brussels. Now I work for SAPEA, part of the European Commission’s Scientific Advice Mechanism that provides science advice for EU policy-makers.
Many people these days argue that political decisions should be more informed by the results of scientific research. However, scientists and politicians tend to speak completely different languages – which poses a massive challenge to evidence-based policy. How does the EU bridge this gap between science the policy?
The EU actually has a pretty robust setup so that policy-makers can get advice from scientists. EU policies generally start life as drafts from the European Commission, so that’s where the Scientific Advice Mechanism comes in. Before drafting a new policy, Commissioners can ask us any question about the state of science in that area. In response, we give them two documents: a comprehensive and independent review of the evidence, which is done by SAPEA (‘Science Advice for Policy by European Academies’), consisting of experts from more than 100 European academies working together; and a Scientific Opinion which is drafted by the Group of Chief Scientific Advisors based on SAPEA’s evidence review. Those two documents are then used by the Commission to decide what policy action to take. Equally, the scientists themselves can offer advice to the Commission on topics which they think are important, rather than waiting to be asked the question.
And do you think that this mechanism works well? In other words, can we say that EU policies are evidence-based, or is there still space for improvement?
Yes, I think the EU sets a pretty good example in this field. The Commission has access to very high-quality science advice, and the impact of that advice can be clearly seen in the proposals they write, especially in technical fields, which are often very closely based on the science.
Of course, that’s not to say that every new EU law looks exactly how scientists might want it to look. Firstly, there is always room for improvement. And secondly, it’s important to remember that we don’t really want our public policy to be dictated exclusively by science. We live in a democracy, not a technocracy. The role of scientists is to provide evidence and advice, and the role of politicians is to weigh up that evidence and advice, along with many other considerations, when deciding what policy measures to adopt. Science is value-neutral: it can give us information about the way the world works and what effect certain actions might have, but it can’t tell us what is the right thing to do, or what the public supports.
Many of our readers are students and young researchers who might be thinking about continuing their careers outside of academia. What are the pros and cons of your current job, as compared to doing full-time academic work?
For me, science communication in general sits in the sweet spot between academia and the rest of the world. On the plus side, I get to work closely with Europe’s top researchers and dive into all kinds of interesting scientific areas, while also keeping a foot in the policy side of things and seeing our work have a real, concrete impact on legislation and people’s behaviour. The obvious downside, compared to academia, is the fact that you are always working on someone else’s research – never doing your own.
One of the projects you worked on included training early-stage social science researchers in communication. Why is it important for the early-career researchers to work on their communication skills? And do you have some good resources to recommend to our readers?
We need scientists who can communicate! And most importantly, we need good young communicators who are able to reach out authentically to people of their own generation. That means early career researchers. The training programmes I ran were only a few years ago, and when I recall the content, it already seems embarrassingly out-of-date.
As for resources, honestly the best advice I can give is to practise! Communication, outreach, dissemination – whatever you want to call it, it should be a key part of every academic’s skillset, not an optional extra. So seize every opportunity to write for, or speak to, a non-specialist audience. There are loads of outlets out there which are crying out for good quality content. And even academic journals increasingly have an ‘editorial’ or ‘magazine’ section, or an online companion magazine, which welcomes contributions. As a professional science communicator, I probably shouldn’t say this, but communicating isn’t rocket science. You can just jump in and do it, and learn on the job. That’s how I learned, anyway!
You had the pleasure – or maybe the displeasure – of working on the EU referendum campaign in the UK. How do you think Brexit will affect science and academic collaboration in Europe?
Ugh. It’s already damaging it. Even before the Brexit vote happened, there was clear evidence that UK researchers were starting to get overlooked when it came to putting together project collaborations and applying for funds. That’s really bad news for the UK, obviously, which has always done disproportionately well when it comes to winning EU research funding. But it’s also bad news for research across Europe, because Britain has traditionally had a lot to offer.
It’s depressing, because research collaboration is really one of the most obvious benefits of EU membership. And no matter what you think about issues of sovereignty or migration or whatever, you surely have to agree that combining our firepower – both in terms of collaborations and funding – is obviously a good idea when it comes to research. It simply makes no sense for 28 countries to spend money 28 times over.
Now that Brexit is happening, it’s not just loss of collaborations and loss of funding, but also the very real danger of “brain drain”. If you’re a talented researcher from anywhere in the world, and European universities are competing to attract you, why would you choose the UK? Of course, individual researchers will still be able to collaborate, but without the EU’s framework, it will just make everything much harder and therefore less likely to happen.
Any last comments, thoughts, or recommendations for our readers?
Sometimes I think of science communication as a necessary and temporary evil: we only need science communicators because scientists haven’t learned to communicate, and if only the next generation of researchers would learn how to communicate themselves directly, then they wouldn’t need people like me. So if you have an interest in outreach as well as an interest in your particular research area, then great! Being able to sell what you do to a wider audience will always be a boost to your academic career, and it’s only going to get more important.
But then at other times I think that’s nonsense. Sure, some researchers are good at communicating, and that’s wonderful. But many others aren’t, because they don’t have the right skillset or the right interests – and why should they? If you’re good at doing something, you should be able to focus on it even if you’re not also good at talking about it. So I guess I’m saying: if you don’t have an interest in outreach, that’s ok too. It will keep people like me in a job!
Want to embrace Toby’s advice and try out your science communication skills by writing a blogpost for JEPS Bulletin? Write to us at firstname.lastname@example.org!