Lack of Science Knowledge Hampers Policymaking

22/09/2015 10:35 BST | Updated 20/09/2016 10:12 BST


*Rebekah Scheuerle [2013] is doing a PhD in Chemical Engineering and is President of the Gates Cambridge Scholars' Council. Paul Bergen [2013] is doing a PhD in Pathology and is Vice President of the Gates Cambridge Scholars' Council. Photo credit: Misterzee (Own work) [CC BY 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

Politicians' lack of scientific knowledge can be a handicap when they are discussing important legislation or international agreements. Take, for example, the Iran Nuclear Deal, currently under debate in the US Congress. Although opposition or support falls mainly along party lines, there are technical aspects to the agreement that could sway legislators' support. Only one member of the House of Representatives has a physics PhD and can comment with expert knowledge on these technical aspects.

In the 114 th United States Congress, only 5/535 have a natural science training. In the UK, there is a similar lack of scientific representation, with the most recent election ushering a new House of Commons with a loss of more than 10 percent of scientifically trained MPs.

To address this gap in the US, political Action Group 314 has been formed to recruit individuals with scientific backgrounds to Congress. In Europe, the European Commission announced allotment of 6M Euro for the Scientific Advice Mechanism to gain scientific advice from national academies using an advisory panel. To ensure these are effective, it will be increasingly important that policy makers strive to be scientifically literate. Additionally, they should continue to invest in engaging with scientists and academics through continuing to include them in government bodies and advisory committees like these.

Oliver Geden penned a commentary for Nature in May where he urged climate scientists to "resist pressures that undermine the integrity of climate science..." He mentions that climate researchers feel they have two choices - remove themselves from the policy debate or cave to political pressure. In his view, these options are a disservice to science and policy. Researchers, as he argues passionately, " ...must stand firm and defend their intellectual independence, findings and recommendations- no matter how politically unpalatable."

What Geden discusses is certainly not unique to climate science. Researchers who offer to advise policy makers do so with a measure of hesitancy. Fears of offending collaborators or funders can prevent them from voicing influential opinions. Furthermore, political realities don't always allow time for the measured scientific method. Immediate responses based on judgement calls are sometimes needed to prevent constituent disengagement.

Unfortunately, there are masses of researchers completely removed from public policy altogether. Why?

Scientists by definition seek and report facts. An op-ed written by a scientist, supported by fact, is therefore a misnomer. Scientific views portrayed in this fashion are often perceived as an "opinion". This limits its impact, and can compromise a scientist's credibility, discouraging them from public engagement.

Scientists are further discouraged by the over-simplification in media to make research "newsy". Dr. Hannah Gay, the Mississippi doctor who "functionally-cured" a child of HIV for 2 years, has felt the results of this. How many people know the difference between "functionally-cured" and "cured"? Not many. Unfortunately, one indicates promising progress in HIV treatment, and the other falsely implies complete eradication of HIV in the patient. At a Global Scholars Symposium in Oxford, Dr Gay voiced this challenge she faced correcting this global misunderstanding and its implications on HIV research.

What are researchers to do to appropriately exert public influence?

Public engagement

Should they pursue the course suggested by Geden, succumb to pragmatism, or disengage from the process and let their research speak for itself? Dr. Gay argues that researchers speak for their own scientific work as she has done.

Universities should provide the support researchers need to influence the public and policy makers in speaking up for their own findings. Although this support should extend throughout the career of a researcher, we believe it is critical that universities include training during undergraduate and, especially important, graduate education.

This training needs to consider that if misinformed, the public can become increasingly polarised as seen with the misguided anti-vaccine and anti-GM movements. The public can also become entrenched in their own erroneous views if corrective information is not presented in sufficient quality, a phenomenon known as the back-fire effect. Additionally, and perhaps not intuitively, convincing the public of scientific views requires ensuring cultural priorities are not perceived as compromised. Thus university training in public engagement should provide mitigation strategies for these pitfalls.

How can the university encourage young prospective researchers and policy advisors to engage with policy makers and the public?

Many universities have programmes designed to partner researcher with policy makers. Our university, the University of Cambridge, provides a few avenues, such as the Centre for Science and Policy (CSaP). CSaP brings in policy makers as fellows to interact with faculty and students. It holds conferences, brings in speakers, and recruits students and faculty for internships and secondments with government and NGOs.

But CSaP, and organisations like it, must battle powerful external forces. When your MPhil is nine months or your PhD is three years, time is not on your side; thus many supervisors are hesitant to allow their students to spend time on policy engagement.

Academics are equally time-poor. Their success is measured by technical publication production and grant receipt rates, not by public engagement or policy advisement. At a recent talk at the University of Cambridge to Gates Cambridge Scholars, Dr. Chad Briggs mentioned that this current academic reward system is partially responsible for the identified gap. A new reward system for policy involvement, institutionally defined and mandated by universities, could encourage academics to make important connections with the public themselves and through their students. We believe this reward system should feed into promotion and hiring decisions to ensure it is accepted. Policy-based metrics could be developed and used to assess university impact, which could feed into university rankings. This would likely influence students' choices in university attendance.

We join others in proposing a reform of the system so that it rewards public and policy engagement. Academic discourse should not be limited to the ivory tower and researchers should not leave it to the media to disseminate the diverse range of novel research conducted at universities, in industry, and at research institutes. Equally, we call for government to require politicians and civil servants to engage with researchers. Open and permanent programmes to bridge the gap between scientific research and policy should be hallmarks of every government.