April 10, 2015, by Brigitte Nerlich

What role for a scientist in political science communication?

This is a GUEST POST by ATHENE DONALD, Professor of Experimental Physics at the University of Cambridge and Master of Churchill College.

A couple of months ago Brigitte Nerlich, who hosts this blog, asked me to contribute a post. As it happened, when she sent me the invitation I had just read, and possibly inwardly digested, a post of hers from here entitled Science, politics and science communication and I agreed to write something of a follow up. Circumstances intervened to delay my response; in the meantime we are moving ever closer to an election which also focusses the mind on science and where it sits (or doesn’t) in politicians’ minds.

So, should a practicing research scientist worry their pretty little head about political science communication? Many do not. Many don’t want to, but that doesn’t mean they are right to opt out completely. Some scientists, some of the time, most certainly should or our government will have an even weaker evidence base on which to build when it comes to key decisions. These decisions may be ones that have a substantial scientific component (badger culling, energy policy or ‘three parent babies’ to name some recent high profile issues), albeit there will be many ingredients which are less than scientific any self-respecting politician will be inclined to factor in. In particular, are there votes in it?

The scientist who chooses to engage needs to be willing to speak out, garner the evidence and present it in ways that capture the essence without over-egging the detail. But they need to realise that, however much their scientific upbringing tells them things should be otherwise, that isn’t all the politician will rely on. I came to this realisation rather late in life. It is not something our universities are inclined to teach within a standard science course, where black and white tend to be easily distinguished and kept far apart. This is one of the fundamental clashes that a typical scientist might have with a social scientist let alone a policy-maker.


Scientists don’t naturally set about ‘framing an argument’. Yet framing is indeed important if you want to be persuasive with someone whose background and expectations may be very different from your own. My impression is that the very word ‘framing’ is one unfamiliar to many scientists, or at least that is my personal experience. I only finally realised its meaning and importance in this context, largely as a result of reading Mike Hulme’s excellent ‘Why we disagree about climate change‘. Framing is certainly more likely to matter in a policy situation than when writing a physics thesis. Nevertheless, even for the latter it is the case that you need to think about the balance and relevance of those facts you are presenting and the context in which you choose to write.

It is always necessary to work out how to join the dots between different sets of data, between your data and the hypothesis you were meant to be testing and between your data and anything similar in the literature. Maybe you don’t want to think that this is the same as any ‘framing’ that might be done by a politician, but perhaps the distance between the two approaches is less than you might think. Nevertheless, I have heard scientists express amazement that anything other than ‘hard facts’ could be relevant to a decision; an attitude like that is never going to persuade a policy-maker to change their mind.

Three-parent babies

The recent change in law regarding three parent babies is a case in point where, once scientists had established the feasibility of the protocol and also the level of associated risks, it became necessary to move beyond simply repeating a mantra along the lines of ‘it’s perfectly safe’ to trying to understand the concerns that individuals might have. Mark Henderson gives a telling account of how one of the key scientists involved in the research, Doug Turnbull from the University of Newcastle, made it his business to go out and about talking about the research and the associated issues, to go from an anxious communicator who wanted to go ‘on holiday’ presumably to get away from the press, to one who could give a coherent and succinct account on TV and radio. Because of his willingness to talk to the media, the public and the policy-makers, however much it may have been tinged with reluctance and a desire that it shouldn’t be necessary to do this at all, the fruits of his research have now been passed into law for the benefit of those families whose genes mean their mitochondria are damaged. Few of us could make such a claim about the impact of our research.


As a second shining example of a scientist who has used his physics training to inform a far wider audience than the students in his lecture theatre, I would cite Dave Mackay. Originally from my own department in Cambridge, where his research revolved around inference and Bayesian approaches, he took on the task of simplifying the realities of our energy usage and demand (N.B. not his specific research area). From his own questioning about orders of magnitude and the feasibility of different quasi-sustainable approaches to our energy supply he first produced a book (Sustainable Energy without the Hot Air, compelling reading if you haven’t yet come across it) and then took on the task of CSA at the Department of Energy and Climate Change, where he continued to press the basic facts home. Few of us might want to go as far as becoming a departmental chief scientific adviser, but he is a wonderful exemplar of what can be done by committed individuals who buy in to the idea of extending their reach into the policy arena.

Beyond enthusiasm

Scientists attempting to communicate and reach out to wider audiences, who want their work’s worth to be fully recognized and acted upon, need to do more than be enthusiastic at science festivals or turn up to talk at their local school. All that is important – it is what Brigitte referred to as public communication – but for some of us some of the time we need to bite the bullet to get more involved with political communication, be it regarding the specifics of one’s research or the context in which that research gets done. Many of us may have views about that context, which could include ethical or funding issues, but griping within our own community is not sufficient if we expect any change to be forthcoming from the powers-that-be. Perhaps our universities should be providing more information and insight about this challenge, alongside entrepreneurship and ethics, in their graduate courses.

Image: Palace of Westminster by Alvesgaspar (Wikimedia Commons)

Posted in PoliticsScienceScience and Governmentscience and politicsScience Communication