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What we talk about when we talk about ‘evidence-based’ advocacy communications


From a poster, Abecedarium Broadside, created by David Lance Goines in 1972 for Saint Hieronymus Press and re-designed and reprinted in 1979 as A Constructed Roman Alphabet.

This opinion piece is written by Susan MacMillan

This year, a group of staff of the International Livestock Research Institute (ILRI) has started to think through more intentionally, and with more discipline, than before kinds of communications likely to be most effective in influencing decision-makers in livestock development. The latter is one of ILRI’s three strategic long-term goals (the other two are changing practices and increasing capacity)—but this is still relatively new territory for the research institute.

One of three of ILRI’s strategic goals is working with partners to provide compelling scientific evidence in ways that persuade decision-makers—from farms to boardrooms and parliaments—that smarter policies and bigger livestock investments can deliver significant socio-economic, health and environmental dividends to both poor nations and households.

It could be argued that when we speak or communicate anything, we are always advocating something.

On the other hand, scientists on the whole see themselves as producers of primary evidence, and as such, unbiased, above the fray of opinion-making or influence peddling, and certainly far above any form of direct lobbying.

This puts those of us in the business of science communications—not to speak of science ‘advocacy’—in an awkward position. We work daily to communicate something, for some reason, with some imagined and desired impact, as concerned with a finding’s potential significance as the finding itself, while the researchers for whom we work characteristically view such add-ons not so much as added value as dangerously unscientific, and at best irrelevant.

ILRI’s mission is to improve food and nutritional security and to reduce poverty in developing countries through research for efficient, safe and sustainable use of livestock—ensuring better lives through livestock.

To be a science communicator in a research institute that has a mission—in our case, to help reduce world poverty and its attendant ills through research-based livestock development—is more challenging still. For such organizations are conducting science not for its own sake but to make a difference to equitable as well as sustainable human development. In ILRI’s case, we have resolved anew that we shall not deem ourselves successful, no matter how high the quality of our science, until we have ensured that pro-poor difference gets made, on the ground, and at scales that matter globally.

So how do we reconcile scientific principles of detachment with development ambitions for impact? How do we stay true to scientific rigour while communicating scientific results in ways that help influence publics and create big impacts?

An advocate, says the Oxford English Dictionary, is a person who publicly supports or recommends a particular cause or policy. And to advocate is to publicly recommend or support. Both have obvious inherent dangers to the scientific enterprise, as the latter relies on evidence that can be (scientifically) reproduced, not on what will sway large (and largely lay) publics.

If the experience of ILRI is anything to go by, no resolution of these conflicting dispositions is at hand. It is (and likely always will be) a messy business harnessing the results of scientific dispassion for the benefit of development ambitions.

But that is not to say the endeavour is not a useful one, or even one without rather special power.

The word ‘advocacy’ comes from mediaeval Latin,
advocatia, from advocare,
meaning ‘to summon’ or ‘call to one’s aid’.

Both scientists and communicators might agree that they are always in some ways in the business of ‘summoning’ the known (or what can be known or learned) for what is as yet unknown. (To quote American writer Grace Paley: ‘You write from what you know, but you write into what you don’t know’.) While researchers rely on demonstrable evidence to push the frontiers of the unknown, science writers rely as much on rules of rhetoric as on those of logic, and on the muses of story-telling, of narrative drive, without which, no amount of logic or evidence will suffice to change hearts or minds or influence global events and challenges.

Of course, it is commonplace to say (and to believe) that neither the supremely influential nor the supremely rational is sufficient for creating ‘the world we want’. But how we go about getting these dance partners to the floor, and what score we play to enable a performance more affecting than clumsy, is less considered.

Rather than focus on ‘how to advocate’, it may be a more useful starting point to focus on ‘what to advocate’ and then to work backwards from there to figure out how to do it.

On this, we could take a leaf from food / science columnist Tamar Haspel, who recently recommended that we step back a bit to listen as well as to preach—to bring more diverse people to our tables, to concern ourselves as much with the universal values than underpin diverse opinions as we do with our superior opinions and specialist issues. Here’s part of what Haspel says:

. . . [C]onsider spending more time with people you disagree with. Surely, if you’re a GMO proponent, you know an opponent you could have lunch with. Organic advocate? Spend time with a conventional farmer. Expand your social media circle to include ‘them.’ Mute anyone who routinely calls names or hurls insults.

If you’re part of the food industry and a member of an organization that gathers people together to talk about food at conferences and events, invite some outsiders. When everyone in the room sees the world in the same way, progress is unlikely. It’s harder to believe people are greedy or duplicitous or anti-science when you sit down together with a beer and discover you both like fishing or Portugal or ‘Zoolander.’

That last one’s particularly important because it doesn’t cost anything to implement. It requires no particular expertise. It has no downside.

—Tamar Haspel, 10 things we should do to fix our broken food system, Washington Post, 28 Dec 2015

I like that. So I’m making it a priority this (new) year to promote a more inclusive and constructive conversation about our global food/agricultural/livestock systems and all that come in their wake.

If you’re interested in this ‘advocacy’ topic, please stay tuned because we’ll soon be posting here highlights of a Livestock Advocacy and Communications Convening that ILRI held late last year with support from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. And we’d love to hear from you about what works, and what doesn’t, in your advocacy communications work. If you have ideas, links, challenges, please send them along using the Comment Box below.

And a (late) Happy New Year to you all.

Susan MacMillan leads awareness and advocacy work within ILRI’s Communications and Knowledge Management department.

One thought on “What we talk about when we talk about ‘evidence-based’ advocacy communications

  1. Thank you, Susan, for this very well-written piece on the meaning, role and need for public policy advocacy and the flip-side of the coin in a largely ‘scientific’ community. In reading through your article, I hear a resonance with the work that we do at the South Asia Pro-Poor Livestock Policy Programme (SA PPLPP); we are also focused on building capacities and advocating policy changes.

    An emerging challenge in a country like India, where the majority of livestock is raised in the mixed crop-livestock system, surviving on residual biomass and grazing on so-called wastelands, open access forest areas, and designated grazing lands, is the lack of documented models on the effectiveness of controlled or rotational grazing, as well as absence of scientific information, for example, on the impact of grazing (or browsing for that matter) vis-a-vis forest development and vice-versa. The forest and environment lobbies are particularly strong, well-organized and better-represented, unlike the livestock players, who are fewer in numbers and certainly not as well-networked.

    Congratulations to you and ILRI, and best wishes in reaching our goals!

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