1 February 2021

By Marina Joubert

University-based researchers and science policymakers live in different worlds, face different challenges and have different information needs. However, for science to impact policymaking, they must find a common language and a way to communicate effectively.

Six researchers who participated in a December 2019 science communication masterclass at CREST, were inspired to put their heads together in order to craft a science communication strategy that would help bridge the science–policy gap. In order to do this, they tackled five key questions from their joint perspectives:

  • Who do researchers think policymakers are?
  • How do policymakers perceive research?
  • What concerns do policymakers have about research?
  • What information are policymakers interested in?
  • What forms of communication do policymakers prefer?

This team of researchers, consisting of Molly Czachur, Melvi Todd, Tainã Loureiro, James Azam, Siphokazi Nyeleka, Mandi Alblas and Sarah Davies, share their views and recommendation in a commentary, published in the January 2021 issue of the South African Journal of Science.

The team suggests that the core concerns of policymakers about research, would be around its perceived inaccessibility, lack of relevance and scalability, high cost, complexity and long timelines. In contrast, they perceive that policymakers usually want research outcomes that are practical and that can be applied easily when drafting new policies or be used to defend existing policies. They also realise that research is unlikely to influence policy if the required changes are not feasible in the short term.

Another challenge is that policymakers are often inundated with research information and that it may be hard to get their time and attention. Therefore, communication that is timely and succinct is of the essence. A key lesson, from the experience of team members, is that personal interaction with policymakers may be more effective than relying only on emails, reports and brochures. Interpersonal communication works best when there is a pre-existing relationship and trust between the policymaker and the scientist.

Their commentary concludes with a call for more effective dialogue between scientists and policymakers in South Africa, adding that more research is urgently needed to untangle and understand perceptions and needs of both parties.