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Notes from the Executive Director

 

 One Page at a Time: Bridging the Science-to-Policy Information Gap

 by Susan Dudley

 

An article by Paul Basken, published in the June 3 issue of the Chronicle of Higher Education, raises some very disturbing and important points about how poorly represented the scientific community is in Congressional hearings, and how we can (and must) improve our communications with the public and policy-makers if we expect our goal of data-driven policy to be met. Basken notes, for example, that of 124 non-government people invited to testify before Congressional committees considering topics that included economic development and trade, taxation, health care, energy, military procurement, prison sentencing, and the environment during a one week period in May, only two were university researchers!

 

There is certainly more than one reason for this under-representation, but one of the causes is rooted in the academic and intellectual approaches that we, as scientists, tend to take in our dealings with the world at large. I learned this lesson the hard way when I first became involved in state-level reproductive rights advocacy back in the 1980’s. Maybe I was more naïve than most, but I went in assuming the legislative process to be informed and rational. Of course I understood that people and parties took opposing positions, and that sometimes politics or big money contributions colored judgments. But I nonetheless imagined that most of the time the positions of elected people-of-good-will were based on their understandings of the facts, and that the role of the advocate was to broaden those understandings so that sound policy would result.

 

Alas. I was dumbstruck to learn that lawmakers weren't interested in the data that I brought them. More than once, I was shooed out of an office by legislators saying that they didn’t have time to talk about the scholarly studies that I was sure would help them vote more intelligently! I heard them (too many times) unabashedly admit to voting on bills that they hadn’t read! My poor academic’s mind was boggled.

 

What I didn’t appreciate then, and I think few people think much about now, is the sheer cumulative page count of the legislation introduced in the course of a year. On Capitol Hill, for example, HR1, the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 (only the first of hundreds of bills that will have been introduced before this session ends) was 407 pages long; the No Child Left Behind Act, up for reauthorization this year, is 670 pages; and a new “discussion draft” of the American Clean Energy and Security Act, runs to 648 pages. The Omnibus Appropriations Act of 2009, has 717 sections, and runs 2289 pages – a length not atypical for annual federal budget legislation. In state houses, although fewer and shorter bills might be introduced in a legislative session, the sessions themselves are often crammed into intense 60- or 90- or 120-day periods, and the legislators typically have day jobs. So their proportional reading burden might not be so very different. And that doesn’t count the many, many additional pages of materials delivered to legislative offices in Washington and around the country by lobbyists, activists, and interested citizens!

 

We social scientists are invariably disappointed – sometimes to the point of shocked incredulity – when political rhetoric is voiced and bills are passed that fly blatantly in the face of well-established empirical data. But can we really be surprised that our policy-makers, even the ones who really want to do the right thing, don’t have time to wade through reprints of the jargon-filled theoretical or technical articles we’ve published in scholarly journals – no matter how elegant, groundbreaking, and important the studies they report may, from our perspective, be?

 

This is why we’re so excited about one new SPSSI project in particular: building a library of ‘one-pagers’ that translate some of the social science data published in JSI, ASAP, and SIPR into the brief, jargon-free, quick to read, and policy-specific single page formats that are a universally valued communications tool in legislatures throughout the country. As Basken reports in his Chronicle article, efforts to accomplish similar goals are being adopted by other science-based organizations. Notably, AAAS has developed a program that they offer in diverse venues to teach scientists how to write more straightforward materials that will penetrate public policy debates.

 

We hope that SPSSI members will read Basken’s piece, check out the first few of our ‘one-pagers’ posted in the Policy section on our website, and join us in this project. Interested members can contact our Policy Coordinator, Chris Woodside (cwoodside@spssi.org), or me to talk about how you can produce and we can disseminate one-pagers to communicate your research to the public and policy-makers who most need to know about it.

 


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Research that produces nothing but books will not suffice.
                                                                                                                    - Kurt Lewin