This article is part of theGIST Science for Society 2014 Article Competition. The top three articles will present their work at the conference. Vote for your favourite article here. Voting closes on Friday 31st October 2014.
Isn’t Leonardo DiCaprio dreamy? Not only is he a world-class actor, but he is also an activist. In September Leo delivered a world trending speech at the UN climate change summit; in it he laid bare some of our biggest climatic woes– ocean acidification, extreme weather, prolonged droughts and unprecedented melting of the ice caps– before calling upon the world to act. However, he made it clear that he is not an expert or a scientist; he is a concerned citizen. So given the hard-core scientific basis of his talk, it begs the question, why him? Where were the scientists?
Throughout government, policy decisions are made on the basis of scientific evidence: which drugs to provide on the NHS, which animals to protect, how best to meet our energy and food demands… basically everything that affects day-to-day life. To gather the data required, the UK funds seven research councils, four higher education bodies, three national academies and a space agency! Domestically the UK has a current annual research and science budget of £4.6 billion. And this is an underestimate, as it leaves out targeted funding pledges and contributions to bodies like the European Research Council.
Given the massive investment, it may not be surprising when the evidence gathered is used to inform policy– what is surprising is when it is not. Between 1987 and 2011, European fishing quotas were set roughly a third higher than scientifically advised, leading to overfishing. In 2009, the UK upgraded cannabis from a class C to class B drug despite potential medical benefits and it being less dangerous or damaging to ones health than alcohol. Our health minister even supports the use of homeopathy– that is about as far from evidence based as you can get. What could lead policy makers to disregard the scientific evidence they have so heavily invested in accumulating?
Perhaps they can’t access or understand it? Of the UK’s 650 elected MPs, only 69 can claim a background in science, technology, engineering or maths (STEM). When this is added to the prohibitive tradition of publishing scientific data behind the pay-wall of specialised journals, full of jargon and impenetrable statistics, this means they are accessible to few of our chief policy makers. So the burden of communication commonly falls on either the media or scientific advisors.
Much of science journalism can be described as “infotainment”. This is where science is communicated in a light-hearted, cursory manner lacking any critical analysis. What of scientific advisors? These often work well, but on contentious issues can be problematic. In 2007, the UK government took advice from its then Chief Scientific Adviser, Sir David King, when deciding on a controversial badger cull; proposed to help combat the spread of bovine TB. His recommendation to proceed was roundly criticised by the scientific community as allowing political agenda to overrule independent scientific evidence. However, much of this criticism remained internal, and when looking at the debate it appeared to be animal welfare and green environmental groups on one side (later fronted by rock star Brian May), and on the other senior government advisors and the powerful National Farmers’ Union, making slapdash (yet convincing) economic arguments and personal appeals.
Multiple initiatives have been implemented in order to increase connectivity and direct communication between scientists and policy makers. One is the establishment of the Centre for Science and Policy at the University of Cambridge in 2009, which has been largely well received. Another is the Royal Society Pairing Scheme, which has linked over 150 scientists with MPs and civil servants since 2001, establishing long-term connections. But perhaps a lack of understanding and knowledge transfer is not the real problem; maybe something more disquieting is at play, and maybe policy makers are not the ones we need to target?
The harsh reality is that a lot of scientific evidence is discarded because it does not fit a desired worldview. Reduce carbon emissions? What about cheap energy and budget flights? We forget that policy is made off the back of manifesto pledges used at general elections to win votes: MP option one will reduce fishing based on difficult to access data in the wake of bycatch discard scandals; MP option two will fight for jobs and the traditional way of life. The peoples’ champion is clear. As well as increasing communication with policy makers, scientists must engage with the general public in an easily accessible format, and hope that increased understanding will lead to the election of more evidence conscious representatives.
With science playing an ever-increasing role in our lives, and mass misunderstandings of things like genetically modified crops and vaccinations (e.g. MMR), the field of science communication has rapidly expanded. Whether it is through television, science festivals or social media, never has the public had such easy access to leading research. But how that information is delivered is sometimes questionable. Researchers write papers for scientific journals themselves, but their work is communicated to the public by third parties with varying degrees of understanding and their own personal agendas. Increasingly academics are embracing social media, but often these are just another jargon filled method of internal communication– a journal in 140 characters or less, a blog about… I’m going to have to Google that…
Scientists need to evolve for evidence-based policy to triumph. Politics is a harsh environment, and currently we do not hold the selective advantage. If science is going to outcompete personal agenda we need to change the habitat, we need to make the general public more responsive to science. In journalism and politics scientists are few in number, but maybe it is time this changed. Scientists have been trained to critically interpret evidence, and often have a good idea of the social and economic impacts of their work. We need to communicate our research directly and openly challenge misconceptions. Until academics creep out from behind their institutional comfort zones we will allow misinformation, pseudoscience and personal opinion to eclipse evidence-based policy. As a scientist I find this unacceptable. You?
Article by James Burgon
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