Editor’s Note: Our lives are blessed with the fruits of science, like that self-driven car which might soon be a regular feature on our streets. If science is so self-sufficient in discoveries then why does science policy matter? Well, what would that artificially intelligent car in your driveway be without a set of instructions to abide by traffic rules and the roads to choose for reaching the destination safely. This is the role of Science policy makers, who serve as the guardians to the use of science, because Science is good servant and a bad master. Neha Bhutani kickstarts a new series on Science Policy at #ClubSciWri. In her first blog she talks about its very definition and the ramifications to decipher “the known knowns, the known unknowns and the unknown unknowns.” After pipetting and more pipetting, didn’t know this was coming right?- Abhinav Dey
What is Science Policy?
Science policy can be defined as the organized measures that governments take to promote the development of research in the field of science and technology (S&T) and, in particular, to guide the utilization of research results for the advancement of economic growth and welfare of society. Since 1960s, United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) is engaged internationally to recognize the important role of S&T in national development, especially, towards creating awareness among public and political leaders of the importance of S&T in the modern world and of the need for more systematic measures by governments to direct and control their use. A 1963 Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development report stated: “To say that a government needs an articulated science policy is simply to note that there has devolved upon that government a major and continuing responsibility to make choices about issues that involve science.”
Science policy has 2 complementary aspects: firstly, policy for promoting science, i.e., governments’ provisions of an environment that fosters growth of S&T knowledge; and secondly, policy for using science, i.e., the exploitation of this knowledge for the development of the public and society. In this article, I will be delving mostly into the second aspect of science policy, i.e., the use of scientific knowledge for the development of society. This aspect of science policy is essential to fully realize the benefits of society’s investment in science. It can help governments to use the ultimate products of science, which is evidence, to support policies and decision-making.
Linking the scientific and public policy communities
Policy-making is a two-way approach between the government and the public; and the policymakers can work at either end. They can work for the legislators or for various societies like the American Association for Advancement of Science (AAAS), Society for Neuroscience (SfN), etc. Science policymakers serve as a bridge between researchers and the public- finding ways to translate obscure, often highly technical, scientific issues into something that can be sold as a policy. These professionals have advanced degrees in science and some are just good at advocating for a topic they believe in. What all experts have in common is literacy in science, politics, and economics.
By and large, the field of policy making consists of people coming mainly from two communities the scientific and the public policy communities. Both communities harbor very different cultures and hence do not interact much with each other. The ideal network of a scientific community includes the expertise of the public, private, and academic sectors. Its culture constitutes a high degree of interaction between scientists and engineers based on their knowledge and expertise, rather than position and rank; on peer review and assessment, rather than deference to the authority of their internal organizational. Recognition among scientists and engineers is based on intellectual assessment as judged by their peers, rather than by the superiors in an organization. On the other hand, the culture in many government organizations is based on bureaucracy and hierarchy. The scientific values are consistent worldwide despite cultural differences between populations. These values make the distinctive scientific culture incompatible with the structure of the public sector, hence making the connection between the two communities difficult to maintain.
There is a strong need for the two communities to invest in the improvement of their mutual understanding. However, hurdles exist at various levels. Firstly, students aiming for a career in government or science do not learn much about the other field. The academic curriculum needs to be reviewed to bridge this gap and provide students with opportunities that can aid in the expansion of their knowledge regarding the “other world.” Secondly, academia, which pushes towards specialization, does not give incentives for public engagement and communication. On the other hand, sound policy-making requires broader perspectives. This raises an important question that how can one create values for S&T personnel to interact with the government, and how can bureaucracies be restructured to allow for a freer flow of outside experts in the government machinery. New Zealand has a very good federal funding support for science communication. United States has recently started giving some recognition to public sector work. While in Canada, grant/ fellowship funding agencies do not acknowledge the advocacy and outreach activities, rather they focus only on the publications in peer-reviewed journals. There is an increased need for the role of government departments to provide dual science/policy career paths for their employee scientists. In this regard, there are organizations like the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), Canadian Science Policy Centre (CSPC), etc., that are offering fellowships to faculty and post-doctoral researchers. Having said this, although new unique opportunities are opening up for people to make a transition to the field of science policy, one needs to have a healthy dose of scientific expertise and a strong interest in advocacy and outreach.
Understanding the role of S&T in policy-making
For a very long time, S&T have helped improve the quality of life by providing better medical care, healthier environments, increased efficiency in industries, secure financial trading, improved food safety, strengthened border security, and providing a stimulating environment. In short, S&T are essential to the economic, societal, and environmental growth of a country.
An expert scientific advice is fundamental to the process of policy-making. It can provide evidence for decisions; confirm the reliability of policy in areas where the evidence is conclusive; define the contours of uncertainty and trade-offs where the likely outcomes cannot be known for sure. Given the challenges faced by the governments, ranging from climate change to poverty issues, it is of utmost importance to have inputs from researchers across disciplines. Evidence-based policies are robust in long term as compared to those designed in the absence of scientific evidence. One can distinguish many functions of scientific evidence in policy-making, such as, regulation and oversight, knowledge creation, knowledge translation, aggregation and interpretation. Such an advice can be trusted because the science behind it is continually subject to criticism and peer review. This promotes the evolution of science and does not let it change from one government to the next. Strengthening the process by which scientific advice contributes to government policy-making is rapidly becoming a characteristic of the richest democracies in the western world.
However, one must keep in mind the complexities associated with it. As mentioned above, scientific evidence plays a very different role in situations in which the research is conclusive as compared to situations in which there is conflicting evidence. In the first case, evidence can be used to confirm a course of action. However, in the second case, there is a strong need for inputs from researchers as politicians might want to cherry-pick those evidences which support their approach towards policy. It is important for the scientists to proactively advice if they want a voice in policy-making. It is not sufficient to just provide answers to questions that are put in front of them by the decision-makers. They must responsibly anticipate future needs and volunteer their advice on issues that are likely to surface in the future. A “pull” created by the policy demands and a “push” created by the scientific enquiry are necessary to build the relationship between science and government. One should also keep in mind the importance of interdisciplinary cooperation and dialogue, as the scientific expertise leading to the policy process involves many disciplines. Thus, a great deal of knowledge transfer from the scientific and technological communities to the government policy-making process is crucial for policy-making.
While governments are generally supportive of the scientists and their research, they often assess the value of research in terms of their commercial and economic value. This tension becomes daunting when investments in science do not pay off the right away or when money is put into basic research. Presence of conflicting scientific evidence and the inability of the media to distinguish areas in which the scientific evidence is genuinely contestable from those in which one view has clearly and overwhelmingly debunked adds another level of complexity. The tendency of journalists to provide balanced coverage by giving both sides equal time, regardless of the weight of the scientific evidence supporting one side has reinforced a false sense of relativity in policy debates (if ever they happen) about science. It is important for the experts to act as credible referees for those debates. Thus, there is a strong need for the scientists to communicate their work to the public. As Donald Rumsfeld, the former US defense secretary once said, the scientists need to provide “the known knowns, the known unknowns and the unknown unknowns.” This will help build an environment for public debate and in turn help in the process of policy-making.
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