December 13, 2013, by Brigitte Nerlich


Alasdair Taylor first wrote this blog post on 11 December for his own blog attheinterface.

He has allowed us to repost it on our Making Science Public blog, as it addresses issues we are grappling with! Here is what he wrote:

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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