“Science Speak” to “Policy Speak:” Bridging the Gap to Solve Water-Related Issues


It is valuable to be multi-lingual, not just in formal languages but in the “languages” of different categories of people.  In the field of water, which by nature requires the collaboration of scientists (whose language is Science Speak), policy-makers (whose language is Policy Speak), the public, and other stakeholders, it is necessary to translate information between different audiences.  Dr. Alex T. Bielak, who has a wide range of educational and professional experiences beginning in science and evolving into policy, spoke of the importance of this communication at his session, “From Salmon Biologist to the United Nations: A Journey in Science-Policy Bridging”  on Tuesday, March 13 at the World Water Forum 6.


The Language Gap between Scientists and Others

Scientists, decision-makers, and the public use different languages and terminology.  Scientists are most familiar with scientific writing, which has a specific format that includes an introduction, materials and methods section, results, and conclusions.  However, this format is often not valuable to decision-makers who prefer direct facts that in support of one policy or another.  The public also has its preferred ways of receiving scientific information that uses more simple language and covers the basic ‘who’ and ‘what’ of the topic.

In order to move toward more effective water policies, it is vital for scientists to communicate their research to decision-makers directly so decisions are based on sound scientific evidence.   It is also valuable for scientists to communicate their research to the public who also influence decision-makers less directly.  By ‘translating’ knowledge into a form that is appropriate and engaging for non-scientific audiences, positive change can be achieved.


Advice from Bielak: How to Bridge this Gap

Communication is an essential component of achieving goals, whether in science or policy or elsewhere.  So how can communication be improved between policy-makers, scientists and the public?  These are some ideas suggested throughout the talk:

  • Become “multi-lingual” and be able to communicate in different ways to different people
  • Understand the specific “language” required for your current audience
  • Perfect your “two minute elevator speech” about your research, policy goal or project
  • Make sure to clearly express your goals to your audience
  • Maintain networks
  • Collaborate with others across disciplines


How to Bridge the Gap: Personal Stories

Bielak’s career began with a doctorate degree in salmon biology.  His degree allowed him to start learning communication skills early: he persuaded an airline to give him free flights when possible for his doctoral research. From this starting point, he worked in a series of various jobs that utilized his science degree, but each also required a certain amount of communication skills.  He now works at the United Nations University Institute for Water, Environment, and Health and is responsible for promoting knowledge translation (also known as knowledge brokering, among other terms). 

Many individuals, myself included, are perhaps more intentionally becoming educated on both science and policy through interdisciplinary study and work.  Although many individuals do find success from gaining extremely advanced skills by earning multiple degrees in one field or by working in many positions in the same field, it may be even more valuable to understand various sides of the issue.  Indeed, jobs related to knowledge brokering are on the rise, according to Bielak.  This may be a good sign that could indicate improved communication between science and policy in the future.  In the field of water, both the science and the policy of an issue are important.  By learning about both and communicating between the two fields, this flow of information may lead to positive change.


Are you “multi-lingual?”  How did you learn these skills and how have they helped your own career?  Have you seen improvement in communication between science and policy?  Share your thoughts on this subject below.

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