How to Use Political Savvy to Strengthen Policies with Science

Can we inform policy while avoiding politics when science is politicized?

09 . 11 . 2022

How can we more effectively inform policy while avoiding politics—in a world where science is increasingly politicized? Amber Mace, Chief Executive Officer of the California Council on Science and Technology (CCST), identifies three universal factors for providing nonpartisan science advice in the policy world.

CCST is a nonpartisan, nonprofit science advisory organization with a mission and mandate grounded in the provision of independent, evidence-based advice to California state policymakers. Amber Mace, PhD, is interested in how to better inform policymaker conversations about science. 

The truth is, one must be very politically savvy to stay apolitical.

It may sound like an oxymoron, but the ability to navigate the system in which we operate requires relationships with political leaders and an understanding of the political issues and forces at play. To translate complex and uncertain scientific information for policymakers, policy advisors must be fluent in the language of policy and skilled at navigating political decision-making processes.

My own credibility and weight as a trusted advisor on scientific matters hinges on the ability to understand the culture, languages, and incentives of both the science and policy worlds.

In a complex and rapidly evolving information environment, my science training provides the foundation for understanding the best available evidence. I’ve found that my previous service as a senior political appointee in state government has been equally critical to understanding how policy is made and ensuring that advice responds to policymaker needs for information.

For example, what are the scientific implications of different policy options? What are the tradeoffs and who are the winners and losers? Where are the technical barriers to implementation? And increasingly, what can the social and behavioral sciences tell us about the cultural barriers to implementation?

I’d argue that there are at least three universal factors for success in the policy advisory world: 

  • Relationships matter. Decisions are made at the speed of trust.
  • Credibility is paramount. An understanding of the policy landscape, coupled with deep technical expertise, is critical to delivering actionable evidence-based advice.
  • Integrity is foundational. For CCST, this means accountability to our core values of service, independence, and partnership, rooted in a foundational commitment to diversity, equity, and inclusion.

    At CCST, we build on these factors through our science services, advising the State on critical, technical issues for California’s future via peer-reviewed, technical studies, topical briefings and workshops with experts, and an innovative fellowship program to place scientists directly into policy offices to work alongside State leaders.

    Through a unique public-private partnership with the California State government, CCST places talented PhD scientists and engineers to serve as fellows in legislative and executive branch offices. The CCST Science and Technology Policy Fellows program provides policymakers with access to science-trained staff, while Fellows develop valuable skills and relationships in public policy with enduring career impacts.

    Our path as a society suggests that science will be increasingly politicized in the future, intensifying the need for trusted, credible science advisors in policymaking.

    To ensure that our policies benefit from science, we must continue to train and develop politically-savvy scientists and science-savvy policymakers, as we strive to strengthen public trust in science for the long-term.

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