by Judith Curry
There are obvious issues, such as protecting the independence of advice, acknowledging the limitations of science and being clear about what we know and do not know, to understand how science informs but does not make policy, and the need to ensure honest brokerage of information. – Sir Peter Gluckman
Recently, Gluckmen presented the Arthur E. Mills Memorial Oration to the Royal Australasian College of Physicians, entitled Science and Public Policy – Reconciling the Two Cultures. Excerpts (JC bold):
Policy-making is primarily a process of identifying problems and exploring the options to address them. It is ultimately the politicians that decide between options to define policy. Policy-making is rarely simple but the process provides the analysis and framework on which decisions about the inevitable tradeoffs have to be made. Most of the considerations are values laden and this is why politics is inevitably so contentious. Obvious considerations include public opinion, the electoral contract of the day, fiscal priorities, diplomatic considerations and assessment of risk and reward both politically and economically.
Some issues that policy-makers address are straight-forward and uncontentious and receive little media attention. But many are contentious or become contentious – generally because the values components are real and because there is often no right or wrong answer. These debates have a strong philosophical basis that often is somewhat tritely reduced to a uni-dimensional characterisation of left versus right -leaning ideology.
[F]irst we need to remember what science is – it is not a compilation of facts. Rather it is a set of processes used to gather relatively reliable information about the world we live in, our societies and ourselves. It is the formality of these processes that gives science its privilege and validity over other claims to knowledge about our world that can only come from belief, received wisdom, or anecdote. When this formality is broken – whether by unsupported claims, hidden biases, lack of reproducibility, and inadequate peer review, public trust in science is harmed and its privilege is undermined.
Science used to tackle only relatively linear problems and inform society in a very linear (and indeed uni-directional way). For instance, antibiotics could kill bacteria; vaccines could prevent whooping cough; clean water supplies could enhance a community’s health; renal disease causes hypertension and so forth. To the extent that the policy maker needed science it was uncontentious – it was simply information to put into the mix.
But the processes of science and the contexts into which it is now applied have changed. This is in part because of computational and imaging power that allows much more complex systems to be addressed, and in part because, as a society, we now demand solutions to more complex problems. Now science must deal with non-linear systems of immense complexity and often with a great deal of uncertainty. In many cases, it is about trying to make apparently objective estimates of probability or risk with inevitably incomplete understandings of the system and with quite different understandings of the meaning of risk by – say – the statistician compared to the general public or in turn the politician. Think about how your patients understand and perceive risk. This will very much depend on how you convey the information and in turn how that is done depends on what you know and what you believe – which are not the same thing. But it will also depend on your patient’s own biases and prior knowledge – whether reliable or unreliable.
It can go well, and it can go badly. It is done badly when science overstates what is known and does not admit to what is unknown about contentious issues. But at the same time, it is made more difficult when the almost inevitable hope of the politician is for the certainty of black-and-white answers. The relationship is also mishandled when the science community assumes that science alone can make policy – it does not.
We do our best to use the processes of science to protect our results from the influence of values when we analyse data, but in reality, values abound in science, so we need to identify them, understand them and ultimately minimise their effect. Values are inherent in what scientists choose to study, how they frame their questions, their methodological choices, and in how they interpret and communicate results. Managing and acknowledging those values properly is essential if science is to sustain its privileged position in the advice process.
[I]n recent years, we have seen many examples where the complexity of science has been used by interested groups as a proxy to debate when the issue is really one of values. Climate change is an obvious example. In this uncertainty, there is opportunity for legitimate scientific debate, but that debate has largely been displaced by using scientific complexity as an excuse for a proxy battle which when peeled away is really a values debate over the economic interests of this generation versus the next. Science can easily get damaged in such proxy debates.
First and foremost the challenge is one of trust: the intermediary knowledge broker must simultaneously maintain the trust of at least four stakeholder groups: the politician, the policymaker, the public and the science community – a real challenge. Each group expects something different from the intermediary and the science community often confuses the role with that of a lobbyist for them. This can have the effect of undermining the trust of the others in the role. It requires a sense of accountability – both by scientists producing new knowledge, and by policy-makers and politicians whom we expect to put it to use. This creates difficult issues of when scientists should act as knowledge brokers and when as citizens they act as advocates for a cause. Increasingly this almost impossible distinction may need to become clearer if science is to keep its privilege and to earn the respect of the policy maker.
JC comments: Gluckman’s speech touches on many issues that we’ve discussed at Climate Etc. My main challenge in putting this post together was in deciding which of Gluckman’s words to excerpt. I encourage you to read his entire speech, it isn’t too long. This is the best overall summary that I’ve seen of issues at the science-policy interface. New Zealand is fortunate to have Gluckman as its science advisor. Somehow, I can’t imagine the U.S. equivalent of in this position (John Holdren) penning such a speech; Holdren seems to me to be unfortunately focused on using science to stifle political debates.