Evidence to a policymaker should be short and concise. Photo: © Unknown man / Shutterstock.com
Improve communication on air quality research
More than half of Europeans do not feel well informed about their local air quality, according to a 2019 EU Commission survey. Furthermore, 68% believed that scientists should be consulted in political decision-making, but they rarely are due to time constraints. This highlights the need for civil society involved in issues relating to air quality and health to help spread scientific findings to policymakers. The Health and Environment Alliance (HEAL) has created a toolkit with the aim of providing civil society organisations with the resources needed to effectively communicate air quality and health science. It is based on two decades of HEAL’s experience and expertise in communicating scientific findings.
Targeted and timely science-to-policy communication can greatly inform decisionmaking and lead to more evidence-based policies. Most EU policymakers want to draw on a sound evidence base when devising policies. As noted in the 7th EU Environmental Action Programme, emphasis should be given to science, and decisions should be informed by the latest data. Communicating to the public helps to narrow the gap between scientific research and the public. The public can be made aware of the health impacts of air pollution, or of effective solutions to reduce their own health risks.
While both the public and policymakers in general tend to value evidence-based information sharing, much valuable research remains unseen. The rapid transition of information from varying sources adds to confusion among the public and policymakers. In Germany, for example, so-called health experts claimed that there was no proof that air pollution led to people dying, and “no scientific justification” for current pollutant limits. This letter was widely reported in the German media, until an investigative journalist realised that some so-called lung experts were car industry lobbyists and that there was a major statistical error in their claims, making them invalid.
Simultaneously, science networks and organisations published detailed explanations of the science on air pollution to disprove the claims previously made. But the German Transport Minister had already sent an inquiry to the European Commission, asking for a review of current limits. Research shows that people are often unable to distinguish misinformation from fact. In order to do so, citizens would need to be able to understand scientific literature, be able to set it in the context of existing research on the same issue, understand the source information and judge if the author is an academic or whether vested interests are involved.
Most people are both unable and do not have the time to do this, so they must be able to rely on official, qualified sources. The overload of contradictory and sometimes false information available online, coupled with the expertise required to understand the issues at stake, has produced the socalled post-truth era. In these times it is important that civil society takes pride in translating scientific findings. While scientists present findings in an academic way, civil society organisations can and should couple this evidence with clear and actionable recommendations that support the case for clean air.
Air quality can be approached from various health frames – such as health impacts, economics, co-benefits, inequalities and potential solutions. Each frame has a substantial evidence base to support it and can be exemplified with local or national context if this is available. It is also important to identify the audience and acknowledge that policymakers have limited time, and a one-page summary of the evidence is often enough. Evidence to a policymaker needs to be cited clearly, with rigorous references linked to concrete issues, and there needs to be a clear recommendation of relevance to that person’s policy field.
It should also be short and concise in order to fit into their busy schedules. For the public it is also helpful to include visual graphics and involve them in citizen-science projects to narrow the gap between science and the public. When talking to the media, advocacy should be avoided, and a personal story gives a more interesting angle.
The toolkit "Advocating for clean air: how to communicate the science" can be downloaded here: https://www.env-health.org/wp-content/uploads/2022/08/HEAL-Toolkit_clean...