08 September 2011

Science has a politics problem, continued

Gerty-Z and Blue in Texas have some great comments on my previous post.  They ask the most important question about the "politics problem" facing science today - what do you do about it?  Scientists, like the rest of us, are extraordinarily busy and can't always just drop what they're doing to jump into politics. Blue suggested I augment the post to include links to jobs in "science and public policy."

Well, Sheril has those links at her blog. But I'm not talking about policy; I'm talking about politics. The two terms are related, but definitely not the same thing.  I've said this before about particular scientific issues:
The problem is simple: those who support the status quo have a coherent, coordinated, and well-funded communications strategy. Those who support real change (and sound science) do not.
The model for political success is out there.  Scientists, collectively, need to do what other special interests do - unite, pool resources, and develop a coordinated, long-term strategic campaign that includes lobbying, contributing to political campaigns, grassroots organizing, and media relations.  That's what the energy industry does.  That's what the health care industry does.  That's what the financial services industry does.  These industries achieve success despite having countless members who are simply too busy with their real lives to lobby or go on television or knock on doors. 

They succeed because they delegate communications and political strategy to experts in THOSE fields.  They don't simply leave it to their "professional" organizations. They retain PR and lobbying shops like my company or my competitors. We develop strategies and test messages. We leverage our relationships in politics and media to get our clients' priorities in front of the right people.  We build alliances with other influential groups and people.  We do real outreach to both "opinion elites" and the general public through advertising, social media, and PR. We keep clients focused and disciplined.

And we win.  It doesn't happen overnight, but we win.

And so advocates of science face another set of challenges.  The first is coming to some kind of consensus that this is actually a worthwhile approach.  The second is developing a comprehensive strategy that acknowledges there is no "silver bullet" but many steps are necessary.  The third is marshaling the resources - money, time, leadership. The fourth is maintaining enough discipline to stay "on message" and remain united in a goal.

I know there are a lot of groups out there already working on this sort of thing - AAAS, NCSE, UCC, and so on. Those are good organizations run by good, smart people.  But they don't coordinate efforts enough, they don't work a lot with firms like mine, and they don't spend the money it takes to be successful.

I read about a new "science PAC" being formed, and that's a good start, but the only organization I actually saw referred to as a "PAC" wasn't a PAC at all - it was a 501c3 non-profit.  Those organizations have significant restrictions on lobbying activity and don't contribute to campaigns.

I know this isn't easy.  But I also know that without a coordinated strategy that combines all these elements we get the status quo - a relatively small group of smart, committed people working hard trying good ideas that don't endure on their own.  We get things like Science Debate. Or a letter signed by a bunch of very smart academics that is good for maybe a news article and won't get far in Congress.  We get Chris Mooney media-training scientists whenever he can, but basically in a defensive posture - "responding" to "crazy questions" as opposed to developing and framing story ideas and firing FIRST, not firing back.  We get phone calls or emails to legislators that get nothing but a "thank you for your comment" response.  We get small-dollar contributions that lack the political impact of "bundling" into recognizable groups.

Meanwhile, the interests who spend money change the rules to preserve their advantage.  They push for laws to create "SuperPAC's" and new organizations that allow them to conceal their true identity.  They write loopholes into ethics laws.  In many cases, they draft legislative language for members of Congress and watch those members file that language verbatim. They hold more fundraisers.

Bottom line: if something is important enough, you spend money and time on it.  If it's not, you just talk about it.

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