Québec's Science & Policy Issues

Scientists are from mars, policymakers from Venus

pictureIn a recent article in Nature, three leading scientists have talked about 20 challenges of science that are important for society and policy-makers to understand (article linked here). In response, Chris Tyler, science adviser at UK’s Parliamentary Office of Science and Technology, wrote an article called ‘Top 20 things scientists need to know about policy-making’ (linked here). Taken together, the two articles present another fascinating and concise account of the challenges of linking science and policy.

There are many gems in the articles. The scientists admit,“We are fully aware that scientific judgement itself is value-laden, and that bias and context are integral to how data are collected and interpreted”. Tyler cites Fiona Fox, the director of the Science Media Centre, as saying, “the media will ‘do’ science better when scientists ‘do’ the media better”.Of course, the point remains that policy and science work on different scales of time and certainty.

This is not the first attempt to reconcile scientists with policy and policy with science. In fact, a lot of scientific literature addresses this complex relationship. I have worked as both, a science-journalist and as a scientist, and I still struggle to explain things to colleagues from either side. So, is there really a way to reconcile the two? I am not the first person to try to answer this, but my answer would be:let us stop trying.  Science and policy are two interrelated and interdependent entities, sure! (Of course, depending on your background you might argue that one depends on the other). But they are separate entities. They are inherently different ways of understanding the world, and managing its issues. They are designed to meet different ends, and they operate differently. In fact, their philosophical foundations can be fundamentally different. Policy is intended to manage affairs of the state and administration of a government. It deals with how things “should” be, as opposed to science, which tells us “how” things work.

This schism becomes confusingly narrow, particularly in the case of sciences that have a particular objective. For example, medical sciences and conservation sciences are built around the objectives of human society to be healthy and to conservation biodiversity. By definition, there is a some bias involved in these disciplines. But because these issues are urgent, many practitioners of these disciplines think it is fair to be involved in advocacy and policy-making.  It is often argued that scientists are citizens first, and have an obligation to inform society and its decisions. The counterview is that once a scientist gets involved in the business of policy, it can lead them downa slippery road; the scientist can be led too far by their own interests, and erode their own credibility.I once asked this question to a senior scientist, and he commented (I paraphrase): “scientists have no business interfering with politics and policy. They are not mandated to be involved with policy, and they should stick with doing science.”

Whether or not you agree that science and policy should mix, you will agree that science and policy are fundamentally different. In fact, the authors I mention above have tried to reconcile the two after recognizing their fundamental difference. This is not to say that science and policy should shut their doors to each other and stop interacting. On the contrary, we need to continue to increase interaction- but with the basic premise that science and policy are two different things, and they cater to different ends with different products. When we accept this, we stop struggling with the reconciliation – as the writers above seem to have done.

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