Publishing for change

How can scientific publishers help policy-relevant articles reach the right people? A lesson from New York City and the New York City Panel on Climate Change.

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I consider myself a New Yorker, and therefore share the opinion of many New Yorkers that New York is the best city in the world. The New York Academy of Science’s Summit “Science for Decision-Making in a Warmer World” provided further evidence that I am right: In a time when science, truth and policy are rarely aligned, this summit showed NYC’s commitment to integrating researchers and policy makers, providing a constructive forum for discussing how we can, together, prepare for the changes that we know are occurring and build our city for tomorrow.

It was inspiring to experience the success with which the city is facilitating the communication between scientists and policy makers. This made me wonder whether we, as publishers of a wide range primary research and reviews/perspectives relevant to climate change, behavioral change, and policy could do to help facilitate communication between researchers and policy makers. Perhaps we could expand this discussion from the individual city level to international scientists and policy makers across the globe?

Properly answering this question requires us to understand a range of perspectives so I interviewed three people tackling climate changes from different perspectives: Michael Oppenheimer, a member of the New York City Panel on Climate Change and professor at Princeton, Mandy Ikert, Head of Adaptation Implementation at C40 Cities Climate Leadership Group, and Jainey Bavishi, Director of the NYC Mayor’s Office of Recovery and Resiliency. I asked each of them what they thought we, as publishers of cutting-edge research related to climate change and behavioral change, can do to help better communicate the research we publish.

Michael Oppenheimer, NPCC member and Princeton professor, felt that the best thing we could do was to increase both the number of interdisciplinary papers we publish (especially those applied to the policy domain) and their visibility. Importantly, he pointed out that we need to encourage and support interdisciplinarity, both in journals and content; the necessary advances to address complex problems such as climate change require collaborations that cross traditional disciplinary boundaries.

He also pointed out that we could provide multiple translations of a scientific paper, helping scientists tailor their messages for specific audiences, and helping audiences understand what scientists mean. This point resonated with me: We spend time helping scientists write for other scientists and could expand this to help them write for policy makers, once we understand what it is they want. We have to think about our audience and translate the messages in our articles for multiple audiences. It would be great if we could become a forum that offers the science for scientists but also act as translators that provide a resource of understandable and actionable science for policy makers. 

Mandy Ikert, C40 cities, pointed out that one of the most important thing in communication is knowing your audience. If we, as scientific publishers, want to bridge the gap between science and policy, we have to understand our new audience, the policy makers. We have to understand what sustains their attention and what motivates them to take action based on the information they receive, and tailor our message accordingly. To do this, we need to understand the different levels in the knowledge production chain, which begins with basic research and moves through a number of levels, culminating in actionable science and policy. “Too many of us are trying to do too many things, which means that we often end up doing some of them poorly. If we can clearly identify our own strengths and their boundaries, then we can identify beneficial partnerships and delineate our roles.” 

I could see one of our roles as translators, but also could see us conferring validity on the research we publish through our rigorous review process. Policy makers must be able to trust the science and scientists, and we can help provide reassurance that the data is considered accurate.

Jainey Bavishi, NY Mayor’s office, echoed the importance of having people who can translate science; in fact, the Mayor’s office is hiring somebody for exactly such a “translator” position: a person who understands the science and what is important for policy makers. However, this is just one example of such a translator. Policies impact communities, so it is also important that people understand the rationale - which is often science-based - behind the decisions. This can only be done if we are able to connect the science we publish with peoples’ everyday lives. This again was a point that resonated with me as a scientific editor. Though we do publish science, it is done by individuals living today in the real world, and it is our job, as publishers, to help bring the science we publish back to the present and real world (my words, not hers).

It was clear to me in this conversation that science publishing wasn’t always the best bridge between scientists and policy makers. For example, the link to NPCC is not dependent on science publishing: NPCC produces their report, which the policy makers then use. When the policy makers have questions, they go back to the NPCC and those answers are then provided, either directly or in the next report. There is no place for science publishing in this model. By creating a space in which we can publish translations of the policy relevant science we publish, I believe that we could begin to build another bridge that would hopefully be useful to scientists and policy makers internationally.

References:

(1) NPCC. 2019. Advancing Tools and Methods for Flexible Adaptation Pathways and Science Policy Integration: New York City Panel on Climate Change 2019 Report. C. Rosenzweig & W. Solecki, Eds. Ann. N.Y. Acad. Sci. 1439.

Go to the profile of Mary Elizabeth Sutherland

Mary Elizabeth Sutherland

Senior Editor, Nature Human Behaviour

computational social science, social science, social psychology, cognitive psychology, social and affective neuroscience, cognitive neuroscience, neuroscience

2 Comments

Go to the profile of Tobias Schmidt
Tobias Schmidt 22 days ago

Thanks for your comment! I could not agree more - alot of insights get lost on the way to the policy makers or communities! I think there is a couple of options:

1) Publishers like Nature Springer go ahead and publish policy briefs based on the (policy-relevant) papers they publish. I guess, publishers would have to hire people who really know how to translate a scientific paper into such policy brief. Researchers are not well trained (and unfortunately often lack the time and incentive to get training)

2) Universities hire "translators". 

3) Universities change incentives for researchers (though I think employing "translators" might be more efficient and effective)

4) Researcher use the media more. In my experiences, press articles are often a more effective way of reaching policy makers than through policy briefs. But again, incentives/translators/training needed.

Any plans from Nature Journals to become active on point 1?

Go to the profile of Jenn Richler
Jenn Richler 22 days ago

Stay tuned.... :)