Why Scientists Won't Talk To The U.S. Government

Roughly 90% of scientists in a recent survey said that scientists and policymakers don't communicate enough. But only about 60% said they were sure of the names of their elected federal representatives. What explains this paradox?

That question was the focus of a forum held earlier this week by the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) in Washington, D.C. The lack of contact between scientists and policymakers "is the number one barrier to effective science communication," said Abigail Abrash Walton, director of the Center for Academic Innovation. Scientists may sometimes lack confidence in engaging in the public policy process, she added. They may also be skeptical about whether their efforts will pay off in terms of real impacts or recognition by their colleagues and institutions.

Others agreed with that assessment. Cynthia Robinson, director of the AAAS S&T Policy Fellowships program, said that researchers may feel that time devoted to policy matters doesn't count with supervisors. "Anything you do that is not research is considered 'non-traditional' or 'alternative,'" said Robinson. "We need to stop describing it that way." Also, a significant number of researchers feel that policymakers are so ill-informed about science that speaking with them is an exercise in futility.

So, possible solutions? For starters, the panel said, more universities should offer policy-focused courses for science and engineering students. And, while they're at it, provide some common-sense training on how to improve communication skills—notably, thinking in terms of jargon-free abstracts, not full-length dissertations or journal articles.

For more detail on the panel discussion, as well as some basic tips on how to better engage with policymakers, visit the AAAS website.