Science in service of public policy

I had the unusual experience of appearing as an intervenor at a public hearing.  This week many from the Whitefish Project were in Kincardine for a re-licencing hearing for a nuclear generating station.  I always hoped that the data we produced would be useful for setting public policy and could be applied to environmental assessments but this was the first time where our research has been directly relevant and timely to a regulatory decision process and required direct involvement in that process.  Clearly, it is one small piece of the enormous amount of information and data being considered by the Commissioners in this decision, but it is still there.  I think it is important that science informs public policy decisions and was happy to take part.  Participation has surely taught me many things, but foremost is the importance of developing the ability to communicate science to diverse stakeholders.

Science communication is a difficult and challenging thing.  We have technical expertise and are used to speaking to others with a similar knowledge base.  That means that when we speak to each other, scientists use their own language, a high technical language that is difficult for non-scientists to comprehend.  So what happens if you want others to use your data?  Learning to explain your data to people with different technical backgrounds really isn’t enough.  We need to learn how to communicate what we know and what we don’t know in clear and simple language and I can tell you this is not easy.

I will be reflecting on both the written submission, our oral presentation to the commission, and how we answered questions from the commissioners for some time.  I believe that as a researcher, I have much to learn about how to effectively communicate my research to those beyond my discipline and that practice and reflection about what worked and what didn’t is likely the only way to really improve.