Improving Policymaking with Science Communication

By Sheeva Azma

Perhaps it seems obvious to you that science communication or SciComm is essential to sound science policy, but did you know that it can improve the quality of policy more generally? 

If more scientists were cognizant of the fact that communications matters in both science and policy, #SciComm might be a cornerstone of undergraduate and graduate science curricula alike. #SciPol

Communication matters a lot in the political world. Maybe that’s why SciComm principles translate so well to political advocacy and organizing. If more scientists were cognizant of this fact, SciComm might be a cornerstone of undergraduate and graduate science curricula alike.

photo of the united states capitol building in autumn
Photo by Sobia Akhtar on

I wrote this post to help scientists and science communicators be better able to engage policymakers. Keep reading to learn about the importance of SciComm to drive evidence-based policy, and to gain a few tips on applying SciComm principles when talking to lawmakers.

Science plays a huge role in many important policy issues

Congress approves the vast majority of science funding by appropriating funds each year to government health, science, and technology agencies. Therefore, being able to explain science in layman’s terms is actually an important life skill for scientists, whether they are explaining science to lawmakers, federal granting agencies, colleagues outside of their field, or the general public. 

What’s more, research shows that dialogue between researchers and policymakers leads to better living through evidence-based policy

So many important policy issues today involve science. When facing challenges such as the semiconductor shortage, biomedical science funding, climate, and the like, policymakers rely on staff trained in science, or with significant policy experience in science topics, who can also rapidly digest scientific information to advise them on the best course of action for their constituents and for the nation. 

It’s tough for scientists to break into the policy world (though I’ve done it, and blog about science policy often here). The good news is that you don’t have to work in Congress to develop a communications strategy for political organizing (advocating for a particular cause or helping elect a candidate) or advocacy (talking to lawmakers about a specific bill or issue).

A bit about me

Why should you listen to my advice? I am a science communicator and MIT- and Georgetown-trained neuroscientist; you may be surprised to learn that I am also a total politics nerd. I grew watching CSPAN for fun and I’ve been working on political campaigns since high school. I’ve canvassed voters, planned campaign events, and more. 

I attended Georgetown University for graduate school to be Capitol Hill, where I engaged in science advocacy throughout my grad school years. After graduation, I interned in Congress. In my current work as a freelance science writer and strategist, I work adjacent to Capitol Hill, writing white papers for Congress and developing social media content and other messaging for election campaigns. You can read about my journey to policy as a scientist in a seven-part series I published here on the Fancy Comma blog.

I am a rarity in the science world, and my work at the intersection of science, policy, and writing lends me unique interdisciplinary insights. With a couple of exceptions in the form of prestigious (and hard-to-get) fellowships, there are no established routes for a scientist to follow my path and become a policy wonk, science writer, and communications strategist. 

Now that I’m a science writer, I recognize the importance of communications for both sound science and sound policy. Keep reading for my thoughts on incorporating SciComm into science policy efforts – whether you are engaging with your lawmakers as a private citizen or as part of a larger advocacy group. Communication matters a lot in the political world!

Why does science policy need SciComm?

SciComm can benefit science policy efforts in many ways, including:

  • Helping lawmakers understand science.
  • Providing resources for lawmakers to be better able to explain science-based policies to their constituents.
  • Promoting science literacy through interactions in the policy sphere.

SciComm often involves summarizing and condensing a complex idea in a way that makes sense to people with no science background. Sometimes, the people at the receiving end of SciComm can be lawmakers. Even if a lawmaker has science experience, they face an additional challenge when dealing with science-backed policies: explaining those policies, and why they are important, to their constituents – who are mostly non-scientists, too.

Sometimes, it can be difficult to understand the challenges of a situation if you don’t comprehend the subject itself well. That’s where SciComm comes in – to facilitate understanding to equip lawmakers to become better problem-solvers.

A tangential result of improved SciComm in science policy is the promotion of science literacy through scientists and SciCommers’ interactions in the policy sphere. If some aspect of science is a cornerstone of a political issue, and Congress has the proper resources to communicate that science well, it’s a win for rebuilding trust in science and in Congress alike.

