Lack of public acceptance and understanding of science can have wide-reaching impacts on governmental decision-making (i.e. regulations, science policy, and funding). One of the most dramatic examples of poor communication between scientists and the public is the issue of climate change. Although the evidence of global warming is unequivocal, the proportion of policymakers who reject the science continues to grow. A variety of factors has contributed to widespread mistrust and misunderstanding of scientists and their research. This issue illustrates how important it is to improve the communication between scientists and policymakers.
The first thing to realize is that there is a lot of different legislation that relates to science and it usually falls into two categories: (1) legislation that deals with a range of issues requiring scientific expertise (agriculture, disaster management, climate change) and (2) decisions that directly affect research and the way it is conducted (science budgets and research regulations). Scientists can either help inform science-related policy by acting as experts or telling policymakers how policy decisions affect their work and hamper research. Many scientists feel discouraged because they don’t see a clear path to influencing public policy. However, University relations offices are usually very open about helping faculty and students engaged. Organizations involved in social issues are a good place to start out (scientific societies, international organizations, charities, lobby groups, government bodies, non-governmental organizations). Some communities have even started Science Policy Groups to provide opportunities for scientists and engineers to learn more about policy, get hands-on experience, network with the larger science policy community, and collaborate with other students interested in policy and societal issues.
In order to get involved, scientists should learn about what is already happening by reading science-related policy news, reports, and newsletters. It is also important to practice policy-related discussions in a safe environment with people that are interested in helping you learn. After becoming comfortable with the basic issues, advocacy can be accomplished in many different ways. One way of getting your voice heard is to send letters and make phone calls to the members your local representatives. Beyond that, many professional organizations and universities offer well-organized congressional visit days or provide expert panels for researchers to serve on. There are also various ways to get involved in policy as a career, including both short term and long term positions (see reference 2).