Communicating Your Science When It Matters Most

By: Caitlin Burgdorf, BS (Current PhD candidate at Weill Cornell)

In February of 2019, the annual meeting of American Association for the Advancement of Science held in Washington D.C addressed science policy topics and instructed attendees on ways to communicate these issues to influential stakeholders. During one session, Amy and Roger Aines presented their newly published book titled “Championing Science: Communicating Your Ideas to Decision Makers.” In their presentation, they outlined strategies to help scientists develop essential science communication skills to effectively portray their message. Amy and Roger Aines discovered and developed these strategies first-hand while speaking with policymakers about governmental regulation relating to climate change.

Climate change is only one example of an issue that highlights the increasing importance for scientists to communicate their research in an effective and clear manner. Scientists communicate their research to policymakers to increase visibility for a research topic or organization, gain support for a particular field of research, and inform policymakers of the current state of the field in order to persuade them to change a policy or law. However, research shows that scientists and the public feel that science is not being used enough to inform political decisions. Therefore, it is the responsibility of scientists to better communicate their knowledge. What steps can scientists take to make a convincing argument to decision makers when the stakes are high? How can scientists use strategic messaging to confidently get their message across to an agency or politician?

Speaking to policymakers can feel intimidating to anyone, including scientists, due to the limited amount of available time to make your key points in an argument. As a result, it is necessary to design and develop your message with intention. Amy and Roger Aines began their seminar by emphasizing the importance of recognizing the gap in knowledge between parties. When developing a pitch, many people, especially scientists, do not acknowledge that they have a completely different set of expertise compared to their audience and create an unintentional paradigm gap in knowledge as a result. Instead, to inform and influence decision makers, it is imperative to identify the paradigm gap and meet these individuals where their understanding on the topic ends. By recognizing this gap, this allows you to more effectively tailor the most important points of the message directly to the audience.

As described in Amy and Roger Aines’ recent book, the best way to keep your message clear and concise is to comprise your presentation into four key components:

  1. State the problem.

Define your objective for the conversation early. The problem that you would like to address may range from a lack of public knowledge on a topic to a gap in policy regarding a subject. Define the scale of the problem including number of people affected by the problem.

  1. Explain a solution to fix the problem.  

Focus the policymakers’ attention on a single option.

  1. Justify why your solution is the best choice to fill the technical gap.

Present a clear argument to this choice of action by emphasizing the strengths of the solution, and include context for how this solution will help others.

  1. Clearly ask for the request (money, policy support, collaboration, etc).

Policymakers and their staff know that you have arranged this meeting for a reason and are appreciative of explicit and direct requests.

In addition, it is critical to effectively tailor your pitch to policymakers by knowing your audience. While preparing your message, make sure to research their personal background, voting history, and political platform in order to know how they will emotionally respond to the words in your message.

Furthermore, when developing your message to policymakers, it is important to remember that they are expected to make decisions on a wide variety of topics and thus do not have time to dive into primary literature. Policymakers are not likely to be specialists in the topic area and instead rely on technical specialists to explain complex topics to them. As a result, when communicating to policymakers, the presented information should be concise and easily digestible. To ensure that your message is understood, avoid jargon and instead use language that a non-specialist audience can understand. Remember, the goal of the conversation should be to engage the audience, not prove your own knowledge on the topic.

Effective communication to policymakers relies on strategic messaging that is based off research, observation, and engagement. Compelling messages are structured by first stating the problem, explaining the solution to the problem and why it is the best option, and directly asking for action. If you tailor your presentation to the needs of policymakers in a concise manner with their technical and political background in mind, your message is much more likely to influence decision makers and impact future policy.

About the Author: Caitlin Burgdorf is a Ph.D. candidate at Weill Cornell Medicine pursuing her neuroscience degree in the study of addiction sciences. Caitlin is interested in pursuing a career that combines science communication and public health policy after she completes her PhD in July 2019. Caitlin can be contacted at