The key is to develop messaging for your science policy endeavors that can be easily accessible to lawmakers. This also helps lawmakers by having the right resources at their disposal to communicate that information to constituents, which can help them gain footing in the political world.

If you’re curious about specific examples of science-backed communications in the political world, check out this post.

In the policy world, presentation matters

In politics, way more than science, presentation matters. People show up to Capitol Hill wearing business formal attire like suits. Think about the way people show up to lab, often wearing jeans and a t-shirt. On Capitol Hill, a lack of formality translates poorly. It might lead to you being taken a lot less seriously.

Not convinced? Just check out the difference between my outfits as a scientist and Capitol Hill intern, respectively.

photo of sheeva azma presenting a science poster at a society for neuroscience conference in san diego, ca in 2007.
Here I am in a long cardigan, jeans, and tee shirt, presenting science at the Society for Neuroscience Conference. As a scientist, my wardrobe was dominated by Wet Seal (I miss that place) and later American Apparel outfits. Pretty casual!
photo collage of sheeva azma's outfits when she interned in Congress
My outfits for interning in Congress. Still on the casual side for the policy world, owing to over a decade of wearing jeans to do science. The sneakers in the last photo were necessary since I was walking around and running errands all day, but they were not just any sneakers – they had bright green soles – so they at least looked stylish.

See the difference?

Similarly, when talking to lawmakers, the way you say something can often be more important than what you say. That could not be more true when corresponding with lawmakers on science issues.

It’s true, one cannot write a science-backed policy without understanding the science. However, the way you communicate to lawmakers about scientists matters a lot. Because most lawmakers are not scientists, applying SciComm principles can help make your communications a lot more effective: whether you are calling your Congressperson on a subject or meeting with them in person…or even making signs for an event such as the March for Science. In turn, when you can help your lawmakers understand science, they will be better able to explain it and associated policy implications to their constituents, too. So, in a way, using SciComm to drive science policy makes the system work better, and promotes science literacy and better living through science. 

Making science policy both effective and commonsense may be one of the greatest challenges of our time, given the public’s lack of trust in Congress and skepticism of science, especially amid the pandemic. Making science a cornerstone of policy can be one way to not only solve difficult problems but also help rebuild trust.

So, you might be wondering, what is the best way to communicate science for effective policy? Keep reading to learn a few ways that science communication principles can make science policy more effective.

SciComm tips to apply to your science policy endeavors

From working both in science policy and now as a professional science communicator, I have learned some things. For starters, science communications lends itself well to science policy. As a volunteer doing phonebanking for a Senate candidate in the 2022 midterms, I reworked the phonebanking script based on my copywriting knowledge. It turned out that my edits led to a lot fewer constituents hanging up on me, and more people answered my phonebanking questions, so I was able to canvass more people.

Keep reading to learn a few of my tips to use sound science communication to drive science policy. 

1. Use tried and true SciComm principles when political organizing or talking to policymakers.

SciComm enhances the quality and depth of policy discussions – and can make political efforts more effective. 

That’s because science communication is just as much about communication as it is about science. What do I mean by this? Engaging in SciComm has helped me become an expert not only in communicating science, but in communication more generally. As a SciCommer, for instance, I know it’s important to know your audience and craft messages with them in mind.

Using communications strategies helps your message get across a lot better, whether you are talking about science or anything else. Learning about SciComm can be a huge asset engaging with policymakers; you can check out our blog for insights on SciComm and communication more generally. 

Mark Bayer of Bayer Strategic, a former Capitol Hill staffer, has a lot to say about applying science communications principles to science policy! Subscribe to his newsletter, One for The Week, to get science communication tips in your inbox weekly.

2. Appeal to shared values.

As a way to discover truths about the natural world, science’s universality transcends party affiliations. As I’ve previously blogged elsewhere, most bipartisan legislative accomplishments in technical areas stem from shared values, above all. When communicating science to policymakers, think about what you might have in common with them, with members of their party, and even with members of the opposing political party. Here’s one example: funding biomedical research helps develop new cures for diseases such as cancer, which helps everyone.

What universal values are inherent in your policy proposal or subject area? Use that to craft your core message.

