"Nature", the journal, gets into the science/policy debate!
I was browsing through Nature during the holidays and came across an extremely interesting article (a Comment article by Andy Stirling, research Director at Science and Technology Policy Research at Sussex University). The reference is volume 468, pages 1029-1031. I recommend it to everyone, not just scientists. (Incidentally, the article that follows, on science communication, is also excellent). Its message can be summed up as follows:- “When knowledge is uncertain, experts should avoid pressures to simplify their advice. Render decision-makers accountable for their decision.” This is the extreme conclusion. My purpose in bringing the article to KnowledgeScotland’s attention is to point out that policy and science is a two way process.
Stirling presents some examples of how policy-science interactions develop. He quotes two examples where certainty in policy was subsequently shown not to be valid and where “ignoring” the uncertainty resulted in bad policy. These two examples are from CFCs and the ozone layer and spongioform encepalopathies and methods of transmission. Stirling also describes how uncertainty should or could be presented and how that in turn can have an effect on policy decisions. He makes the important point that uncertainty can actually help in making decisions, not harm the process.
All in all, I found it a fascinating piece of writing. I think it helped me in thinking how to formulate opinions and how to try and convey them. However, adopting this approach does require some effort and some development of thought styles. Overall, though, reading and considering the article will help both sides of the policy/science interaction and could, hopefully, result in a new understanding of the problems associated with generating sound science-based policy advice.
I recommend it!
Professor Harry McArdle, Rowett Institute of Nutrition and Health, University of Aberdeen.