How to use knowledge
British report rates experiments to broaden the reach of information based on scientific evidence
In recent decades, countries like England, the United States and Germany have undertaken a series of initiatives to improve the communication of research results to the public. The goal is to help government officials and other administrators make the best possible use of information supported by scientific evidence. Now, a group of British researchers has decided to look into these experiments to determine what worked. The result of this initiative is the report “Using evidence – What Works?” based on an NGO partnership between the Alliance for Useful Evidence and researchers from University College London (UCL), and the health research foundation, Wellcome Trust. The entire document is available at bit.ly/AUEvidence. “A significant portion of the research is publicly funded. If we don’t understand how to foster the use of these results in formulating effective policies and programs, we will miss out on opportunities,” explains David Gough, a UCL professor and one of the report’s coordinators.
More than 150 initiatives described in scientific articles and books published in recent years were evaluated. At least 30 examples demonstrated some success in the strategy to broaden society’s assimilation of scientific information. One example cited was that of the so-called journal clubs, which is the name given to fora promoting the reading and discussion of scientific articles created by departments at research universities and institutions. The profile of these clubs has evolved; in the past they were used primarily by researchers in a specific field. Now, these fora are active throughout social media – discussion groups on medical and academic issues, mainly on Twitter, exchange information that links recently published papers and a shared hashtag. According to the report, “journal clubs can help professionals find a specific kind of evidence that meets their needs.” By sharing and analyzing scientific articles, professionals in each specialty can obtain a better grasp on how the evidence can fit in with their work instead of just following the abstract advice offered by specialists.
There are other successful examples cited of research institutions reaching the lay public. The University of Brighton in the United Kingdom opened a channel for feedback from the local population through which citizens can suggest research ideas and participate in their implementation. One project stands out among the dozens of projects carried out jointly by researchers, students and community members: the creation of an air quality alert system that sends text messages to cell phones.
The report relays positive results for training programs focused on civil servants and public administrators. Through a program called Evidence for Policy Design, Harvard University has offered on-line courses that prepare professionals to work with scientific information. Another example is that of the Alliance for Useful Evidence, which offers a course for administrators. The Alliance is funded by proceeds from a lottery and the support of the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) in the United Kingdom.
The right words
The report also highlights strategies to broaden the public’s understanding of scientific texts. Telling stories that captivate audiences and avoiding technical jargon are two recommended approaches, along with using tools like social networks to communicate information. The experience of the Intergovernmental Panel for Climate Change (IPCC) demonstrates the importance of finding the right words to inform the lay public about the results of scientific research. In its last two reports, the agency used terms like “probable” or “highly improbable” to communicate its predictions to the public. Although these terms are not as precise as those required in scientific debates, they are more easily understood by the population at large.
Carlos Joly, biologist and professor at the University of Campinas (Unicamp), says that one of the contributions made by the report is that it highlights the importance of collaboration between scientists and administrators. “The cases presented show that you can foster an interactive environment which includes all the actors involved. This approach takes work, but it can lead to grounded and long-lasting solutions,” he says. Joly coordinates the Biota-FAPESP program, established in 1999. The research it produced has inspired environmental legislation in the state of São Paulo, serving as a reference point in the formulation of 23 state resolutions and decrees. He wishes the Biota example were more well known in Brazil. “Even in states where the scientific community is more active, researchers face obstacles in their work to influence public administrators.”
With experience in government administration in the areas of science, technology and education, where he held positions in the federal government and contributed to drafting reports by IPCC (of which he was a member), climatologist Carlos Nobre says the report has some good ideas, but he has some reservations. “The document does a good job laying out practical guidelines to encourage communication between scientists and decision-makers. However, the cases have only a local or regional impact. The report does not address the issue of how science can influence policy on a national or global level on subjects like national security or sustainable development,” says Nobre, who is a member of the International Network for Government Science (INGSA).
Nobre also highlights another aspect of the report, which is that many of its examples come from the health sector. “When they are life-saving, research results tend to be absorbed very quickly. In other areas of research, like energy, it is more difficult to get there,” he says. Nobre believes that scientists should be included in policy design. “Usually what happens is that researchers are sought out for their views when the draft legislation is already making its way through Congress. That is not good enough. Decision-makers, scientists and representatives of civil society need to sit down together from the initial discussions. This is what is known as co-design,” says Nobre.
One example of this type of interaction occurred with the creation of the report, “Bioenergy & sustainability: Bridging the gaps,” the result of a partnership between FAPESP and the Scientific Committee on Problems of the Environment (SCOPE). Released in 2015, the document is based on almost 2,000 studies conducted by 137 specialists from 24 countries. “The goal is to influence bioenergy policies on a global level. For this reason, several meetings involving scientists and government authorities were held during preparation of the document,” says to Glaucia Mendes Souza, a coordinating member of the FAPESP Bioenergy Research Program (BIOEN) and co-author of the document.
SCOPE’s report provides research results, an analysis of the current bioenergy situation and a critical review of its impacts. “So that our recommendations have a global impact, we have to deal directly with governments. This involves a dialogue with specific ministries, which requires an ongoing effort not only to communicate but also to interact with all the actors involved,” says Souza.