Making the Case for Astronomy – Engaging with Policy Makers
May 8, 2018

Making the Case for Astronomy – Engaging with Policy Makers

Terry O’Connor, Nathalie Meusy and Clare Moody at EWASS 2018.

Last year at the European Week of Astronomy and Space Science (EWASS), we started a discussion on best practice in astronomy-related public and policy engagement. At EWASS 2018, held jointly in Liverpool this April with the Royal Astronomical Society’s National Astronomy Meeting, we held a follow up session on “Making the Case for Astronomy”. This year’s session was led by a panel of speakers with different perspectives on the dialogue between the astronomy community, policy makers and the public. The panel comprised Terry O’Connor (STFC)Nathalie Meusy (ESA) and Clare Moody MEP and was chaired by Mike Bode of the European Astronomical Society. The panel’s presentation was followed by a lively discussion session.



Why should they care? Engaging political audiences with frontier science – Terry O’Connor

Terry O’Connor, Communications Director, Science and Technology Facilities Council, explained how astronomers are viewed by policy makers: “You are respected but not understood. It’s your responsibility to improve the understanding of politicians. Be united – it’s a good excuse not to listen if you are saying something different. Be clear about messaging (“Give us some money!” is not good enough). Make sure that what you are saying is understandable by someone else.”

Terry went on to put the financial challenges that astronomers face into a wider context: “Funding for astronomy is good but could be better. We have a growing community but flat funding sources, so the competition is getting worse. Compared to other areas, we have it not so bad. The glass is more than half full for astronomy. We are starting from a solid base. You need to understand what policy makers think of you, and they think you are doing OK.”

Surveys of public attitudes to science, e.g. by Eurobarometer and IPSOS/Mori-BEIS, can help in shaping a message to policy makers that they will find relevant and resonate with their constituents. Terry explained: “Politicians read polls and know that science is popular and like it. What matters to them is their constituents, their party and colleagues, their country… What makes a policy maker’s face light up is skills development – this is what [astronomers] do!”

Overall, Terry summarised his messages as follows:

  Key messages for astronomers engaging with policy makers   Key messages for astronomers to present to policy makers
  Astronomers are respected but not understood


  =>   You are the problem solvers


  You are science (don’t make artificial distinctions)  =>   You are collaborative problem solvers


  Be clear in what you want – strategic objective


  =>   You want to be recognised as problem solvers


  Understand what your audience thinks of you   =>   You want to be thought of as the solution, not the problem


Download Terry’s slides

ESA Citizens’ Debate – Nathalie Meusy

Nathalie Meusy, of the European Space Agency (ESA) Strategy Department, presented her experiences in devising and implementing a “Citizens’ debate”, which took place on 10th September 2016. During the day, ESA held 23 debates in the 22 ESA Member States and in 17 languages. Over 2000 people took part, ranging in age from 15 to 89 years old.

Nathalie explained: “When Jan Woerner was elected, he wanted to bring ESA to a broader audience – to nurture the future space strategy of space in Europe with elements of inspiration and information coming from European Citizens. Within ESA, there were concerns about a lack of visibility of the space sector and a changing environment where the roles of ESA, the EU and other players is confusing. For ESA, this exercise was an opportunity to engage in participatory democracy with Europe’s citizens in a process that would enrich and support ESA’s institutional decision-making process.”

The debate was modelled on an exercise for the Paris Conference on Climate Change, COP21, which brought together 10,000 citizens in 76 countries on 6th June 2015. ESA was a partner in this event and was so convinced by the exercise that it decided to hold its own event.

To provide trustworthy outcomes, the mix of participants needed to reflect demographic diversity and include citizens with varying levels of interest in space. Following a recruitment process via social media, the final participants were selected from the list of registered persons in each country to ensure diversity of age, gender, occupation and of level of interest in space issues. About one-third of the participants had no preliminary interest in the subject, about half of the participants had an existing interest and about 10% were people whose professional activity is related to space.

Participants were sent a 4-page document about ESA activities in advance of the debate. On the day, participants were shown videos, divided into discussion groups and given opportunities for individual votes. Outputs were uploaded live and a first analysis of the quantitative results was published within 72 hours.

Watch a video summary of the day (English; French)

The findings include responses to open and closed questions. Full details of the results can be found in Nathalie’s slides.

Overall, ESA has produced this short summary of findings:

  • Be global. Participants see themselves as citizens of the world, part of humanity, and consider space should address societal challenges such as burning environmental issues. For them, space is a common good for humanity.
  • Be cleaner & protect space. Space should be kept clean (and space debris cleaned) and protected as a “lifeboat” for future generations.
  • Be innovative. Through space exploration projects that can benefit to our daily lives as well as to the Earth and the future of humanity all together. A first step should be to come back to the Moon (ex.: Moon village).
  • Be communicative and interactive. ESA should keep opening up the dialogue with citizens and all its stakeholders (including other space agencies), share information (also considering digital agenda), and develop various communication and marketing actions, as well as large inspirational missions (that can also be participative).

Download Nathalie’s slides

Communication to and through politicians – Clare Moody MEP

Clare Moody during the “Making the Case for Astronomy” session at EWASS 2018.

Clare Moody MEP gave advice on the best way of talking to a politician: “Analyse what you want. Be strategic in engaging with the political world – politicians can’t know what’s going on in your head. Let politicians know who you are, what you do and where you can be found if needed. Bring the two worlds together so that you are part of the conversation.”

She went on to remind us that politicians are people too: “Don’t assume that everyone else knows what you know. Recognise your strengths. Astronomers have a huge reach into people’s lives. When space is on the TV screens in people’s living rooms, there is a huge amount of warmth coming back. So make the most of opportunities like Tim Peak, Cassini or Rosetta. Someone described Philae’s mission to me as landing a washing machine on Weston-Super-Mer but millions of miles away. Celebrate the modern genius that is space –but get that recognition. Understand the agenda of politicians and work with the grain of that agenda. Get them excited but understand the context – remind them that a high STEM skilled workforce is needed and Tim Peake can help deliver that by encouraging schools to grow mustard seeds.”

Clare advised the astronomy community to identify advocates in policy making: “Find people that will act for you, who are already engaged and will help you to deliver what you want.”

She also encouraged the community to make contact with policy makers that are not already engaged with STEM or space to build support: “Go beyond the obvious areas. Talk to the Treasury. Commissioner Moedas is already engaged – we need to engage the other Commissioners. Horizon 2020 has provided funding but also stability. It supports people and international collaboration. These are the things that we need to preserve for the community.  You are a success story. You’ve done amazing things. Now is the time to double down and fight.”

Many thanks to the panel and to the session’s co-conveners, Robert Massey of the Royal Astronomical Society, Mike Bode of the European Astronomical Society and Karen O’Flaherty of the European Space Agency.