© DPG / Fernández-Muñoz 2021

How can physicists give advice to policy makers?

Political decisions become more and more complex, so advice and advocacy from science have increasing importance. Alejandro Fernández Muñoz explains how physicists can engage in public policy.

Alejandro Fernández Muñoz participated in the programme »Train the Trainers: Building Advocacy Capacities in Public Policy« given by the European Physical Society and the consultancy Interel. He studied physics and experimental science in Madrid and is president and co-founder of the Student's Group of the Spanish Royal Physics Society (RSEF).

What is the idea behind the Train the Trainers workshop?

The idea behind this workshop was to enhance the advocacy skills of professionals with a background in physics. With this aim, the course covered a broad and solid overview of advocacy: what it is, why it matters and how to do it properly. What made it even more enriching is the fact that our mentors were professional lobbyists, who shared with us real case scenarios and were willing to answer every single question we posed. Sharing the workshop with people from all around Europe, who contributed with their own perspectives, made the experience even better.

Can everybody engage with politicians? Do scientists have a special role in giving advice?

For the inexperienced reader, it may be useful to start defining what advocacy means: it is the process by which you seek to influence a policy maker, and inform the organization that you represent about what has been said and will be done.

From this definition, the possibility of individual engagement may be easily discarded. But nothing could be further from the truth: all of us can engage with politicians; expose them our perspective on a certain topic and try to influence their decisions on the matter. However, it is also true that a single individual will not be given the importance of a national association, for example. Could you image a physics PhD candidate having the same political influence as the whole DPG? Doesn’t make much sense, right?

It is just a matter of support: politicians are elected by large groups of people, and thus tend to listen (more carefully) to opinions backed by a considerable number of citizens. That is politics, and we can fool ourselves thinking that, ideally, gaining critical mass support should not be necessary to attract the attention of politicians. In the meantime, we would only by failing to achieve our real objective: to make our voices be heard and, hopefully, influence the decision-making process of our interest.

With this in mind, we can now answer the second question: do scientists have a special role in giving advice? Yes, of course, they do. They do so because scientists are responsible for the advancements that have enabled our society to evolve from the poverty of pre-industrial times to the welfare states that we enjoy nowadays in Europe. Because they continue to invest their working lives in making the world a better place to live in. Because they are the ones alerting the planet on the very challenges and dangers that we will face in the years to come.

So yes, scientists do have a special role in giving advice. But... Do they know how to do it? Do they have the correct mindset for advocacy? Do they understand the position of the politician who they are trying to influence? These are certainly key questions that need to be considered when evaluating the success or failure of any advocacy attempt, even more when coming from the scientific side. I hope that we have some more time during the interview to discuss this more deeply.

Why is scientific advice important? Which political decisions depend on scientific expertise?

Scientific advice is important because science and its related technological and knowledge advancements underlie, for example, the development of modern economy. To put it in numbers, a recent study commissioned by the European Physical Society – to whom I am thankful for having sponsored the Train the Trainers workshop – reported that physics-based industries typically account for 16% of the total turnover of the EU28 business economy (1). And this report focused only on physics! Imagine if it had considered the chemical, pharma and biotech industries, too!

Just to mention some examples, several political decisions that depend on scientific expertise include the approval of vaccines, emissions threshold of greenhouse effect gases, approval/illegalization of food additives, or Horizon Europe itself, the next Research and Innovation Framework Program of the EU, which establishes investment priorities for one or another scientific field, technology, etc. In all these cases, the advice of scientific expertise is basic, and this is precisely why advocacy from the scientific side is so important.

Coming back to those key questions that you referred to earlier, what are typical pitfalls when scientists try to engage with politicians?

The three key questions that we were asking are: (1st), do scientists know how to do advocacy? (2nd), do they have the correct mindset for advocacy? And (3rd), do they understand the position of the politician who they are trying to influence?

The first question is basic: if you don’t have the communication tools and strategies to perform advocacy, step aside, train yourself and come back ready whenever you have acquired them. However, I believe this reasoning is left ignored by a lot of scientists that try to advocate.

