Science and public policy

The editorial in this week’s Science1 is called The science-policy interface. The editorial itself admits that this is a “well worn, long-standing question”. Why is this? The editorial provides a hint when it says that “Providing scientific advice to government takes place within an ecosystem. It is a combination of actors who are both internal and external to government.”

Although the point of the editorial is to draw attention to the International Network for Government Science Advice (INGSA) forum, it does spend some time on the wider question.

I take this as a hint to go wider still. There are many more actors within this “ecosystem2” than are considered in the editorial. The actors in the editorial seem to be those who are providing fact-based advice, at least nominally accepting that evidence and rational argument are required, even if that is in the form of opinion polls and anecdotes. However, we need to acknowledge that there are others who are less inclined to play by the restrained rules implied by the editorial. These are the lobbyists and other powerful actors whose influence is based on their money and connections. These are also likely to use the techniques of rhetoric and half-truths and lies used by those who want to persuade people to points of view to the actors’ advantage.

This invites the next question: should those of us on the side of evidence and rationality stick to those tools of our trade, or should we go beyond that?

Figure 1 shows some of the primary influences on policy. The social climate influences and is influenced by most of the actors but is probably most strongly influenced by the actors in the middle column, including the government itself, and it most strongly influences the electorate.

Policy influences
Policy influences

How much should scientists use tactics such as lobbying and advertising techniques to persuade the government and electorate to adopt policies based on evidence and logic? How much should they use them to persuade the government where the policy is directly related to the science, such as public funding for science, especially where evidence is hard to come by?

There is significant risk (and ethical concerns) that using those techniques will reduce public trust in scientists. However, that leaves us with the challenge of countering the massive lobbying and media campaigns to deny science and reduce its role in decision making. What should our counter be, to the climate change denial funded by enormously wealthy fossil fuels companies and by tobacco companies? The poll numbers suggest that they have had excessive influence, detrimental to the public interest, on these and other topics.

The tobacco industry is doing less well these days, thanks to public campaigns against their products and press engagement that has publicized at least some of the tactics they used to sell their products. Law suits for damages to health have helped.

That suggests that similar tactics may work against the fossil fuel giants and more generally against other lobbyists and advertisers. Lawsuits may be more difficult in the case of climate change as it is more difficult to demonstrate causality for specific damages and more difficult to identify those responsible (is the producer liable, or the consumer).

However, I suggest that in the long run, more benefit will come from efforts to change the social climate. This can have a longer term effect (although with some chance of rapid changes sweeping through). Although education is a big part of this, requiring changes to funding, curriculum and techniques, it also involves professional and social media generating sufficient interest in Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) that means that the education is sustained for a lifetime and that people will seek out scientific content as much as possible, as well as learning and using the thinking tools that will allow them to combat the misinformation that is everywhere.

What does this mean in practice? It means having more scientists and their allies involved in science communication. Not only communicating the cool facts, but also changing the image of what science is all about and why non-scientists should be more interested, as well as giving more insight into what scientists are like.

1. Science, 2 September 2016 doi: 10.1126/science.aai8837

2. The use of “ecosystem” in a metaphorical sense is not to be taken too seriously, but it does invite some analogies. Where are the predators and parasites? It’s not clear that any actors literally eat others, but they do compete for resources, and analogies to parasites within actors can be imagined.

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