Look not only to your own interests

by Sarah Luna

“If you want to truly understand something, try to change it.” – Kurt Lewin

This week’s seminar featured a discussion on the nutrition policy process. What follows is my summary of their main points.

Much like last week, the speakers focused on the role of science in changing policy–seeking first to understand how nutrition policy is formed. The first speaker explained that even though policy makers may not seem to act in a  rational way to us as scientists, they have their own rules and act in their own rationality. For example, there are legal, scientific, economic, social/ethical, political, and administrative rationalities. Each of these types can be used as a lens with which to view a specific decision. The scientific lens viewing a particular issue yields a very different picture than a political or economic lens. Yet they are all rational. (Drew, thoughts?) [Update: I’m in for it now. Drew’s got his skeptic hat on and I’m going to have to reexplain everything. Stick around!]

Politicians can be utilitarian and focus on the outcome or they can be ontological and focus on the process. They look to scientists to provide research with short term answers. They then use this scientific “evidence” to create policies that increase their own legitimacy.

As scientists, we need to create a demand for evidence and play off of the policy-makers’ need for legitimacy to advance our own research. The most relevant research will go unnoticed if there is no demand for it. Timing is crucial. (This reminded me of chaos theory. I should bring that up in my next Theories class).

Therefore, we must package our material to create maximum effect. This could mean writing intelligible briefs for policy makers or writing opinion pieces for Project Syndicate. We need to make our research accessible to the lay reader so that they become our willing advocates. (As evidence providers, we cannot be our own advocates but must remain unbiased.)

As a researcher, it is no longer enough for me to deal simply with the scientific questions. I must include the decision makers in the research process in order to create ownership. And I must examine the stakeholders involved and accurately interpret their positions.


Whew, Philippians 2:4 looks more like a warning now.