Policy: Writing Legislative Science Notes

Describe science principles in a legislative note


Background

Policy fellowships are an opportunity for scientists at all career stages to engage in the policy making process. Science policy fellows across the country aim to increase capacity for scientific resources and serve as science advisors to policy makers. Depending on where fellows are placed, they may work directly for elected officials as staff members or legislative assistants. Fellows may also work for a group of lawmakers based on specific topics.

Policy fellows also study the latest research and meet with important stakeholders to determine policy needs and priorities. Fellows may write policy memos and policy briefs, answer constituent questions, and write ‘science notes’ to describe the science behind policy issues. In the Midwest, several state general assemblies meet each spring from January to May, with bills pre-filed starting in December. While the legislators are actively filing, debating, and voting on legislation, policy fellows and advocates are drafting short science notes.

Science notes are short, one to three page, memos that describe scientific principles related to policies or legislation. Each science note features unbiased scientific data and summaries of studies that have been conducted that may relate to proposed legislation. The primary intended audience for the science notes are legislators and legislative staff. Elected officials or their staff may even request science notes be written about a certain topic.

Science notes are meant to be non-advocacy resources that are helpful for legislators who are getting information from lots of sources as they make their decisions. Access to non-partisan, unbiased information is important. Unbiased resources provide information without telling the legislative member how to use the scientific information. Rather it makes the information accessible, and doesn’t make recommendations. The science notes stop before the section where a group might provide recommendations.

Legislators are used to seeing fiscal notes, which are unbiased financial information related to a bill. Science notes aim to institutionalize science information and make it part of the day to day conversation. Science notes differ from fact sheets, because they are legislator focused and also include context and limitations of the research provided. For example, if research completed is region or county-specific, the limitations section of the science note would indicate this information may not be widely applicable, and provides the factors considered in the cited research studies (e.g., the location and population in which the data are collected). Having a limitations section was requested by lawmakers for context and it helps lawmakers to trust the information.

Legislative science notes are requested by lawmakers, and they are peer-reviewed. However, “community science notes” can be written by anyone at any time. Community members will also go through the peer review process to remove political language and the science is being portrayed responsibly. Community science notes can be used for advocacy conversations, and shared with nonprofit groups.

Science notes were first created by the Missouri Science & Technology (MOST) Policy Fellows. Science notes are also used by science policy fellows in Colorado and Georgia as part of the AAAS Local Science Engagement Network. Community. Legislative notes are never used by MOST Policy Fellows for advocacy.

The Process

  1. Summarize relevant legislation.
  2. Identify local experts to provide technical guidance.
  3. Conduct literature review.
  4. Summarize relevant literature; cite primary literature and note limitations.
  5. Highlight main scientific results in bullet points.
  6. Get peer-review comments.
  7. Submit/Share the informational note to the legislative staff or member.

The Exercise

Your role

For this job sim, you are a science policy fellow. Select an issue on which you would like to inform. It can be related to your research, your institution, your local community, or any issue about which you are passionate. Science notes can take one to two weeks to write, or just a few days depending on the request. Get started on one with this job sim.

Task 1: Summarize relevant legislation

In one paragraph, briefly summarize proposed legislation and similar legislation passed or introduced in other states. Reference legislation directly, rather than news articles discussing legislation. If you plan to contact a congress member, refer to this site to find your representative: https://www.govtrack.us/congress/members.

Task 2: Identify local experts

Identify 2-3 scientists and/or engineers who can speak on the topic or legislation. Once experts are identified, contact them and request to include their contact information on the final science note.

Search different research institutions and MOST Policy Initiative network for experts who may be able to provide technical guidance to fellows and policymakers. The AAAS Local Science Engagement Network is also working with scientists across the country to write science notes.

Task 3: Conduct literature review

Use a peer-review search engine (i.e., Google Scholar) to conduct a search of peer- reviewed literature related to proposed legislation. Types of articles that may be helpful:

  • Scientific studies and research conducted in your state or surrounding states
  • Review papers or meta-analyses

The search will likely not be exhaustive; however, best judgement should be used to select relevant papers that cover a broad range of information that may be useful to policymakers.

Task 4 (advanced): Summarize relevant literature

Select three to four primary results that would be relevant to policymakers, and briefly summarize each point (including in-text citations) in 4 to five paragraphs. The final paragraph should explicitly discuss any limitations or scientific disagreements associated with the current state-of-knowledge in relevant literature. Limitations may include, but are not limited to:

  • Lack of knowledge on a particular topic (e.g., not enough literature)
  • Inappropriate scope of research (e.g., studies conducted elsewhere)
  • Limited statistical design and inference (e.g., stats don’t answer research
    question)
  • Scientific disagreement or lack of consensus
  • Funding sources or authors leading to biased results

Task 5 (advanced): Highlight main scientific results

Synthesize the literature and select the overarching points from the literature review and list as 4-5 bullet points directly following the legislative summary. Select the key themes from the literature and legislative needs, and what points are the most policy relevant and actionable. Highlights for the lawmakers should be a responsible representation of the literature and may stand alone. Do not include in-text citations in highlights.

The Deliverable

The final product for this job sim is a brief 1-3 page science note with a review of legislation, literature review and list of experts who can vouch for the information. The final product also includes a bulleted list of highlights for a quick reference. 

To example of Science Notes, please view Missouri Science & Technology webpage on Legislative Science Notes – https://mostpolicyinitiative.org/legislative-science-notes/


Resources


Skills Used to Perform This Task

  • Research – pulling quality, relevant information from scholarly literature, the web, interviews, position statements, etc.
  • Synthesis – ability to condense large volumes of information to the important and most relevant pieces.
  • Complex problem-solving – attention to long-term goals of advocacy, of legislator, and on-the-spot reasoning.
  • Knowledge of the legislative cycle and process – awareness of the best timing for advocacy depending on the time period.
  • Strategic decision-making – expertise in knowing who the allies and opponents might be on your issue of interest.
  • Developing your message – tailor your message and deliver it to the individual most likely to respond.

Skills Used in Policy and Advocacy

  • Communication skills – clear and effective verbal, oral, and written communication
  • Writing – especially in short format
  • Problem solving, deductive reasoning, reflection
  • Leadership and teamwork – working well with people of different backgrounds and with different skills and abilities towards a common goal or despite disagreement
  • Relationship building with professionals

Additional Tasks in Policy and Advocacy Careers


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Simulation author – Rachel Owen, PhD MOST Policy Fellow 2021

Simulation vetted by Missouri Science and Technology (MOST) Policy Fellows