Promoting Scientific Thinking in Public Policy

April 25, 2022
Translating Science into Policy with Natalia Pasternak Taschner on May 3.

This event has been postponed until Fall 2022. 

Do you know how your daily allergy medication works? While we may appreciate its effects, most of us don’t know about the process and policies that carried that pill from the laboratory to our cabinet. Despite the fact that the average consumer may not be a scientist, everyone should have the opportunity to learn how science travels from the laboratory to the bedside, influenced by government policies and regulations along the way. Researchers like Natalia Pasternak Taschner strive to make jargon-free science accessible to a wider audience. Using accessible communication tools like YouTube and social media, Pasternak has become a key advocate in science communication in Brazil with hundreds of thousands of followers across the world, even being named one of the BBC’s 100 most inspiring and influential women of 2021.

Pasternak began her career in bacterial genetics, as a “bench scientist,” working in a laboratory. It wasn’t until she joined online motherhood groups that she realized the importance of science communication. Misinformation about vaccines and unproven cures for children’s ailments permeated the discussion pages. In attempting to teach others, she learned that it took time and prudence to distill scientific facts that challenged internalized beliefs in many. “Talking about science to non-specialists, to laypeople, is not that easy. … It's something that you need practice, you need training,” she says in a Global Health Matters podcast episode on “Communicating Science, Not Fiction.” These experiences led her to found the Instituto Questão de Ciência (Question of Science Institute, of which she is the current president), the first Brazilian institute “dedicated to the promotion of scientific and critical thinking and the use of scientific evidence in public policies.”

In Brazil, Pasternak has publicly challenged governmental policies related to COVID-19 when the president began to promote medically unproven treatments. She also criticized the phenomenon of “vaccine sommeliers” as people began to reject certain brands of coronavirus vaccines based on perceived effectiveness or misinformation. As she succinctly stated for The Guardian, “What we need to do to control this pandemic is vaccinate the greatest possible number of people in the shortest possible time.” Her career goal with Instituto Questão de Ciência is to promote a healthy skepticism that criticizes unfounded claims, especially online. “Science is to be trusted. Evidence is to be trusted. Not people,” she says in the podcast.

At Columbia, Pasternak is working closely with Stuart Firestein, Professor of Biological Sciences and author of Ignorance: How it Drives Science, a book on the workings of science for a general audience. Together, they are focusing on how to improve science communication and combat denialism and misinformation, bringing scientific thinking for future policy makers, and helping to create an international collaboration for science-based global policies.