Science Policy- the fine line between advice and lobbying

I was fortunate enough to attend a workshop on policy run by the Royal Society of Chemistry and the University of Cambridge’s Centre for Science and Policy (CSaP).  I say fortunate as the workshop was booked out, with sufficient demand to encourage the RSC and CSaP to plan another in the New Year. Clearly, science policy is “in”.

We heard from policy advisers and makers, who talked about their backgrounds and current jobs and illuminated policy-making in more detail. During two panel discussions, these experts were able to give frank and honest insights into the policy world; certainly to a greater degree than the more high-level talk I’ve experienced at other policy events.

To me, the most interesting message was that regarding the difference between advice and lobbying.  Good science advice, we were told, is neutral and a good science adviser will provide as much evidence as possible then inform the policy-maker of what it means and what options it leads to.  Anything beyond that and the advice becomes lobbying.

How can lobbying be identified? Well, anything that interprets the evidence with a value judgement steps over into this category. In other words, a lobbyist might say “in my opinion, the evidence means that this policy must be followed.”   One policy-maker defined the difference between advice and lobbying more succinctly- “If I come to you for help, you are advising; if you come to me, you’re lobbying.”  This needn’t mean lobbying is a bad thing per se, but that scientists need to be honest about their motives when seeking to influence policy decisions.

Over the past few years, there have been growing calls for policy decisions to be based more upon scientific evidence. Supporters have ranged from prominent scientists and comedians, to former science-advisers and journalists, and to campaign groups and one-time doctors. Much of what has been said is sensible- clearly the best decisions are made after appraisal of the available evidence. At the same time, it was clear from discussions during the workshop that scientific evidence alone is only part of what is needed to make a policy decision. Sometimes it may not even be the most important part.

Sometimes the scientific evidence is incomplete or conflicting. Its possible to plan an experiment to provide evidence needed to make a decision, but at the same time the scientist is making a judgement as to what experiment to run and, importantly, which ones not to run.  This decision has an impact on the evidence available.

Even when the scientific evidence is clear, there are other factors the policy maker has to consider, and not just his or her personal or professional Politics.  The economic pros and cons will also be considered, including the wider effect on jobs and growth and, perhaps most crucially, how much a given policy will cost!

Then there is the social aspect. Some scientists may bemoan a lack of scientific literacy amongst the public (let alone the media and politicians). Yet there is such a morass of opinions among the general public that the social scientists who study such things refer to publics in the plural. Some public fears, such as chemophobia or opposition to GM foods, can appear completely irrational to scientists but they are just as “real” as the result of an experiment.  As a consequence, they can’t be ignored from the policy-making process.

All this is not to say that there is some excellent scientific evidence-gathering that does help make policy decisions. We were lucky to hear from policy advisers in a number of different fields, learning about how science is used to help government develop criminal policies or respond to crises such as the horsemeat scandal.  There was also some useful advice about communicating to policy makers, with the recommendation that wannabe advisers should seek out media training courses or participate in public engagement/outreach activities.  The best policy advisers, according to the panellists, are those who can condense the take home message into a few sentences or less and empathise with and understand other viewpoints.

Finally, I would like to thank the organisers and panellists for allowing us to attend a rewarding and interesting day. For anyone interested in getting into the science policy field I would certainly recommend taking part in a course like this one. It definitely broadened my appreciation of the topic and it was a fantastic opportunity to meet scientists working in science policy.

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