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The Black Hole

Adding Shades of Grey into Science Policy


I was forwarded two articles last month (thanks Mike O!) from the world of Australian science policy.  In these articles, the debate centred on whether or not academics should be involved in making public policy.   The article that started the ball rolling was by Peter Shergold, Australia’s most senior public servant from 2003-08, who maligned the fact that so few academics had influence on public policy.  This set off a flurry of responses, most interesting of which was published by Professor Raymond Da Silva Rosa who states:

Political activity involving matters of consequence and engaging the wider public isn’t conducive to conveying inquiry that admits shades of grey… yet this is the nature of just about all scientific inquiry

While the original article concerned all academic disciplines and the latter seemed to be more focused on the sciences, the overall tug of war is similar and is based on whether or not researchers should be involved in influencing directly the policy outcome.  Both authors recognize a sharp disconnect in the worlds that academics and policymakers typically reside – best summarized by Shergold:

Many researchers feel it is better to let one’s research speak for itself rather than employ it to arrive at a negotiated, second-best, politically determined outcome. In the real world of political decision-making the rational processes meant to underpin evidence-based policy are characterised by bargaining, entrenched commitments and the complex interplay of diverse stakeholder interests.

While it is also a much debated quandary in Canada and the UK, especially in light of so much demand for evidence-based policy, the key issue seems to boil down to the process of getting the evidence from the academic lab book into the government policy book.  This can be imagined in multiple forms ranging from completely hands-off with research being collated/synthesised by a third party or as direct as the researcher putting pen to paper in policy land (maybe even as an elected MP).

A personal favourite scheme of mine (though admittedly small) was something I heard first from former national science adviser Art Carty who wanted to have professors go on sabbatical to Parliament and/or provincial legislatures – I think that for key issues which involve substantial amounts of science (climate change, healthcare, human embryonic stem cells, etc ) it would be especially useful to have experts in Ottawa constantly informing the debate.  For example, such experts could give reports to the House, make points of clarification during committee meetings, or even identify possible outcomes/solutions from the field that have not yet entered the mainstream.

In the UK, there have been many movements to encourage scientists to get involved in informing policy – particularly here in Cambridge where substantial monies have been devoted to the Centre for Science and Policy with the underlying goal of getting more science and technology into the hands of policymakers.  We’ve mentioned this group and and other interesting science/policy programs before in a post called Devils of Details.

In his argument to discourage scientists from directly pursuing public debate, Da Silva Rosa questions universities “what is the level of political engagement compatible with disinterested scientific activity?”  To me, this appears a wonderfully airy statement when one drills down to ask what exactly is disinterested scientific activity?  Everyone has biases, and scientists are no different – just read the literature of any field and you will see ideas turned on their heads (sometimes quite quickly!) after statements of remarkable confidence are made by leaders in the field.  We have to realise that while research is incredibly powerful, it is also mutable – it may have a higher degree of confidence in some cases, but it should never be taken as an absolute.  While a well-designed experiment itself can approach purity, the person doing it almost certainly falls well short as can the subsequent interpretation of the data.  As for being disinterested,  just imagine what goes through a researcher’s mind when a result contradicts their life’s work (or even their most recent research paper).

In the end however, I think that in a defined role, academics can play a considerably positive role in policymaking.  It will certainly take some adaptation to the world of compromise and political games ((I suspect this isn’t miles further from what academics already experience in university administrator or grant panellist roles)), but the shades of grey that academics could provide might just be brought forward into positive and productive policy in our country – and who knows, maybe they might learn a thing or two as well.

David Kent
Dr. David Kent is a principal investigator at the York Biomedical Research Institute at the University of York, York, UK. He trained at Western University and the University of British Columbia before spending 10 years at the University of Cambridge, UK where he ran his research group until 2019. His laboratory's research focuses on the fundamental biology of blood stem cells and how changes in their regulation lead to cancers. David has a long history of public engagement and outreach including the creation of The Black Hole in 2009.
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  1. SubC / October 3, 2011 at 16:44

    If solid science is used to drive policy, it is good for all concerned. If on the other hand, policy is predetermined and scientific evidence is used to back it up, then little good can come out of it. If the politicians decide that GMO food is bad, vacines cause Autism or AGW will wipe out humans– then any evidence to the contrary will be disregardded, making the whole process useless.

    • Dave / October 4, 2011 at 15:58

      Hi SubC – you’re absolutely right and this is a big problem that has gotten a lot of attention in the UK in particular. Evidence based policy is great, but only if evidence is being collected in an objective, non-political manner.

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