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Making (Political) Moves

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.


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Most of the scientific community thinks its work is important. Why can’t we seem to make anyone else believe it? And how do we know if we’re right?

Yell louder than the other guy, the story goes. The squeaky wheel gets the grease; lobbying is how modern advocacy works. And Congress, beholden to their next campaign, are doomed to go chasing after the fluttering rain of cash for all eternity. So goes today’s conventional wisdom.

At first glance, recent events would seem to confirm that tale to anyone still clinging to the idea that virtuous men and women exist in Washington. Both major parties and their constituents claim on a daily basis that their foes are beholden to special interests. This narrative has plenty of truth to it, but we know that the same people who view Congress as a den of thieves usually see their individual representatives as decent, honest folk. The academic community, at once totally dependent on government support and disdainful of the modern political process, enjoys enough ideological distance from the fray to lean thievish.

And yet, the fray inevitably reaches it anyway. In March, the U.S. Senate, as part of the ongoing tightrope act of keeping the federal government operational, quietly passed an amendment to the stopgap Continuing Appropriations Act of 2013. Sponsored by Tom Coburn (R-OK), the amendment prohibited the NSF from awarding political science research grants unless the director certified a project “as promoting national security or the economic interests of the United States”. This represents a shocking precedent in legislating research content. Nature’s news blog noted the bill, however, for its boosts to other branches of basic research, reporting the Coburn Amendment without remark in a single sentence. Selective cuts to funding are always difficult, but there’s a difference between allocating scarce resources among competing research programs and pruning a full branch of the academic tree.

And as if that’s not Faustian enough at face value, consider that by crippling political science, the amendment practically undermines the study of democracy itself. A colleague said to me at the time: “To bastardize Kieran Healy’s metaphor, this is like giving cancer cells the authority to direct cancer research.”

So why was there no outcry? Why did ‘hard’ scientists turn a blind eye while a major pillar of their social science colleagues’ support structure crumbled into dust? And in light of advocacy like this Nature editorial from last year that’s strident but not politically persuasive and focused only on the scientific establishment, does our entire perspective on public policy amount to ringing doorbells for money? I hope, by the end of this post, to provide some alternative answers to that question.

Scientists shouldn’t all be expected to be fluent in politicalese, but for those of us who believe research should play a larger role in how governments make decisions, what we can do is understand how we can be useful to policymakers, how to be convincing (and judicious) in our requests for support, and how to build political capital without alienating non-academics. And the first step in building these relationships, as ever, is sympathy.

Politicians are not all, or even mostly, crooks

Karen Bogenschneider and Thomas Corbett, at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, are academics who have cultivated relationships with those in the policy world for years, and have distilled their hard-won knowledge for the rest of us in a book. As they explain it, policymakers are individuals whose backgrounds range from law and economics to medicine and social work, yet they are expected to codify how the entire world ought to work for us. Imagine having to work on every nut and bolt in society, to optimize the workings of those nuts and bolts through a rigid system of protocols, and having to do so while trying to win over voters, represent the diverse needs of an entire constituency, and fight against scores of other people trying to do the exact same thing but with different ends and means. Now imagine what it’s like having to respond to crises in this way as they arise on a daily basis, and still put in all the work to keep the lights on. What’s lost in an era of haranguing public officials is that most of them work hard, as hard as academics and often harder; the fact that they now have 24-hour news cycles and perpetual campaigns to contend with, even though the vast majority of them had little to do with the events that led us to this point, does not make working on substantive policy issues any easier.

To paint a sharper picture, note that in the policy world, the lingua franca is the one-page memo. Interns and policy analysts must research the issues and find a way to tell their boss everything they need to know about a complex topic in the space of a minute’s read. This isn’t due to laziness on the part of lawmakers; it’s due to time constraints. While many political science scholars have offered different theories on how the sausage is made, most agree that the majority of the time, laws and rules are made piecemeal, by one first-order approximate solution, then another, then another, as the need arises over the course of years. What many social scientists already know, and the rest of the academy needs to learn, is that they cannot afford to waste policymakers’ attention and trust by antagonizing them and agitating for funding every chance they get. In a world of time crunches and political spin, lines blur between professional and personal relationships; politicians rely on trust, and they listen to people who understand the challenges they face. Such relationships are built through repeated contact, a commitment to professional cooperation, and time.

(As an aside, while conflict of interest is of course a concern to any impartial researcher, we need to meet them halfway: expecting harried policymakers to weed through the minefield of academic dispute without someone they can trust for honest advice is unrealistic.)

It’s not a sin to believe your work is important. But when resources and time are scarce, as they perpetually are for those who run in the halls of power, it is a sin to act as though the best way to determine how to allocate those resources is by how violently your camp stirs the pot. Medical scientists who decry the politics of MMR vaccination conspiracies, rightly condemning cynics’ stubbornness in the face of evidence, may the next day turn right around and argue that research on an illness that affects hundreds – though undeniably important – demands as much support as research that affects millions. While every problem facing society must eventually be addressed, this kind of behavior can be driven by self-interest more than by public interest, and is only a few decibels shy of the truculence characterizing the rest of the political lobby. If you believe your program deserves more support, it is incumbent on you to provide evidence that that’s the case – just like anyone else.

