Science and Public Policy

At 5 PM today, TWS is having a seminar on science and public policy. Our chairman, Michael Campbell outlines some of the problems he and his co-authors see in the relationship between science and public policy, and how to solve them. 

Ever since the infamous Nutt Sack Saga of 2009, when a government scientific adviser David Nutt was dismissed for comparing the relative harm of taking ecstasy to horse riding, there has been a somewhat uneasy relationship between scientists and policy makers. On side of the argument, policy makers argue that scientists cannot become campaigners against government policy, whilst scientists argue that policy makers are only concerned with finding that data that confirms their policies.

Furthermore, there’s a gap between the two areas such that we’re inclined to think of politicians and scientists as separate in the first place. There are currently less than 30 MPs with a scientific background, and only two with doctorates. A freedom of information request by the Union Prospect revealed that less than 1% of Civil Servants have a scientific training. We see no principled reason why this is so. A science degree can prepare one for a career in politics just as well as a history, English or philosophy degree can, if not better.

In our policy paper, we propose to solve the first problem, by putting science at the heart of the policy formation process, rather than as an additional consideration often only given thought after policy has been formulated. Through the use of randomised control trials, politicians will begin to appreciate how science can help formulate effective and election-winning policies. That second part is important. Evidence-based policy means more effective policies and that means winning elections. With this in mind, it’s important to understand that simply increasing the stock of scientific knowledge that politicians have will do very little to help improve the status of science in politics. More knowledge of something tends to reinforce people’s views, rather than alter them. We need to change the attitude in Westminster, not just its information pool. In order to do this, we’ve proposed a number of structural reforms to the civil service, including raising the status of the Government Chief Scientific Adviser to a level comparable to that of the Attorney General, such that they are able to attend cabinet when a particularly pertinent scientific issue is at stake.

In order to solve the second problem, that of the under-representation of scientists in government, we propose, perhaps controversially, treating scientists as one would any other underrepresented group such as women or ethnic minorities. Whilst we understand that underrepresentation of scientists is not due to a societal evil like patriarchy, racism or simple prejudice, the methods used by those organisations aiming to increase the representation of these groups in politics can be also employed in the case of scientists.

But the blame here doesn’t lie squarely with politicians and scientists most certainly do not have all the answers to society’s problems. Prominent scientific institutions need to do more to encourage younger scientists to enter a career outside of the sciences. If we can rid ourselves of the culture whereby anything but hard research is looked down-on, we’ll go a long way to improving the current state of affairs. Scientists might then one day take their proper seat at the table.

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