Scientists and policy-makers: it’s time to bridge the gap

Scientists and politicians rely on each other – so how best to develop that relationship? mayhem

“Our lack of ability to position our argument in the public means science has not influenced public debate as it should.” So said Australian National University’s Vice-Chancellor Professor Ian Young at the Science meets Policymakers forum last month in Canberra.

This, of course, is a problem. Scientists are these days expected to provide practical solutions to a host of major challenges (such as energy security, transport, climate change, food security and so on).

At the same time, policymakers are expected to efficiently assess the vast array of knowledge available at their disposal to design practical and robust policies.

As Gary Banks, chairman of the Productivity Commission, said at the same event: “What makes good policy? Policy objectives must be sound. It needs to achievable, cost-effective, sustainable and durable”.

The left hand, it would seem, needs to talk to the right. How can one meet the above standards on science-related issues without the help of the science community? A gap (not to say “gaping chasm”) currently exists.

At the intersection of science and policy-making

People at organisations such as Science and Technology Australia (STA) are attempting to bridge the current gap.

The Science meets Policymakers forum, organised by STA in partnership with the ANU, brought together academics from a range of disciplines and policy makers from various government departments.

The disconnect between policy maker and scientist is best represented by the role of Australia’s Chief Scientist, whose proper place within the country’s political landscape is still being debated. During her term, former Chief Scientist Penny Sackett did not get a chance to meet with Prime Minister Gillard and only met once with Kevin Rudd.

But we may be at a turning point after last year’s appointment of Professor Ian Chubb as Chief Scientist.

Following Chubb’s appointment, Julia Gillard announced new arrangements for the Prime Minister’s Science, Engineering and Innovation Council (PMSEIC) – a group that will meet three times a year to provide independent scientific policy advice to the government.

Chubb is also due to release the Health of Australian Science review, profiling the strengths and vulnerabilities of Australia’s current science capabilities.

Professor Chubb believes academics need to improve their communication skills, remarking recently that “the media will do science better when scientists do media better”.

Others have a slightly different point of view. Nobel-Prize winner Brian Schmidt stated last year that “science is science, and policy is policy”.

In other words, each side should focus on their strengths, to prevent political manipulation of scientific research, and potentially inadequate policies led by scientists.

There’s also the problem of people at the extremes. At one end of the spectrum are researchers who are not interested in sharing their ideas with the public at large, and who prefer to spend most of their time in the lab, focusing mainly on publishing articles in peer-reviewed academic journals.

At the other end are policymakers (or politicians, rather) who choose to over-simplify and reduce very complex issues to slogans in line with a populist agenda.

Bringing science and policy-makers together

Work is currently underway to develop programs that bring academics and public servants together. Certain academics at the ANU spend one day a week at parliament providing advice - but they are part of a minority within the academic body.

Currently, the academic system does not put great emphasis on publications in non-academic journals. Contribution to the public debate - on The Conversation for instance - is presently only a small part of the overall assessment of a researcher.

Earlier this year, 100 academics at the University of Sydney were dismissed, it was argued, because they did not “publish frequently enough”. The saying “publish or perish” is true, it would appear, especially for early-career academics trying to find a foothold in the world of academia.

Efforts are being made overseas. The UK’s Parliamentary Office of Science and Technology (POST) offers independent analysis of public policy issues related to science and technology from distinguished scientists and engineers. In the US, the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) is pushing for a greater role of science in the public debate.

In Australia, a number of institutions have also taken up the fight, such as the Australian National Institute of Public Policy (ANIPP). This organisation is a strategic collaboration between the Australian Government and the ANU focusing on encouraging academics to present their research findings in ways suitable for use by the public sector.

Public service organisations are also showing initiative such as the APS200 project which aims to review the ways in which scientific research is used to inform the development of policy in the Australian public service.

As Dr Megan Clark, CSIRO Chief Executive pointed out in an article for the Australian Financial Review: “Science is no longer sitting on the side, it is now absolutely at the centre of nearly all major debates facing governments”.

There is still plenty of work to be done, but has the message finally got through that scientists and policy-makers should be collaborating much more effectively for mutual benefit?

I believe, at long last, it has.