Science is a (measurably, communicably) big deal

Making an impact also requires that we think sympathetically about science communication. Bogenschneider and Corbett discussed how to make research results relevant to policy decisions, and how to turn them into political capital on which public figures can act. For what it’s worth, in the grand scheme of things this doesn’t have to be that difficult. The 1987 Nobel Prize in Economics was awarded to Robert Solow, whose research argued that between 1909 and 1949, 87% of U.S. economic growth was due to technological advances. As Homer Neal, Tobin Smith, and Jennifer McCormack, of the University of Michigan, describe in their book Beyond Sputnik: U.S. Science Policy in the 21st Century, we also know that many such advances are only possible because of publicly funded research, and many only arise years or decades down the road from the questions we started asking out of curiosity. If academics are willing to understand the significance of their work in economic terms like these, we can expect our elected officials, chained as they are right now to the state of the economy, to have a lot more to say in convincing the public ours is a worthwhile exercise.

On the other hand, there’s the question of how to reach the lay public directly. As the staff of this publication can no doubt attest, distilling research papers into eye-catching, fun stories is a complex endeavor, but possible. Randy Olson, a tenured marine biologist-turned-filmmaker, provides an excellent starting point for communicating across the lay divide. I promise you, after reading the opening lines of his book, Don’t Be SUCH a Scientist: Talking Substance in an Age of Style – lines not fit to print in this blog – you will want to read more, and that is after all the intended effect. (The alternate name for the blog Science is Awesome, the subject of some recent headlines, further supports this tactic.)

Olson’s main point is that before people read data, before they care about an issue, they care about everything else they’re doing that day. If you want your issue to become a part of their day, you have to get them to think of it as more than something to absorb before clicking the next link on their news website.

Although his book (alongside Cornelia Dean’s Am I Making Myself Clear? A Scientist’s Guide to Talking to the Public), received a glowing review from Nature, the science community has been divided on what he brings to the rhetorical table. While Olson’s filmmaking has had its ups and downs, his book nevertheless provides valuable insights that most scientists would never find occasion to consider. Olson has been criticized for “dumbing down” his science, but as I hope to explain, I think that’s actually beside the point.

Constance Steinkuehler, who’s been getting a lot of attention recently in policy circles as the White House “video game czar,” provides some interesting evidence to this effect. She found that kids discussing video games in online forums behaved like scientists: comparing notes, compiling and analyzing data, modeling cause-and-effect. She even found that kids struggling with reading at grade level can actually read above grade level when reading about these games. Yet when she described [Neuroscience and Education Symposium, UW-Madison, 2012; notes available] what they were doing as science, they denied it, saying they were “just trying to cheat the game,” or “lifting the kimono” (a funny, eye-catching comparison Olson himself might endorse). While most academics, myself included, have probably flinched at an oversimplification in a TED talk – see this piece on a talk concerning livestock and climate change – having faith in people’s resourcefulness suggests that we’re better off with that TED talk to start the conversation than we would be without it. A conversation, I might add, in which we get our soapboxes.

*****

Putting the picture together, academics who believe they have important things to say need to be public-spirited. It is too much to expect anyone to take budget cuts lying down, but we can’t allow the general tone of discussion to match the vitriol of the lobby. It’s also too much to expect that inaccurate or oversimplified depictions of our work, especially when it affects policy choices or public opinion on an issue, should pass without comment. But the bottom line is this: if we want to be respected, if we expect to have influence, and if we truly have our neighbors’ best interests at heart, then we can’t be a part of the problems that have brought American political discourse to a standstill. We can’t think of politicians and citizens as obstacles. We need to know we’re all part of the same team, all looking for solutions to shared problems, and we need to act like it.

Special thanks to John D. Wiley and Mark Richenbach, Professors at UW-Madison, for their courses on science policy and communication.

Potential conflicts of interest: the funding for my training grant is provided by the NSF. Constance Steinkuehler is working in collaboration with neuroscientist Richie Davidson, also at UW-Madison and a member of the faculty in the Neuroscience Training Program.

Images: Mike Licht, NotionsCapital.com; geekcalendar.

C.P. Frost About the Author: C.P. Frost is a graduate student in Neuroscience and Public Policy at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. He completed his B.A. in Neuroscience at Dartmouth College in 2010, graduating with honors. His research interests include the intersection of mental health, criminal justice and adolescent development. He writes in a nascent blog on neuroscience, philosophy of mind and scientific thinking called Thinky and the Brain. Follow on Twitter @cpfrost6.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.






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  1. 1. M Tucker 2:07 pm 05/3/2013

    “So why was there no outcry?”

    That is simple. Because the wolves, Coburn and his likeminded buddies in congress, might come after “us” next. Keep quiet, maybe they won’t notice us. Remember what Republicans did to gun violence and gun safety research. You don’t want to get on their radar. Stay low, keep moving, and for God’s sake shut-up.

    Link to this

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