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.

Modelling Stability after Revolutions

Dom Aits is presenting a seminar tomorrow on political stability after revolutions, applying mathematical methods. Here, he blogs about his work.

The crisis unfolding in the Arab world, and in particular in Egypt, shines light on how suddenly imposing a democratic political system on what was previously a dictatorship can have dire consequences. The key to working out why there is such violence after a revolution is set within the beliefs and the expectations that people and organisations hold for the future of their new government.

There is always a cost with a political revolution. The act of revolution itself – to overturn what has come before – can bring personal loss and economic ruin to name a few. But the sacrifice that comes with this is the very characteristic that makes the aftermath of a revolution so unstable.

This seminar aims to explore how important beliefs and expectations are, and how the sacrifice that comes with a revolution warps them. The political system will be analysed from a different angle applying economic ideas to a new context. This new angle uses logic in a very similar vein to that used in economics, and applies mathematical abstraction to uncover different ways at looking at elections, democracy and the behaviour of pressure groups.

What the seminar will ultimately focus on is a policy tool that can be applied to stabilise post-revolutionary states that fundamentally tackles the issue of future expectations and beliefs.

The executive summary is below:


The most noteworthy aspect of the recent political revolutions in the Arab world is that there is nearly always a failure to suddenly superimpose a democratic style of government based on Western political constitutional foundations onto a set of domestic government institutions. In my paper, I argue that there is a need to consider the notion of a ‘learning equilibrium’ – to recognise that it takes time for institutions and socio-economic agents to adapt their expectations about the new state of governing such that a stable democratic political environment is generated.

The model I develop defines all groups that aim to implement a manifesto (or a set of beliefs) as pressure groups, which I assume are strictly competitive entities by nature. These groups, at a point in time, can either decide to work within the rules and confines in the current ‘state of government’, or aim to change this ‘state’. If a pressure group wants to change the state, it can still work within the confines of the current state of government, and hence does not have to reject it. This is the case when there are elections that allow the peaceful transition between states of government. A pressure group can work to change a state of government without having to reject the current state.

How a pressure group makes the decision to reject a state of government consists of four factors – a minimum-bound utility, a realised utility, an optimal utility, and a Feasible Time Frame.

Pressure groups are considered to be no different to any other economic homogenous agent, and thus utility is the key concept used in this paper. As a starting point, each pressure group has a minimum-bound utility – this is the minimum utility a pressure group will accept in order to conform to a state of government.

I argue that pressure groups gain utility from their expectations of how they will succeed in the future. Critically, there are two types of utility that a pressure group considers. The first, optimal utility, is what the pressure group would gain in an ideal world (in their opinion) when they are faced with realising their own limitations. This is expressed as an optimisation problem in the paper. The second type of utility is realised utility. This is what the pressure group actually gains from the current resources and successes that it has when it considers its future prospects.

Utility is realised over a set of time intervals called Feasible Time Frames. The intuition is similar to how any organisation operates. An organisation tends to have a strategy that is reviewed from time to time to make adjustments (i.e. consider timely reports and project reviews). Between these reviews, there needs to be time for the strategy to be implemented, and hence during this process (unless critical adjustments have to be made) that strategy will remain on the whole intact. I argue that pressure groups follow a similar mechanism and realise utility at the end of these time intervals.

So at the end of a time interval, if realised or optimal utility is lower than the minimum-bound, a pressure group will reject the current state of government.

The purpose of the paper is not to analyse a revolution itself, but to look at the aftermath.

I argue that after a revolution, the minimum-bound utilities of pressure groups increase. This takes into account the sacrifice that comes with the revolution, due to: the physical human loss, the interruption of ‘normal life’, the economic cost etc. In other words, pressure groups want the revolution to be worth something to make up for the cost of participating in it, and so expect more from the new state of government. At the same time, in the aftermath of a revolution, political processes and the functioning of the state (and economy) tend to be stunted (i.e. slow recovery) for a while – so realised and optimal utility are likely to fall. Combine this with pressure groups’ impatience leading to a shortened feasible time frame, and the conditions for a quick rejection of the newly established state of government increase quickly.

The paper ends with a policy contribution to tackle this. I argue that that to create stability, a learning equilibrium needs to be established whereby pressure groups gradually adapt to the new state of government. This can be achieved by removing the pressure groups’ high expectations of the post-revolutionary state of government. Both political demands from the pressure groups and the supply of such concessions from the government need to be mediated. The idea is to create a model with slowly increasing terms of office for subsequent states of government to avoid a new revolution and to suppress violence.

I propose beginning with a one-year term before new elections, and increasing the terms by one year until a four or five year limit is reached. With short terms in office, pressure groups cannot realistically demand huge improvements in the country because they will be forced to realise that this would be impossible given the imposed term of office. Similarly, those running the state cannot offer similar promises either, because the electorate will be less likely to believe that those promises can come to fruition. As terms of office increase in length, pressure groups will eventually mediate their expectations to work within a democratic, election-led political process, and hence the impetus for further revolution is more likely to be suppressed.