Two reasons may explain this. First, the fact that, in academia, senior scientists are overcharged with duties for which they may not have been trained enough, such as management ones, which they then learn on an experience basis. This scheme, however, cannot be applied to advocacy. Advocacy is a very subtle duty, and won’t give any results unless it is performed by an appropriately trained person. The second reason is ego, which makes some scientists believe that they can successfully face most challenges. Not being this true for labwork, imagine for advocacy.

The second question, whether scientists have the correct mindset for advocacy, is also really important. Every person who would like to do advocacy needs to bear in mind some aspects. First, the politician will never come to you. You are the one interested in influence some decision-making process, right? Then, you should be the one proactive: take the lead and advocate. Second, the politician will not adapt to your times. You are the one that needs to adapt. With this in mind, take into account that the legislative schedule is public, as are the times needed for proposing and passing (or rejecting) any piece of policy. Consequently, try to anticipate any possible policy proposal that may be of interest to you (through specialized press, for example), and prepare your advocacy agenda.

The third question was related to scientists understanding the position of the politician who they are trying to influence. Here it is really important to know and accept what we can expect from an advocacy action. A normal politician is someone who is in charge for a period of 4-5 years, and will normally try to be re-elected or reappointed. That means you need to know who you are advocating to in advance, and target policy makers that may be favourable to your demands. Once such a politician has been approached, what can be considered as successful advocacy? Advocacy is successful itself: the process of planning and executing an engagement action with a policy maker. Even when advocacy is performed by professional lobbyists, influencing a decision-making process is really difficult. Furthermore, when achieved, the influence may be as indirect as the inclusion of an inherited wording in a political argument, taken from the reasoning that you provided to the corresponding policy maker.

In brief, advocacy is a costly process, both in time and financial resources, and the only success that we can always expect from it is the fact that it has been carried out. However, when that success implies the change of perspective of a politician or even the reformulation of a policy proposal, the results exceed the investment.

Now, before concluding with this question, there is a final reflection that I would like to make: scientists – understood as people whose main duty is to perform science – do not have the time to advocate. For such a quest, groups, associations of scientists need to provide dedicated resources, let it be through the recruitment of a policy officer or the externalization of advocacy as a service.

Do you have personal experience in advocacy or giving politicians advice?

My only experience so far took place some years ago, when I was in mid school and wanted to study a subject within the excellence high school program, which I would enter the following year. The Community of Madrid didn’t consider this subject appropriate for such a program, but I really wanted to study it. One day, I was attending an educational event when I run into the Education Head of the Community. At that moment, I asked her for a couple of minutes to discuss the issue, to which she agreed. Some months later, I was studying the subject within the excellence program and came to know that the Education Head had mentioned our little talk in a Community of Madrid meeting regarding the issue.

The fun fact is that, having the opportunity to study the second part of the subject in the second year of high school, I decided not to do it: it was indeed too easy for an excellence program.

You are president and co-founder of the Student's Group of the Spanish Royal Physics Society (RSEF). In which activities and events can Spanish physics students participate?

Some of the main activities and events that we offer consist of ICPS, PLANCKS, etc. We are especially proud of our PLANCKS Preliminaries, which we always organize at zero cost and gathered 31 teams in their last edition. Historically, we have mostly relied on IAPS for this pillar of our members’ benefits. Covid-19 arose when we were planning some big events of our own. In the meantime, we need to diversify our offer, for which we are boosting all the possibilities that we can enjoy as a part of the Spanish Royal Physics Society.

Currently, you work as a Market Analyst at the Human Brain Project. What are your tasks and what do you learn there?

My role is to study, understand, inform and recommend the market conditions and opportunities that the Multilevel Human Brain Atlas, being developed within the Human Brain Project, may have. It is a particularly exciting job, as it is my first opportunity to work outside the lab, and so to consolidate my career path change.

Having worked on a lab, together with my role as president of the Student's Group of the Spanish Royal Physics Society for several years, has allowed me to understand that working in science does not fulfil me: I need debate, diplomacy, negotiation and management to be present in my day to day duties, and this is a really good first step to kick off that change.

1. E. P. Society, The Importance of Physics to the Economies of Europe (2019).


Interview: Hannes Vogel


Are you interested in further information/events on scientific engagement in public policy? Just contact Hannes Vogel.