June 26, 2015, by Andrew Gibson

Miles Parker on ‘science advice’ (speaking notes, panel 1)

Topic Scientific Advice (Miles Parker speaking notes)

Date 22 June 2015; Venue Highfield House, University Park Nottingham

The topic is about advice. I’m speaking not as an academic but as a practitioner, having been involved in providing scientific advice for policy making throughout a 40 year career as a scientific civil servant, from which I’m now happily retired and giving time to thinking through the issues I never had time to before, in Cambridge University’s Centre for Science and Policy.

There are two reasons to give advice – because you see action or decisions being taken on which you think you can contribute useful understanding or information, or because someone else has asked for your views. In both cases, if you wish your advice to be used and to be effective, the first essential is to understand your interlocutors and be clear about what their needs are.

That’s not the way we are trained as natural scientists, where our focus is on telling rather than listening, and on presenting the breadth and detail of our experiments and observations rather than working out what is the key information we need to impart to help someone else. Our undergraduate training leaves us with a fact based understanding of what science is rather then a historical appreciation of how science has got to where it now is; few are the happy undergraduates who have also received training in the philosophy of science and in particular, in epistemology. The result is often an approach to science based on ideas of ‘proof’ and ‘truth’ that would have been readily recognised by the logical positivists of a century ago. My first point therefore is that we need to radically improve third level science training to enable those with the aptitudes for policy advice to engage effectively.

My second point is that scientific evidence is necessary but not sufficient for policy making. The reality is that scientific advice can only rarely be the sole base of policy decisions, and where it is, the sort of policies we are dealing with are those of technocratic implementing bodies, not the sort of problems that actually result in political debate. Political debate arises because the scientific evidence, for one reason or another, is inadequate to settle the question. It may be, and commonly is, that there are areas of ignorance or uncertainty; it may be, indeed it often is, that the interpretation of what we do know is contested. And it is inevitable that even where the purely technical evidence is reasonably robust and uncontested, there are social, economic and ethical factors to be addressed. In short, evidence in the sense of scientific understanding rarely settles the issues but does provide an essential and, insofar as it is complete, ungainsayable set of constraints on feasible political decision. Science outlines the space within which political choices can, and have to be, made. After all, the whole point of having human political decision makers as opposed to robots, is that someone has to make the decisions that can’t be made solely on the basis of the evidence; that’s where politicians earn their pay.

So in giving advice, we need to listen to those who have to make the decisions, with a certain amount of humility (coupled with relief that it’s their responsibility not ours), and my final point is that the first service we can do for them is to consider what the objective is that they are trying to reach and whether the issues have been formulated in a way that will help the finding of a solution. Policy makers often start from a position of haziness on their goals or approaches or both. Helping policy makers to frame and reframe policy questions can improve the tractability of a policy issue significantly. The nature of policy being what it is, this is necessarily a process in which we need to listen to colleagues from other disciplines in natural or social sciences, as well as to the policy makers themselves, who often have significant experiential knowledge of the issues with which they are dealing, all of whom will help us, and themselves, to see the policy goal from different angles and test different formulations.

To sum up, if you want to advise, first listen.

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