Welcome to our August 2015 newsletter: Communicating science for evidence-based decision-making

In June this year, the Secretary of the Department of the Environment Dr Gordon de Brouwer addressed the Australian Academy of Science about how science contributes to decisions about the environment in Australia.

Policymakers have to consider a myriad of factors: science is only one of them, “alongside other disciplines, like economics, law and social sciences”, Dr de Brouwer said.

In the most successful situations, science can help frame problems, identify priorities, and contribute to guidelines to tackle these problems.

This month we share some of our thoughts about how decision-making can be influenced by communicating science.

As always, we’d love your feedback via Facebook, Twitter or email.

Regards from the @EconnectTeam,

Jenni Metcalfe, Mary O’Callaghan (newsletter editor), Sarah Cole, Jane Ilsley, Tom Dixon and Elisabeth Berry.


Influencing policymakers with science

By Toss Gascoigne

So, you are ready to speak to policymakers (local member, minister, their staff and bureaucrats) and influence the debate with science.

Politicians and policymakers like people with ideas and potential solutions – that’s you! – but how should you go about it?

Here are 5 simple rules:

  1. Think about the people you are trying to convince. What do they want? What do they know already? How long and how technical should your information be? Research the answers in advance. Generally, short and simple is best. Remember that policymakers are more interested in the outcomes of your research than how you did it.
  2. Keep the agenda clear. Set out the issue and the actions you propose, and follow up with a letter summarising the discussion.
  3. Be aware of potential pitfalls. Make sure you choose the right minister or bureaucrat: the one responsible for policy in your area. Don’t raise issues unless you have a solution. Be aware of the decision-making process, and make your points before policy ideas have hardened.
  4. The best meetings are short, have a well-defined agenda and clear aims, and are accompanied by simple written material. Get to the point quickly, and don’t take too many people with you (2 or 3 is good).
  5. The weight of numbers is hard to ignore, so build alliances and networks. Find other groups which agree with you on a particular issue and consider making joint representations to the minister.

CSIRO researchers looking at bushfire issues. Image: Robert Kerton, 2009; CSIRO Science Image library

It’s not just about the facts

By Jenni Metcalfe

Communicating science that has been manufactured into a controversy, like for climate change, is not just about the facts.

If you focus on the science while ignoring people and their differing values and beliefs, you will be unlikely to change attitudes or behaviours.

My research indicates that people are much more likely to listen and engage in climate change dialogue and actions if you:

  • recognise their values and emotions along with the facts
  • make it about their local situation rather than about global climate science
  • discuss the changes they have noticed locally rather than argue the details of anthropogenically-caused climate change
  • focus on evidence-based solutions rather than the possible impacts of climate change
  • present climate trends in graphs, rather than using detailed scientific explanations
  • point out the costs of inaction, which people respond to better, rather than the costs of action.

The power of science in activism

By Elisabeth Berry

Citizen science, or ‘grassroots’ science, is when ordinary people from diverse walks of life and of different ages, experience and skills get actively involved in scientific research.

A new study by Duke University in the US has found that citizen science not only boosts environmental awareness and advocacy, but can lead to broader public support for conservation. Participants in the study gained environmental knowledge and skills, and a number also became environmental advocates, sharing their knowledge with their social networks.

I experienced this firsthand.

In March 2006, the Queensland government announced that a mega-dam was going to be built on the Mary River in the Sunshine Coast Hinterland to supply Brisbane with water.

People of the Mary Valley and other communities downstream had a different opinion on whether it should happen. Communities opposed to the dam worked as hard as the government to construct their own wall of opposition to the proposal.

I was a member of one of those communities. My love of the river grew from a love of its estuary and a growing understanding of how vital its flows are to ocean ecosystems. People told me that the government wouldn’t back down after investing so much money in the process.

But science won out, in the end.

Science told us that flows from the river support the marine ecosystems of the Fraser Island World Heritage area, and that they represent the best chance of survival for the vulnerable Australian Lungfish and only chance for the survival for the endangered Mary River turtle and critically endangered Mary River cod.

Mary River cod. Image: Queensland Department of Agriculture and Fisheries

By effectively and strategically using science, people with non-scientific backgrounds managed to persuade the federal government that building the dam was not a good idea, and the mega-dam was scrapped.

Science showed communities of the river that it was worth protecting in more ways than they had imagined, and understanding the science gave individual citizens the power and the confidence to contradict the authority that denied it.

So, get out there and work with the science! The easier it is for the community to understand a subject, the more likely they are to act on it. The consequences can be incredibly far-reaching.

Physical tools that demonstrate science for decision-making

By Sarah Cole

On-farm decision-making is difficult – there are many factors to consider (apart from climate) which have aspects of uncertainty (as forecasts do).

A physical tool I saw in March this year opened up great discussion with farmers – a well-worn wooden raffle wheel which quickly and intuitively demonstrated probability and risk.

Communicating science, especially chance or odds, can be tricky but simple, visual tools to connect with the science has a lot of potential to help people with on-farm decision-making.

Dr Peter Hayman owns the raffle wheel. He’s a principal scientist in climate applications at the South Australian Research and Development Institute.

Red, blue and yellow thirds of the wheel demonstrated the chance of normal, wetter or drier seasons in a year not affected by a strong El Niño or La Niña.

In the front of the room, Peter spun the wheel, demonstrating an element of chance which will exist no matter how good our forecasts get.

For the second spin demonstrating a strong El Niño year with more chance of drought, Peter slid the red chunk around to take up more room on the wheel – the higher chance of a drier year.

Uncertainty in global climate systems means we still have to ‘spin the wheel’ and land on just one outcome – even if that means a wetter season in the middle of an El Niño – but as our climate knowledge improves and gets closer to real world outcomes, we can move the chunks to better represent what we might see from each season.

I believe the visual representation of these outcomes could influence how farmers think about decisions in the face of Australia’s variable and changing climate.

Decision-making on farm for stocking rates of cattle. Image: Econnect Communication