Lists

It’s the end of the year, or nearly, and time to start reflecting. It seems a common manifestation of such reflections is to draw up lists. From 50 Most Embarrassing Celebrity Moments! to funniest comedy catchphrases, TV and magazines end up awash with countdowns and collections in December. Even the Telegraph got into the spirit this week with a list of greatest female cartoon characters.

Scientists and policy makers have also been making lists recently. Three to be exact. The first, published in Nature but repeated on the Guardian website, outlined 20 tips to help politicians and policy makers understand science. Then Chris Tyler, Director of the UK’s Parliamentary Office of Science and Technology, responded with 20 things scientists should know about policy making. Finally, Roland Jackson (Sciencewise), produced a trimmed-down list of only twelve points reminding both scientists and policy makers not to forget about the public(s) too.

So what to make of these combined 52 points? Firstly, if you’re new to the science policy* field all three articles are well worth a read: they give a great summary of the topics and issues involved. However, as Tyler mentions (number 14), the UK has a good science advisory system. If that is the case, why do eminent scientists such as Sutherland, Spieghalter and Burgman still feel the need to publish advice for policy makers?

It is worth remembering that the British science advice system reached a recent nadir in 2009 when a government science advisor, David Nutt, was sacked after speaking his mind about the UK’s drug laws. Since then there has been a concerted campaign to highlight the importance of scientific evidence to policy makers (if that was needed). There’s been Mark Henderson’s Geek Manifesto, Ben Goldacre’s campaign for evidence-based policy and numerous editorials and blogs. Even David Nutt himself is probably more well-known and esteemed since his sacking than before.

The fear of funding cuts after the 2010 election also led to scientists becoming more politically engaged. New and existing groups including the Campaign for Science and Engineering and Science is Vital fought successfully alongside professional bodies to protect the science budget.  Although the two campaigns may have different aims, both have led to a raised profile for science in the UK and all three political parties increasingly talk about the importance of science and technology to the economy and policy.

So after all that has gone on since 2009, I am a bit concerned and puzzled it is still deemed necessary to write these three lists. As informative and detailed as they may be, I am left wondering if they are adding something new to the debate, or are going over old ground. It would be hoped that many of the tips and hints made, being somewhat fundamental in nature, would already be understood by both sides of the science policy fence. Perhaps I am being naïve.

I believe it is important that scientists, politicians and policy makers are talking to each other and familiar with how the other operates. This is why any attempt to create better engagement between scientists and policy makers is to be welcomed, and there are a number of programmes already doing this. Blogs and books are fine, but as science and policy are both practical disciplines, it is surely necessary to bring the two communities face-to-face to eliminate some of the misconceptions that apparently still persist.

In their Nature paper, Sutherland and co-authors argue that it is unrealistic to expect greater political involvement from scientists. If this is the case, it is surely unrealistic to expect politicians to listen to scientists. Change comes through engagement and engagement takes time and effort. Otherwise we risk seeing similar lists written and repeated in time for many Christmases to come.

*I use  “science policy” cautiously. Chris Tyler makes a very valid point (number 18) that it is used ambiguously to include both policy to fund science (policy for science) and policy made on the basis of scientific evidence (science for policy). My use of the term tends towards the former.

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5 Responses to Lists

  1. BevGibbs says:

    Very nice piece Alasdair and the question you raise is at the heart of the matter, although restating things in new formats (ie lists) can be hugely helpful in putting things in a different way or reaching new audiences, particularly when three great pieces come along at once. Just as in so many fields of life it is not the “knowing” that makes the difference, it is the “putting it to work”. At UCL-STEaPP we very much hope to get to work in this area! (thanks for the link). Maximising the possible roles of science, policy and publics against a great deal of complexity and often on incompatible timescales this is no small task. Communication will always be a challenge and implementing innovative ways of ‘policymaking’ is a great achievement – I wonder if the ‘open policymaking’* hook can deliver on its promise in this respect?
    [* whatever that might come to mean!]

  2. These are certainly not recent problems – people have been talking about the relative lack of understanding each of these groups of actors seems to have of the other for many decades. And as Bev says above we know a lot about the nature and persistence of these misunderstandings but that doesn’t make it any easier to find mechanisms to allleviate them, beyond trying to create more spaces for the groups to come together and understand each other better.

    But the point Chris Tyler made about science in policy is also important. There is a well-developed system in the UK, and by and large it probably works well. There are many scientists working in government and helping to interpret the best available understanding of a problem in order to inform policy thinking. The cases we see – like the Nuttsack case – are the tip of an iceberg of science advice and probably very unrepresentative. And it’s not just the scientific community and journalists that are guilty of focusing on the dramatic cases – this has also been true, by and large, of social science research in this area. At present my colleagues and I at Manchester are engaged in an ESRC funded project which is attempting in a modest way to redress this balance, looking at the normal operation of the government science system in two UK government departments that are major users and funders of S&T, and how these systems are evolving and changing in response to trends and pressures within and without both science and Government. So watch this space!

  3. BevGibbs says:

    Sounds really interesting Kieron – you have a project website?

  4. Ali TT says:

    Thanks both for your comments.

    I think my concern about the first list was two-fold- 1) it feeds in to the narrative among some scientists and science-interested people that our science policy system is broken & 2) its up to those in government/politics to fix it, because we scientists are too busy to help. Nothing wrong with the content though, which I think is helpful for anyone interested and I’d certainly recommend Chris Tyler’s response to any scientist interested in policy.

    Regarding engagement between scientists and policy makers, the recent CSaP/RSC event I went to was hugely popular- about 80 attended and so over-subscribed that there may well be a second running of the event in 2014. So clearly there is appetite amongst (younger) scientists to learn about policy- whether this results from the raised profile of the area or the realisation by many of our growing PhD cohort that they need to look outside of academia for jobs, I don’t know.

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