3. Understand the political process.

A key pillar of communication is to understand your audience. In my mind, this includes understanding the political process. Take the time to read up on your issue area. See what policymakers are saying about it, if anything. Learn about the bills that are being discussed in the issue area, and what actions, if any, have been taken. You can search for legislation on If you want to see what Congress has already examined about a given subject, check the reports published by the Congressional Research Service.

Use the information you get from your research to prepare for questions you may get in the course of advocating for your issue. Try to anticipate what questions policymakers might ask about your issue.

4. Communicate with empathy

Empathic communication is about connecting with people and meeting them where they are. When it comes to science, science communicators likely know more about the subject than lawmakers. If you encounter misconceptions or misinformation, patiently respond without being condescending. Develop a conversational tone and set your goal as informing lawmakers and the general public about your subject. Talking down, ignoring, or otherwise making someone feel bad is not a good communication strategy. It won’t work and, more than likely, will become a stumbling block in your political advocacy.

5. Keep it simple, but not too simple. 

When in doubt, keep your message simple. While this takes some effort and preparation, you can apply this principle to basically any subject…yes, even quantum physics.

First, think about what you want to say, including your policy “ask,” and say it in the fewest number of words possible. You might even ground your message in a personal story that makes whatever you are talking about more real. Explain only the minimum elements you need to get your point across. Come up with a short elevator pitch and a couple of talking points.

Simplifying your message can be a time-consuming step, but it’s one of the most important tasks. You want to develop a message and stay true to it. Congressional staffers are busy and pressed for time and they don’t have time to work to understand your message. Make it understandable for them and you’ll be a lot more successful.

6. See what’s already been done; see if you can align with lawmakers’ goals.

Remember that your job, when talking to lawmakers, is to help them understand how your policy “ask” can help them achieve their goals. For example, if you were to visit a Congressional office to talk about the importance of federal biomedical science funding, you might talk about the fact that science research creates jobs, leads to cures for diseases, and generally helps make people healthier. It’s also a great investment, with every dollar invested in biomedical research bringing a return on investment of several dollars.

Lawmakers are interested in representing their constituents and making their lives easier, and if they have the opportunity to do so, it will bring them good PR and help them fulfill their own objectives of serving their district. So, try to put your policy “ask” in the context of lawmakers’ goals. Subject matter experts’ goals are often well-aligned with sound policy goals, so while this might take a bit of thought, it should not be too much of a challenge. Avoid the trap of falling into partisanship and stick to the facts – you can make nonpartisan arguments that demonstrate better living through science.

7. Connect with your industry’s legislative advocacy organization.

Working with one’s trade organizations can help a lot in the political world. I connected with the Society for Neuroscience to advocate for biomedical research funding on Capitol Hill. They had all the necessary tools to help me be professional and persuasive. Pretty much any science and/or technology field has an advocacy organization. They are already working to advocate for your field in Congress, so you can look to them for advice for issues and policy positions.

Resources for aspiring science policy professionals

Science policy doesn’t necessarily need to be accomplished with a prestigious fellowship or even time spent in Congress; it is something you can pursue on your own time, on your own terms, on issues you care about. Creating informed science policy starts with input from scientists proficient in science communication principles that make complex science topics accessible to lawmakers. Keep in mind that most members of Congress are not scientists; many are lawyers or small business owners.

If you’re interested in the intersection between science communication and science policy, subscribe to our LinkedIn discussion group, “Friends of SciComm and SciPol: Science Communication and Science Policy Discussion Group.”

Scientists and science communicators interested in science policy can check out the blogs we have written on the subject:

Promoting Science in Congress
Getting a Congressional Internship
Bipartisanship in Congress

You can also read all our blog articles about Congress, science policy, and/or SciComm.

The bottom line

Science involves the pursuit of universal truths about the world. Policy involves applying what we know about the world to improve it. That’s why science communication can help ensure that the best policies are being written. Remember to take time to develop a simple and easily understandable key message, and consider policymakers’ goals when developing a policy ask and talking points. Capitol Hill is a fast-paced, sometimes chaotic place, but if you’ve done your research, you can develop messaging that can promote sound policymaking based on science.


One thought on “Improving Policymaking with Science Communication

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: