As a science policy wonk, I spend an inordinate and probably unhealthy amount of time learning about and discussing efficient processes for ensuring that good science informs effective policy.
And as someone who worked in a research capacity for one of the leading political communications firms in the world, I’m also not nearly naive enough to believe that much of it will ever work.
There is a core truth in politics that many of us know: politicians often reflect policy positions that voters find meaningful and important. I bolded “and” because the distinction is key. Many issues are meaningful to voters, but not important enough to alter the voting decision.
The economy is consistently ranked as the most important voting issue. For the 2016 election, PEW Research Center found that “84% of registered voters say that the issue of the economy will be very important to them in making their decision about who to vote for in the 2016 presidential election.”
The environment ranked important with only 52% of voters. But are they really two distinct issues?
In the Great Lakes region, sport fishing contributes nearly $4 billion dollars in economic impact to the area. Commercial fishing is responsible for another $1 billion. That’s a lot of jobs across a lot of industries. And they depend on a healthy environment and a healthy ecosystem. Science is the tool we use to understand that relationship.
Without science, we wouldn’t understand how the tiny invasive New Zealand mud snail is able to proliferate in a river and destroy the habitat that sport fish like trout need to survive. They were recently found in the Pere Marquette and Au Sable rivers.
Or how commercial fisheries are irreparably damaged by changing water temperatures and the introduction of harmful invasive species such as Quagga and Zebra Mussels or Sea Lampreys.
By the way, did you know that there is a “dead zone” in Lake Erie larger than the state of Delaware as a result of algal blooms removing oxygen from the water?
As science communicators, we value above all else the accuracy of our content. First and foremost, are we presenting findings in an appropriate manner?
We are not, however, precluded from changing how we frame an issue. Science, the environment, and the economy are all interconnected in a meaningful and important way. You cannot have one without the other.
If voters declare the economy to be their most important issue, it is our responsibility to discuss how the economy relies on science to survive, function, and grow. Scientific research is a driving force behind economic impact. We must communicate that. Shout it from the roof tops if you have to.
Crain’s Detroit Business reported that “Michigan’s three leading research universities contributed more than 11,600 jobs, $10 million in tax payments and $958 million in economic activity to the city of Detroit last year.”
Nearly $1 billion dollars in economic impact in just the city of Detroit. Our role, as science communicators, must be to bridge the gap and frame scientific issues in meaningful and important ways. Effective policy need not be a guessing game of competing interests and politicking, science communication might just be our most effective tool.